Basics: What Does ‘Vintage’ Mean in Wine?
The term “vintage” is one of the most common terms in wine. In short, the word refers to the year in which the grapes for a particular wine were harvested. It sounds straightforward, but the vintage is actually one of the most consequential aspects of the winemaking process. A given year’s weather patterns—the amount of rain a region received, the range of temperatures, not to mention hail, frost or wildfires, for example—can greatly affect the quality and quantity of wine made from that harvest.
So, understanding what happened in a given area during a particular vintage can tell you a lot about the quality and characteristics of a specific bottle. Let us explain how it works and why it matters.
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A Snapshot in Time
Autumn Anderson, director of marketing for New Frontier Wine Co., likens vintages to time capsules, as vintage-bottled wines can offer a snapshot of a specific point in time.
“Some vintages are considered to be better than others due to weather events, and that varies from region to region,” she explains. Vintage conditions are extremely important, as they play a big role in determining how a wine will taste.
As a general rule of thumb, a year marked by excess heat and ample sunlight will likely produce wines that are riper, jammier and higher in alcohol than other years. On the contrary, cooler climate conditions will generally offer higher levels of acidity and more restrained levels of alcohol in the wines produced. On the other hand, extreme weather events, such as hail or frost, can greatly reduce the number of grapes on the vine, resulting in smaller yields for a given year.
But, like everything related to wine, it’s not so simple. Decisions made by the winemaker—such as when to pick and how to process the grapes—also greatly impacts what ends up in the bottle.
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When Should Consumers Care About Vintage?
While the vintage certainly plays a role in how a final wine will taste, not every wine purchasing situation requires meticulous attention to it. Adam Greer, wine director at Blu on the Hudson in Weehawken, New Jersey, reveals that for everyday bottles, the goal is consistency from year to year. Vintage doesn’t really matter for the wines you’re picking up for a Tuesday night dinner.
It becomes significantly more important in the realm of wine collecting. Climatic conditions greatly impact the overall structure of a wine, which becomes far more noticeable over time. As a result, “vintages become more critical when it comes to wines sought after by collectors for aging,” Anderson says.
From a purchasing perspective, Greer notes that great vintages can drive up prices in certain years. “It also makes wine a commodity, and while there is certainly an investment aspect to great wines, it can turn a great bottle of wine, filled with the sweat and talent of so many dedicated persons, into the equivalent of a collectable baseball card,” he says.
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What Are the Rules for Vintage Champagne?
Champagne is another category where vintage really means something. Though most other wine regions indicate the vintage on each label, “Champagnes are most often made from a blend of grapes from different years in order to ensure consistency in the final product,” says Greer.
When you see a vintage on a Champagne label, it indicates that the wine was made from grapes picked in a single year, which implies the producer considered it a particularly outstanding growing season. These vintage-bottled Champagnes “adhere to stricter production standards,” says Anderson, usually resulting in a higher-quality final bottling.
In addition to above-average standards, Greer notes that vintage-bottled Champagnes must age for a minimum of 36 months on the lees, whereas non-vintage bottlings require only a minimum of 15 months. “During this cellaring [period], vintage Champagne will develop even more intense toasty and brioche nuances that give it superior depth and quality, so a consumer can expect more intensity and layers from vintage Champagne,” he says.
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If you want to splurge on a high-quality Champagne or hold onto a bottle for decades, pay attention to the vintage. While most drinkers aren’t going to notice the difference between, say, a 2019 or 2020 Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, getting more in tune with what was happening in a given year can give drinkers a deeper appreciation of what’s in their glass.
“A vintage acknowledges the skills and labor that an entire team has bled into the winemaking process for each harvest,” says Greer, noting the extreme number of variables that the seasons can bring. “In the end we are left with a vintage—a unique expression of the wine based on the varied challenges, conditions and calculated choices to bring forth the very best expression possible that year.”
Published: December 1, 2023