What is Vintage Variation and Why Does it Matter?
Vintage is a term that is thrown around when discussing wine as often as we open bottles, yet it’s a term that leaves many people confused.
To start, let’s define vintage: the vintage of the wine is the year the grapes that were used to make the wine were grown and picked. It is not the year the wine was bottled.
So why do we care about a wine’s vintage?
As we know, wine is made from grapes, and to make great wine, everything starts in the vineyard. Just like other crops, every region around the world has good growing seasons and bad growing seasons. This means the quality and quantity of crops, in our case grapes, varies from year to year depending on external factors such as the weather.
Generally, grapes that are grown in better growing seasons (ones that are ideal for the grapes to thrive) will produce better wine. If the fruit is higher quality then the wine will taste better, and this is why we keep track of a wine’s vintage.
The most important thing to know about vintage, though, is that we keep track of it because the quality of grapes grown in the vineyard year after year varies. And that’s why we care about vintage.
There are years in any specific wine region where the weather and climate will just be better for growing grapes rather than others. It’s due to these conditions, and the effect they wind up having on the grapes, that people label some vintages as “good” and others as “bad”.
For example, if the climate one year happens to be hot during the day, cool at night and relatively dry, there’s a good chance the grapes will fare very well. By harvest time there should be a pretty good yield of crop and you’d expect the fruit to be ripe and delicious. People often say: ripe fruit makes it easier to make good wine.
On the other hand, if the growing season is rainy and humid, perhaps there will be lower yields of fruit and they won’t be as ripe and delicious at the time of harvest, which could cause some people to label the vintage as bad or ‘difficult.’
Making wine is risky business. Not only does it take costly equipment, from temperature-controlled tanks to pneumatic presses to oak barrels; it also includes some high stakes real estate and often-unpredictable biochemical reactions that keep winemakers constantly on their toes from fermentation right through to bottling.
The biggest risk factor of them all? Mother Nature.
Weather patterns at crucial moments in the growing season can make or break a year’s worth of product .
Rainy, stagnant, and other rot- or disease-causing conditions are the bane of the winemaker’s existence. So is hail, which can wipe out an entire vineyard’s crop. Luckily, years in which it’s difficult to achieve full ripeness are fewer and farther between than they’ve ever been.
That doesn’t mean that some vintages aren’t more or less favorable than others.
In this sense, the vintage isn’t bad in absolute terms, it’s challenging. It may challenge the vintner to spend more hours in the field, to prune more rigidly, and sort more severely. If they’re smart about their farming and know how to handle their fruit to get the desired results, they’ll maximize on quality.
How Weather Affects A Vintage?
You can figure out if a vintage was good or bad yourself by identifying key features about the weather in a vintage.
Vintage Weather Tips:
A rainy year: Rainy years increase rot and disease pressure, producing lower quality grapes;
Rains right before the harvest: This causes grapes to swell and produce flabby (low acid and less concentrated), uninteresting wines;
A super dry year: Vines become stressed and produce very little fruit. Still, fruit quality can be quite high;
A hot year: Temperatures too high cause vines to stop metabolizing and ripening fruit. This often creates wines with elevated alcohol levels but rigid, unripe tannin flavors, and less acidity;
Frost late into spring: Frosts can kill buds on the vine and cause uneven ripening. It also shortens the growing season, increasing the pressure for perfect weather in the fall;
Spring hailstorms: Hailstorms cause severe crop damage and greatly reduce the size of the vintage;
Early fall frosts: Vines shut down and grapes stop ripening. This generally increases volatile acidity in wines;
Allowing a wine to reveal just how challenging a vintage was is part of what makes wine so fascinating.
My best advice is to taste as much as possible (drink responsibly!) and draw your own conclusions, based on whether or not you like the wine.