What's in a Vintage?

Most of us have heard a lot about “vintage wines.” They’re the sorts of wine that get served at dinners I don’t get invited to, and restaurants I can’t afford to eat at. We hear about them being purchased for embarrassingly large sums of money at auctions. We sip on our $10 bottle of 2012 Malbec from Safeway and wonder to ourselves if 2012 was a “good year” in…wait, where was this bottled, again?

So, what’s in a vintage? Does it matter? Does it make the wine better? Is the whole thing an over-commercialized farce?

All enduring (and reasonable) questions about wine.

Let’s start with the basics. A vintage represents a date. A single year, to be exact. It’s the year that’s printed on the bottle – so if someone asks you the vintage of that Malbec you picked up at Safeway this weekend, you’d tell them you’re sipping on a 2012 vintage. What does this mean, exactly? The vintage tells you the year in which the grapes are harvested. In the US, Canada and in Bordeaux, France, putting a vintage year on the bottle means that the wine must be made of at least 95% of grapes from that year. Other wine regions have different rules about this. Some require as little as 75% of a single year’s grapes to be present in order to constitute a vintage year.

What does it mean if you don’t see a vintage on a bottle? It simply means that the wine is made from a blend of harvests. (Most champagnes are NV - non-vintage. No, the NV does not stand for "made in Nevada." Only the best years in Champagne are given vintage years. Everything else is a blend.)

It’s a fair question to ask yourself why vintage matters. It’s even fairer to ask that after seeing what a vintage can do to the otherwise normal, collected and socially accepted behavior of adult professionals. Certain vintages of certain wines have a little bit of crazy attached to them. They drive wine collectors into a frenzy, open some very deep pockets among high-class diners, and create a hyperbolic, breathy flurry among wine writers.

So. Urm. Why?

Well, the basic reason is this: some vintages are better than others. And some vintages are really, really better than others.

A vintage can tell you a lot about a wine. One of the primary things it tells you is this: should you cellar this wine, or drink it immediately? That information comes from knowing about the particular climate in that particular region in that particular year.

Let’s consider that Malbec we’ve been sipping on. It’s a 2012 vintage, from Argentina. The 2012 vintage in Argentina was generally a cool, damp year. Frost and hail caused some damage, which reduced yields (the amount of grapes that were harvested). The lower yields produced wines of higher color, fruit intensity, and notable tannin. The presence of high tannin generally requires more aging, to allow the tannins to soften. 

So, the conclusion here is that the 2012 Malbecs aren’t that great to drink while young, and that bottle you’re consuming could probably benefit from some aging.

(Granted, the aging part only really applies when you’re drinking “premium” wine (usually $25 or higher). Less expensive wines won’t generally be complex enough to age beyond a year or two.)

It’s important to know your vintages because wine can vary drastically from year to year. A vintner (wine maker) might change techniques. It could have been a super cold year, which made the wine taste less fruit forward. Or there could have been inclement weather that damaged the vines - consider the hailstorms in Burgundy that are threatening the entire 2014 harvest.

Where do you find specific information about vintage years? Some great resources are here and here. You can also ask the staff at your local wine boutiques. They’ll generally be up to date about recent vintages, and can let you know if the wine should be aged or is ready to drink.

Finally, you don’t need to know a ton about vintages to let them help you choose a wine you like. If you pay attention to your vintages as you drink different wines, you may find that you really like Malbecs from 2010, but the Malbecs from 2011 make you a little less happy.

Like anything in wine, the goal is to arm yourself with a little bit of information to help you find a wine that tickles your palate. Because wine, above all, should be about creating happy experiences and drinking what you like!