Vintage is a supposedly fancy word that’s bandied about freely in many circles. From vintage vinyl records to vintage photography, we’ve co-opted the term as a catchall to describe things that are rare, valuable and often very old. But the circle from where the word vintage originates uses the term more strictly. When you’re talking about wine, “vintage” means something a bit more specific. Learning what wine vintages mean can help you choose a good bottle of wine for your next dinner or your cellar.
What is a Wine Vintage and Why Does it Matter?
When you see a year on the label of a wine bottle, that’s a vintage. The vintage refers to the year that (most of) the grapes in the bottle were grown and harvested. Why does vintage matter? For one, the vintage tells you the age of the wine. But that fact alone isn’t enough to tell you about the probable quality of the bottle you are about to buy. This is because different wines mature at different rates and with different characteristics. Complicating matters further, when the wine is at its true “peak” is somewhat subjective—that is, your tastes may not comport with those of the critics.
What vintage really drives at is whether or not that particular year was a good year for the wine you’re beholding. Wine grape growing regions, like sports teams, have good years and bad years. With sports franchises, billy goat curses or playoff beards are the x factor. But with wine, it’s the weather. Wine grapes, like children, require a conducive environment in order to ensure a healthy, well-balanced maturation and development. If the weather is unseasonably warm, the grapes ripen faster, which they don’t like. Again, like children, if a grape is forced to grow up too fast, it risks skipping over some of the character-building phases of its development. If a season is too wet, then the grape may become diluted or it may literally rot on the vine. (I have no child rearing analogy for that.).
Unless you’re a human almanac, you won’t be able to recall the growing conditions for every year in every subregion on the planet. Luckily, you don’t have to, thanks to the vintage chart.
Anatomy of a Vintage Chart
Wine vintage charts are put out by vintners, wine merchants, wine critics and other know-it-alls as handy guides for wine drinkers like you—you know, the ones who haven’t been TiVo-ing The Weather Channel for the past decade.
Your standard wine chart consists of a few key components:
- Region – The chart itself will usually start with a larger region and then drill down to subregions. For example, you could be looking at a French wine vintage chart that breaks down into Champagne, red/white Burgundy, red/white Bordeaux, Chablis, etc. Or you could be looking at a North America vintage chart that starts with California, Oregon and Washington and breaks down to Finger Lakes, Sonoma Valley, etc.
- Vintages – Vintage is represented as a year on the corresponding axis to region.
- Rating – A rating is applied to each year that a vintage wine was produced. This rating is highly subjective based on who put together the chart. It may be expressed in a range, such as 1 to 5 or 1 to 100, or with a simple distinction such as “drink now” or “hold.”
In addition to the region, vintage and rating, most wine charts have another common feature: the caveats. Skip down to the bottom of about every wine vintage chart and you’ll find a paragraph that reminds the reader that a vintage chart is only a general guide, intended as a broad overview of the very best wines produced in the indicated regions. In any given vintage rated poorly, there are hundreds of wine producers who create exquisite wines and for any highly rated vintage, there are vintners who blow it big time. As Berry Brothers and Rudd (wine merchant since 1698) explains in the caveat to its world vintage chart:
It must be remembered that part of the enjoyment of wine is the variation in quality from one vineyard to another within a single vintage. Provenance is crucial: the most expensive wines from the most recent vintage can turn to vinegar within months if stored badly – and we have assumed perfect maturation conditions.
Furthermore, many of the New World regions where wine grapes are grown (California, Australia, Oregon, New York, Chile, etc.) have naturally stable climates or artificially stable growing conditions (e.g. irrigation). For these growers, the weather doesn’t play as big role in the quality of the harvest as it did in climatically volatile France, back when vintage charts came in vogue.
Back in 2000, New York Times wine columnist Frank J. Prial infamously declared the vintage chart obsolete, citing advances in pest control, planting techniques, meteorology and grape selection. He wrote: “Over the years I have produced vintage chart after chart, always adding enough qualifications and caveats to make the reader wonder why I bothered in the first place. I am not alone.”
So that was over a decade ago, and we’re all still using wine vintage charts.
Was Prial wrong?
Maybe. Unfortunately, he didn’t factor in our society’s excessive and insatiable hunger for information, no matter how exponentially the returns become diminished. Just about everyone and their brother still puts out a wine vintage chart in a wide range of formats, including a flotilla of smartphone apps, such as VintageChart+, Wines and Vines and Hello Vino. And who knows, maybe global warming will shake things up a bit, causing a boom in the post-apocalyptic weather wine vintage chart industry.
Given that it takes all of two seconds to research a wine vintage, it certainly couldn’t hurt to look it up. Using a wine vintage chart is actually much simpler than the sometimes verbose vintage notes make it out to be. If the critics declare that Mother Nature smiled upon Bordeaux this year, then it means that the wine that’s usually good from that region will probably be even better, and the wines that are usually bad from that region will probably be less bad. A rising tide lifts all boats higher, or so they say. But remember: there are always exceptions. So, if you taste a crummy 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet, you don’t have to picket the homes of the Wine Spectator editors with signs calling them a big fat phony.
The truth about wine vintages is that they are far less daunting and far less useful than many of us presume. That being said, for die hard wine geeks, it adds another layer of history and data to factor into the pastime of analyzing, tasting and enjoying fine wines. If you’re but a casual drinker of wine, rest easy knowing that you’re not a charlatan for not knowing the weather patterns of Côtes du Rhône like the back of your hand. But if you want a few more clues to help you put your finger on what went right or what went wrong with the wine you’re enjoying, vintage provides an enjoyable lead for your investigation.