Captured History in a Bottle (A Wine’s Vintage Year)

In winemaking there are no ‘do overs’ or second chances until the following year.  Think of it like a milestone Anniversary which only comes by once, then add the unpredictability nuances of Mother Nature to it.  The most significant aspect in the winemaking process is the Vintage year it is grown and harvested in.  Because of this, one might successfully argue that the real magic discovered in a bottle of wine occurs in the vineyard.  The human interaction and decision making of when to pick the grapes, when to press them, and all the many other intricate elements of winemaking matter as well but to a lesser degree.   Regardless of how skilled a winemaker is, there remains an indelible difference between a wine that was born in favourable conditions, and one from an average vintage that required more intervention.

These such great Vintages tend to only come along a few times a decade. For every other so-called ‘lesser vintage’ one must remember that every wine is an expression of a single year in time. It’s a birth year.  These vintage years in many ways represent a more accurate expression of a wine’s true personality, and should be treated respectfully as a representation of its heritage.

It is important to note that with advancing technologies in the scientific understanding of winemaking, the challenges associated with otherwise ‘bad or poor’ Vintage years can be better managed and mitigated.  It is extremely rare that a producer would release a bad wine blaming the vintage year. 

It is also good to know that weather conditions need not necessarily be perfect from the onset to create a fabulous vintage. Some wines require maturation to show all that they are capable of, and an older wine from a so called decent growing season could easily end up out-performing a younger wine produced in a season where all the meteorological elements were perfectly aligned. This aspect or much of it will come down to the expertise of the winemaker.

Let us take a moment to define what the Vintage Year means on your wine bottle.  As mentioned, a vintage wine is one made from grapes that were all, or primarily, grown and harvested in a single specified year. To elaborate on the ‘or primarily’ part: to mitigate the risks that are associated with the variability of producing wine in changing climates, most countries allow a vintage wine to include a portion of wine that is not from the year denoted on the label. The usual requirement range falls in between 75% to 85% of same-year content for vintage-dated wine.  With the increase in climate temperature comes an increased chance of extreme weather events that affect the quality or, for the sake of this discussion, the quantity of the harvest.

There is a delicate balance in the weather conditions necessary to produce a great vintage, but they vary between regions and grapes. In the northern hemisphere, the grape growing season runs from April to approximately October.  In the southern hemisphere, the season runs from October to April.  Certain grape varietals do well in sunny areas with cool nights. Other grapes need a hot, dry climate to reach their full potential.  Some rain is usually good, helping to keep vines hydrated and soils nutrient-rich, but too much rain means they will be susceptible to rot and disease.  Conversely in more predictable climates, vintage years tend to matter less, since the weather in these regions lends itself to more consistent wine styles.

Separate from these Vintage expressions are non-vintage wines which are made by blending together grapes from multiple years.  Some of the risks from making such wine include unwanted oxidation (chemical reactions that occur when wine comes in contact with air) and discolouration. Some advantages to producing multi-vintage still wine, is that one can use the best of the best and adjust component percentages accordingly.  This process is not dissimilar as with Champagne houses that use multiple vintage reserve wines to make a ‘house style’ non-Vintage product wine (often noted on a wine list as 'NV'). This practice for winemakers is seeking a consistent style of wine, year after year.  Slowly but surely the multi-vintage wines are coming of age.

As with most things that are often determined ‘good or bad’, there are always exceptions to the rule.   Each Vintage signifies a time that has existed, and whereby variables in climate played a role and combined with human interaction created a time related experience for us to enjoy.

“Wine is bottled poetry.” Robert Louis Stevenson

The next time a Vintage dated bottle of wine is opened in your presence, please note that a time capsule, the revelation of captured history awaits your senses.