Vintages - Why are they important?
Derived from vin, the French word for wine
Put simply, a vintage is the year in which the grapes were harvested. The quality and taste of the resulting wine is affected heavily by the vintage depending on various factors.
Most countries allow a vintage wine to include a portion of wine that is not from the year denoted on the label. In Chile and South Africa, the requirement is 75% same-year content for vintage-dated wine. In Australia, New Zealand, the United States (excluding Napa), and the member states of the European Union (including FRANCE), the requirement is 85%.
What affects a vintage:
Weather. The most unpredictable element to growing any form of plant, and grape vines do not escape that issue.
It is primarily the sun and how much the grapes get from it that can make or break a vintage, with not enough or too much heat the grapes can either under-ripen or over-ripen to a point where the winemakers must draw upon all their skills to save it.
Not enough sun - with clouds and rain overbearing the vineyards the grapes are slower to ripen and may not reach their full potential. Furthermore, colder weather can increase the likelihood of diseases and rot, reducing both yield and quality for the year.
Too much sun - Warmer weather grapes already have thicker skins, increasing their tannic quality but to push grapes beyond 33C for more than ideal they can begin to wither and dry out, on their way to becoming raisins while still on the vine. This drops the juice content and increases tannins to the point they are almost unusable.
Spring - Burgundy is particularly prone to spring frosts, preventing buds from opening during difficult vintages. Hail is also a dangerous element, reducing yield with the breakages caused.
Summer - With global warming upon us, Summers are becoming more and more radical with wet weather appearing more often causing diseases. Or on the opposing side with drought and lack of water during a scorching hot season grapes dry out significantly. Not to mention the devastating wildfires destroying whole vineyards with its blaze and smoke combined.
Autumn - At harvest season rain can have adverse effects, with swelling of grapes and reducing the juice concentration alongside potential rot. Colder weather also slows the ripening and makes it difficult to choose the optimal time to pick the grapes without destroying too many bunches.
You can look at vintage charts to see expert’s opinions on vintages. Keep in mind that if it was a good vintage in one region, it might not be one in another. Furthermore, a great vintage for red wines may not be as good for white wines from the same region.
For an example of a vintage chart for French wine vintages & world wine vintages, https://www.bbr.com/vintages
Most commonly found with Champagnes, the sparkling wines are labelled as N.V. (non-vintage) to indicate they are a blend of several different years. This helps keep consistency throughout the years of production and provide a unique profile by the winegrowers. If there are any exceptional vintages then Champagne winemakers may choose to do a single vintage production but not as common as most still wines across the globe.
Dealing with bad vintages
So what happens when the sky deals you a bad set? Winemakers draw upon their blending and vinification skills to manipulate the wine into something delicious. Choosing the optimal length of fermentation and maceration, as well as the right proportion of natural yeasts to offset the process is important. Furthermore, the time of the harvest can always shift back and forth depending on the weather to save as many grapes as possible.
For certain regions though the grapes may just be refused for making wine, to ensure a constant high quality across the board. Champagne especially has a rigid ruling in place to keep the good reputation they have built.
Why should you care about different vintages?
Location - In marginal climates such as Burgundy or Bordeaux, the weather is variable and therefore really matters. A vintage regarded as excellent from Bordeaux therefore, can enjoy great popularity on the basis of its vintage alone. In locations such as California, however, while there can be extremes such as drought or fire, the weather is generally accepted as being more consistent, and easy to work with, and vintages matter less than almost anywhere in the world.
Price - Wines of superior vintages from prestigious producers and regions will often command much higher prices than those from average vintages. This is especially the case if wines are likely to improve further with some age in the bottle. This matters particularly if you are investing. If collecting wine, it is especially important as there is rarely a large payout for any bottles from bad vintages, and the aging potential may be decreased if the batch was not ideal from the start.
Something to consider
It is generally accepted that wine quality is rising on average, partly thanks to an improved understanding of viticulture and vinification but also partly due to climate change. Which leads us to ask - do vintages really matter?
While diehards will argue that vintage (and corresponding weather conditions) trump all and that as long as wine is an agricultural, rather than industrial, product, the weather will always determine a vintage's success.... it is perhaps less true today than it once was.
In the 1990s, a quote attributed to the Bordeaux winemaker Bruno Prats began being repeated in the mainstream wine world... “There are no more bad vintages.” The implication was that advances in farming and winemaking technology had all but conquered nature. Indeed, the degree of intervention in winemaking had reached a point in the early 2000's, where wine was more plentiful, profitable and predictable than ever.
Indeed, though it’s customary to casually speak of “good” and “bad” vintages, the wording critics and winemakers use is actually more circumspect. Growing conditions may be either “favourable” or “challenging,” but due to sophisticated vineyard management and wine making techniques, that doesn’t mean the resulting wines are correspondingly wonderful or inherently poor. Thus we should aim to be well considered in regards to vintages, and give credit based on merit, not just vintage.