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Vintages – what are they and why are they important?

Posted on 18th March 2020 by JN Wine

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Vintages – what are they and why are they important?

What is a vintage?

Put simply, the vintage of a wine is the year in which the grapes were harvested. The vintage can influence the taste and quality of the resulting wine due the conditions experienced by the vines over the growing season. It’s because of this that, in some instances, vintage can greatly affect the wine’s price.

In the Northern Hemisphere (eg. Europe and North America) the grape growing season runs from approximately April-October.

In the Southern Hemisphere (Australia, New Zealand, South America etc) the growing season runs from approximately October to April (with the vintage dated to the year of harvest).

Wines without a vintage date also exist (particularly where sparkling wine is concerned) called “non-vintage” (or N.V) and are made by blending wine from multiple years together. The purpose of N.V wines is to maintain consistency throughout the years and, in the case of Champagne, to maintain a “house-style”.

Sunrise at Dog Point, New Zealand

What makes a “good” vintage?

A “good” vintage will be one in which growing conditions were optimal for producing quality wine. The defining feature of a “good” vintage is for many regions is sunshine and temperature. Generally speaking; more hours of sunshine and warmer temperatures across a growing season will give the grapes an increased chance of reaching full maturity and optimum ripeness levels where sugars, acids and tannins are in balance for winemaking. Without this, grapes may not fully ripen, delivering low quality and resulting in unbalanced wine. However, if a region is too hot and too sunny grapes can become overripe (or even raisinated or scorched!) and this too will lead to an imbalance for winemaking – therefore an equilibrium is required.

The Impact of the Weather

The weather experienced across a growing season – both on the long-term and in the short-term – can dictate whether a vintage is considered a success or a failure. Some weather events even have the potential of jeopardising or totally compromising what would otherwise be an ideal vintage. A few examples of particularly devastating weather scenarios include:

  • Late spring frosts and hail which can destroy crops before they even flower by damaging buds, reducing overall crop size and the total volume of wine made. This is common in semi-continental climates (eg. Burgundy, Champagne) and can result in the production of certain producers being totally cancelled for that vintage. It can also drive resulting wine prices up as wines from these vintages can be scarcer.
  • Exceptionally hot weather in summer can cause a premature maturation of grapes or, in worst cases, shrivelling and blistering of the grape skin, reducing crop yield. Heat spikes and drought are common in hot continental or Mediterranean climates (eg. California, southern France). Wines made with detrimentally affected grapes from such vintages can be overly jammy and lack structure.
  • Excessive wet weather during the summer can also cause fungal disease which will spoil grapes and reduce yields, driving up resulting wine prices.
  • Rain during harvest causes grapes to swell, causing them to lose concentration (resulting in dilute wines) or rot. Cold weather during late summer and early autumn slows grape ripening which translates to “green”, unripe flavours in wine (eg. The famously “green” 2013 vintage in Bordeaux).
Harvest at Quinta Soalheiro

How to find out if it was “good” vintage?

Keeping abreast of wine industry websites and magazines is a useful way of finding out whether a vintage was successful or not, as experts will provide “vintage reports” and collate them into “vintage charts” to help guide your purchasing based both on their first-hand experience of the wine regions during the growing season as well as through their conversations with the local producers. It is worth nothing that just because it was a good vintage in one region does not mean that this was the case for another; nor does it mean that a good vintage for reds in a region will also equate to a good vintage for whites, even in the same region. This duality is also applicable to wine grapes as different varieties will prefer different climates, for eg. Riesling grows well in sunny areas with cool nights whereas Cabernet Sauvignon, needs a dry, hot and sunny climate to properly mature.

For an in-depth vintage guide by country visit https://www.jancisrobinson.com/learn/vintages

When to take notice of vintage?

  • When buying wines from less predictable climates: These include the intermediate regions of France (e.g. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne) Northern Italy (Piedmont) Northern Spain, (Rioja, Rias Baixas) Germany etc. Weather is less predictable in these areas so there is more risk of yield reduction or grape quality compromise over the growing year. Wine prices fluctuate more significantly here between vintage success and failures.
  • When buying wine for investment or laying down: For wine collectors vintage matters – a lot. Good vintages produce fully mature grapes that are have intense flavours and aromas, a balanced sugar and acidity content and, in the case of black grapes, carry considerable tannin – the latter two of which act as preservatives. High-end reds from the collectible regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont, Rioja etc from good vintages stand in the best stead to get better with age while white wines from revered regions such as Burgundy, Germany (Riesling) and the Rhone and will possess the fullness of flavour, body and acidity to develop long into maturity.

When not to take notice of vintage?

  • When buying wines from predictable climates: These include many warm weather regions such as Central Spain, California, Australia and Southern Italy which tend to produce wines with a more consistent style between vintages. This is owing to their dependable, warm, sunny, grape-growing weather conditions year in and year out resulting in less dramatic vintage variation (and less fluctuation in wine prices between them as a result).
  • When buying commercial wine from large producers: Commercial producers will not let nature infringe upon their business and so will do everything in their power to manipulate alcohol levels, acidity, sugars and other specifications of the wine to produce a consistent product free from vintage variation year on year.

Where to find value in vintages?

A good vintage is a great time to find value in wines by looking for less well-known names in revered regions (for eg. Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois in 2009 and 2010). By doing this you can get a taste of the greatest potential nature has to offer in a region for a fraction of the price of the famous examples. Another thing to keep in mind is that while one vintage may spell disaster for a region’s red wines, for example, the cooler temperatures may reflect better on their regional whites by translating crisp acidity and refreshing flavour profiles.

In the cellar at Chateau Pesquie

The Great Vintage Debate

In the early days of winemaking right up to the turn of the last century, wines were at the ruthless mercy of Mother Nature and for many people this added to their story. However, in today’s tech-laden cellars the modern winemaker has an array of tools at their disposable capable of undoing the wrongs and masking the inconveniences of nature. Considerable debate now permeates the wine industry as to who now exerts more influence over a given bottle of wine – nature or man? Producers can now be criticised for over-manipulating a wine when it tells little of a particular growing season or does not portray a sense of place. Likewise, allowing a wine to succumb to a poor vintage without winemaking intervention brings the skill of the vigneron into question and too results in criticism.

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