A brand-new year means a brand-new vintage of wine. Most bottles of wine bear a vintage date, and it can have a critical impact on a wine’s taste, but this is often among wine’s most overlooked features.
A wine’s vintage is the year in which the grapes were grown, not the year in which the wine was made—sometimes these can be different. For winemakers in the southern hemisphere, harvest occurs right after the New Year, so that’s why you’ll soon see 2014 appearing on the labels of Australian and New Zealand wines. There are also some wines that don’t have a vintage date; these “non-vintage” wines are blends from various years, most common among sparkling and fortified wines as well as very inexpensive wines.
You may have noticed that a wine you drink all the time suddenly tastes different—a main reason for this is a change in the vintage. Though producers usually aim for consistency between vintages (especially with everyday drinking bottles), it’s impossible for a wine to remain completely the same from year to year; some producers also embrace vintage variation in their winemaking philosophy and will adjust their winemaking techniques accordingly, playing up different flavours and elements of the wines as dictated by the strengths and weaknesses of that particular harvest.
The reason for vintage variation is simple: weather changes. Some years are hot and sunny, some are cold and wet; inland continental climates are much more susceptible to wider variations between vintages than coastal maritime climates due to more intense weather and temperature fluctuations. This is why wines from New Zealand and the coastal regions of California remain relatively stable from year to year, while the wines from inland regions like Canada’s Okanagan Valley or France’s Bordeaux region can vary wildly. Each grape variety also has its own particular set of ideal growing conditions, so a year that’s excellent for Pinot Noir (dry but cool, with just enough humidity) may be horrible for Cabernet Sauvignon (which prefers hot and sunny conditions), and vice versa.
European winemakers, especially those from the biggest and most celebrated wine regions (Burgundy, Bordeaux, Chianti, Barolo, Rioja), have long accepted vintage variation as a major factor influencing their wines; Portugal’s port producers “declare” vintages, meaning they only bottle their port with a vintage date if the quality is deemed high enough. Winemakers can offset particularly bad vintages with certain winemaking practices (including reserving a bit of wine from good years to mix with wine from poor years), but it’s also simply accepted that wines from different years simply taste different—and that’s why certain prestigious wines from excellent vintages will sell for outrageously high amounts (1982 Chateau Margaux, for example).
Ultimately, if you’re buying an inexpensive New World wine you don’t really need to pay much attention to the vintage date. However, it’s still a good practice to make note of the vintage, because you will notice a difference when you start to pay attention—in particularly great (or terrible) vintages, those effects will trickle down to all levels, so you can find wines that are particularly good values—or total flops. V
Recent Noteworthy Vintages:
Napa Valley (US): 2009, 2012
Bordeaux (France): 2000, 2005, 2009
Burgundy (France): 2005, 2009
Chianti (Italy): 2007, 2009, 2010
Barolo (Italy): 2004, 2006, 2007
Rioja (Spain): 2004, 2005, 2009