“Is there really any difference between vintages, or is it just a pretence? Surely a wine can’t taste that different from one year to the next.” This question was asked of me recently, accompanied by sceptical eyebrows.
The subject of vintage seems to be one of the least accessible for people who are new to wine, and even those who’ve begun to develop their interest, so we thought it was time we gave you our simple guide to vintages, exceptional years and difficult years.
It’s worth noting that it takes a huge amount of time (and drinking) to know which years produced exceptional or sub-par wines by heart. I am nowhere near at that level. However, understanding what makes a good or bad year is actually fairly straightforward.
But first, what is meant by a “vintage” in the wine world?
A wine’s vintage is denoted by the year that is listed on its bottle. That year simply refers to the year in which the grapes used to make the wine were harvested.
For example, in the Northern Hemisphere, harvest usually falls between August and October (depending on the producing region’s particular climate). This means that a wine from Europe, UK, USA, or Canada, etc. with 2015 on its bottle will have generally been produced from grapes that were harvested in August, September or October 2015.
In the Southern Hemisphere (Australia, New Zealand, South America, South Africa, etc.) harvest falls between February and April.
Sparkling wines (like Champagne) and fortified wines (like Port) tend to be non-vintage. This means that the wines are produced from a blend of different vintages in order to maintain consistency across the years.
However, if a year has been particularly fruitful, a producer might decide to release a vintage. It follows that a Vintage Champagne or Port should be an outstanding example of that producer’s wine.
Another thing to note about vintage is that, in some cases, a vintage will not be released until it has gone through a prescribed amount of maturation, whether that’s in the bottle or in barrels. Examples of wines that require specific amounts of time for maturing before their release include Champagne and other sparkling wines made via the traditional method, Port, Sherry and Rioja, amongst others.
In cases like those mentioned above, it’s unlikely that you’d get your hands on a bottle within two or three years of its harvest.
So, what determines whether a year is good or bad?
Exceptional and Difficult Years
James wrote about the importance of nature’s role in wine-making last week (which you can read here). This is inherently linked with whether or not a vintage is classed as a good or bad example of a wine.
If a region is blighted by bad weather, it can have a devastating effect on the wine produced by vineyards in that region.
By ‘bad weather’ I don’t necessarily mean it in the same way as I would if I were trying to plan a day at the beach. Extremely high temperatures early on in the growth cycle can be just as destructive as hard frosts.
So, you may have guessed it already, but a ‘difficult’ year describes a vintage that was produced in challenging conditions. Some producers are masterful in their approach to combating those conditions and, for them, it is still possible to produce high-quality wine in a bad year.
A couple of the effects of the weather on the resultant wine are listed below:
- Too much rainfall during growth = high yield of grapes retaining too much water = wine that is too light in flavour and alcohol.
- Hard frost during growth cycle = buds are killed if preventative measures aren’t carried out effectively = low yield of grapes with too much sugar = expensive, unbalanced wine which will most likely be too high in alcohol.
This year has actually been particularly bad for England and other parts of Europe (including France) because of a terrible frost in late April. So the 2017 vintage from those regions will be considered examples of a difficult year. Others include 2003 and 2004 in France.
Bearing the above in mind, can you guess what makes an ‘exceptional’ year?
Bingo! Imagine if producers experienced absolutely perfect weather conditions at each stage of their growth cycle. The temperatures were ideal for the particular grapes they were growing, the grapes reached the optimum level of ripeness, the harvest was on time, there were no natural disasters to wipe out their crops – all of these factors go towards producing an exemplary bottle of wine.
This is why there are particularly notable years that are known by serious wine buffs. For instance 1989, 1990, 2000 and 2005 are examples of exceptional years for French wine – so those in the know will feel their pulse quicken with excitement if somebody gifts them a fine wine from one of these vintages.
It takes time and effort to get to know which years are good and bad, just as much as it takes time to recognise which producers are better than others.
Yes, but is there really a difference?
All of this being said, some people might still be sceptical. But think about it like this:
If you are paying good money for a bottle of fine wine and you happen to have bought a vintage from a difficult year, it will be one of the worst examples of that producer’s wine but the price will not necessarily reflect this and you’ll feel cheated. Remember, low yield years usually result in more expensive wine because less bottles are produced.
However, if you were to chance upon a notable 2000 vintage of red Burgundy (Côtes de Nuits for example), it would most likely be one of the best wine experiences you’ll have had in your life. It will still be expensive, because vintages from exceptional years are often stored and aged in cellars, which costs money; but you won’t feel quite as hard done by, because you’ll be enjoying one of the best examples of wine you’ve ever tasted.
So the difference, in wine terms, really is quite dramatic. Obviously it’s still wine and, as my friend from earlier said, “If you were to ask an alien what was most similar out of a wine from 2003, that same producer’s wine from 2005, and a chair – the alien would choose the two wines.” But I would say he’s missing the point slightly… wouldn’t you?