Whether you are a novice or experienced wine sipper and shopper, vintage is a characteristic of wine that you cannot escape. But, unless you’re really into the wine game, it may not be something you can fully grasp — or want to — without several glasses of vino to cure the headache all that analyzing gave you.
Complicated as it sounds, vintage is actually pretty simple to understand. Vintage, which applies to the year the grapes were harvested, has to do with environmental factors (mostly weather) and, for collectors, aging. So, when looking for the wine’s vintage, simply find the year marked on the bottle.
“Each year, weather and other factors create noticeable differences in wine character. Producers that embrace those differences — who are usually the ones most concerned about quality — designate the vintage,” says Dave Parker, CEO, Benchmark Wine Group, a retailer that focuses on collections and aging.
Phil Baily, owner and winemaker at Baily Vineyard & Winery, located in Temecula Valley, CA, says that the concept of vintage comes from the Old World winemaking, as the temperatures in Europe fluctuate substantially from one year to the next.
“In some years, the grapes do not receive enough warmth to ripen fully, resulting in wines harder, thinner and more acidic. When weather conditions are optimum, the grapes ripen fully, and the wines are full, rich, supple and perfectly balanced. Such years came to be called ‘vintage years’,” he explains.
In New World winemaking, the temperature doesn’t vary as much and the differences in years are usually subtle. However, for these wines, vintage is the year that the grapes were harvested, as it is rare to have a blended vintage. Port, Baily said, is the only exception to this rule.
“Virtually all New World premium wines bear a vintage year, meaning they are made from grapes harvested in that year,” he says.
When shopping for wines, Baily says that knowing what you like is the key. If there is a particular style of wine or flavor profile you’re after, that is where you should start.
For reds, Baily says, the younger the wine the more likely it is to have fruit-forward flavors, while older wines have less.
“Older wines tend to have more complex aromas and a smoother feel on the palate due to changes in molecular structure as a wine ages,” he explains.
White wines, with some exceptions, tend to be at their best when one to three years old, so it is usually safer to pick a younger white wine when given a choice, notes Bailey.
Kim Elwell, co-founder and winemaker at Halcyon wines, echoes this sentiment and says that when looking at a white or rosé, it’s best to be buying newer.
“Wines that are made to drink right away, you really want to be looking for the latest vintage. For a fresh bright white and a rosé, you really want to be buying the most recent vintage,” she says.
Parker adds that once you know what type of wine you like, there are resources to help guide your purchase. This is especially true for older-style wines.
“A person that determines that they prefer older wine may then start referring to wine vintage charts available online to determine the relative quality of particular vintages in particular regions,” he says.
When dabbling in higher-end wines, Parker notes that as these wines age, they take additional nuances and tend to become more enjoyable. To many collectors, vintage is also important as a guide to that aging process.
He explains that vintage primarily matters to wine investors, as the same wine can be valued differently depending on the year. He also says that vintage also matters to those who are picking wine for a special occasion where price doesn’t matter — but quality is tops.
“Vintage matters to those that are looking for an extraordinary wine experience that is not primarily budget driven. The same wine may vary from relatively light to very rich and from simple to complex, depending on the specific vintage,” he says.
But, vintage isn’t for everyone. Parker explains that high-volume winemakers strive for consistency, so they usually do not designate a vintage. Although, he says, this is shifting.
“This allows them to transition product from one year to another without visibility to the customer or blend wine from multiple vintages. Recently, though, many high-volume wines do have the vintage added, which tends to imply a higher level of quality,” says Parker.
While wine vintage may not be as important to the average wine consumer, Champagne is a different issue, explains Tyler Elwell, co-founder and winemaker at Halcyon Wines.
“Champagne is the most interesting vintage story. A lot of it is non-vintage because part of what Champagne does is they blend multiple vintages together to create the mega-Champagne,” he says.
But, says Elwell, it is those extraordinary years that creates a Champagne vintage, which is a palate-pleasing experience worth having.