It Was a Very Good Year

by Mark R. Vogel

            Have you ever pondered over a choice of wine at a store or restaurant and been steered toward a particular selection by the staff because it was from a “good” year?  What exactly does that mean?  Most people have a general understanding that a wine’s year relates to its quality.  But you’ll need a little more knowledge about the annals of wine to prevent being steered into a possible head-on collision.  Sometimes an opportunistic store or restaurant seeks to unload its off-year undesirables on unsuspecting folks.

            The year denoted on any bottle of wine is the vintage.  The vintage refers to the year the grapes were harvested and not when the wine was actually made or released for sale.  The year of the finished product, (especially when cellaring time is considered), is almost never the year the grapes were harvested.  Vinification times vary and many wines are aged for one or more years in barrels/bottles before they’re available to the public.  For example, most quality Bordeaux won’t see your retailer’s shelf until three years from the vintage.

            The primary reason that wines vary from year to year is the weather.  There exist a plethora of climatic factors that can affect grape cultivation, or any agricultural product for that matter.  The study of weather and its effects on horticulture is quite complex.  Professional viticulturists certainly have to do their homework.  Sunlight, rain, temperatures, wind, mist, fog, hail, etc. can all impact a vineyard.  When and how much of these factors occur, and their interactive and cumulative effects, is a daunting network of cause and effect relationships.  Inadequate sunshine and the grapes may not fully ripen.  Excessive rain at harvest time can dilute the grapes’ juice.  A late season frost can decimate a vineyard.  The list goes on and on. 

            So what’s a “good” year?  A good year is when the convergence of climatic factors is just right to produce the optimal ripeness of the particular grape in question.  A wine from a good year will be more concentrated and more balanced.  There will be a harmonious interplay of the various dimensions i.e., the acidity, sweetness, tannins, and alcohol.  Moreover, the wine will display complexity, depth of flavor, a good body, and a lingering finish.  To put it in its most simplistic terms……it will taste great. 

            The greater the variability of a particular microclimate, the more mercurial will be the quality of its wine from year to year.  Wine growing regions differ in terms of the extent of their climatic variability.  For example, and generally speaking, the climate of northern California does not fluctuate annually as much as that of Bordeaux.  This implies, and again this is only a very general rule of thumb, that the vintage of your California selection is not as vital as that of your Bordeaux.  Thus, awareness of which years are better than others includes knowing which grape producing regions are more susceptible to erratic weather.  Remember too that a good year for one region of the globe can be a disaster for another. 

            Some wines are relatively impervious to the effects of inauspicious weather because of superior terroir and/or the skill of the winemakers.  Terroir, although including climatic elements, refers to a greater rubric of natural conditions affecting grape cultivation.  These include soil type and composition, the slope of the vineyard, its altitude, the drainage, and more.  For example, Chateau Latour, (a world class Bordeaux), rests on a patch of ideal soil perfectly suited to its grapes.  Latour is celebrated for producing exceptional wine even in difficult vintages.  One can basically acquire Latour with impunity from year to year.  Its neighbor, Chateau Leoville las Cases, also blessed with distinguished terroir, maintains the same reputation for unyielding quality.  These wineries also benefit from expert winemakers.  A good winemaker can perform an array of maneuvers when crafting a wine to compensate for weather related shortcomings.  All the skill in the world however, can’t replace superior terroir and Mother Nature’s benevolence.  The bottom line is this:  knowing who the best wineries and winemakers are can assist you when navigating wines from tricky vintages.

            Some wines don’t even have a vintage.  How is this possible?  Take the case of Champagne.  The only time you’ll see a year on a bottle of champagne is when that year is declared a “vintage” year.  Ditto for Port.  A vintage year is basically an exceptional year.  In less than optimal years, Champagne and Port are made from blends of grapes from multiple years.  The point of this is to produce a consistent style from one non-vintage year to the next.  When a particular growing season is deemed a vintage year, then the wine from that year will be made solely or predominantly from that year’s grapes, and that year will be denoted on the label.  Therefore, any Champagne or Port with a year, is a “good” year. 

            Even if a wine is from a good vintage, this does not mean the wine is ready to drink.  Once again, as with knowing good wineries and producers, some additional knowledge of wine is required.  Some wines are ready to drink right off the store shelf and others are meant to be aged.  Age-worthy wines are a shadow of their potential if consumed too young.  In their early stages the superiority of their vintage can barely be appreciated.  It would almost be better to have a mature wine from a fair vintage than an immature wine from a superior one.  You’ll have to do a little homework about specific wines to gauge when they are, shall we say, “drinkable.”  In sum, knowledge of vintages without corresponding knowledge of wines’ readiness is knowledge in a vacuum. 

            Vintage know-how will also guide your buying strategies.  Serious collectors will purchase what’s known as “futures.”  With a future sale, the wine is paid for before it is released to the public, usually at a price lower than when it is officially available.  This is a sound practice with strong vintages as they usually will increase in price from the day they hit the stores and thereafter.  Generally speaking, the older a wine becomes, the higher the price will be.  This is virtually assured with stellar vintages. 

            A final caveat is that just because a wine is from a good vintage, does not guarantee it is a good wine.  I know the horse is on its last breath but I can not overemphasize the importance of knowing more than just a wine’s year.  There are many other factors that contribute to any given wine’s quality. Here’s to knowledge beyond your years. 


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