Years ago in a restaurant in Bordeaux, I noticed that none of the wines on the menu were vintage designated. That is, the wines were listed without posting the years in which they were made. When I asked our server about the missing vintages, she replied, “They keep changing!”
Indeed, each harvest brings a new vintage. So why worry about it? You shouldn’t. But it’s a good idea to be aware of vintages for a number reasons.
Wine Is a Living Beverage
And because it’s alive, it ages—sometimes better than not. “Ageworthiness,” as I have discussed in previous blogs, depends on many things: the kind of grape (or grapes) a wine is made from; the region in which the grapes are grown; the style in which the wine is made; and the growing conditions during the harvest and throughout the year. Everything makes a difference. And yet, no one can know for sure how a bottle will age. If we have experience tasting a wine over multiple vintages, we can have an idea of how it might age though.
But there’s no substitute for opening a bottle and tasting it yourself. You will simply have to pop that cork and drink the wine. Personally, I find most wines to be interesting at all stages of their development. Just like people, wines acquire various attributes and characteristics during different stages in the bottle.
What Happens When Wine Ages
Light-bodied wines (typically whites and rosés) are best in their youth, when their fruity flavor components are freshest. These flavors and aromas dissipate with time, leaving the wines somewhat flat in their senescence. However, some whites, like barrel-fermented Chardonnays and sweeter Rieslings, can age beautifully for decades.
Red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah will often have more staying power than whites, due to their tannins, which serve as a natural anti-oxidant. But even most red wines will not age well for more than five or 10 years. The 20- to 50-year-old red Bordeaux or Napa Valley Cabernets we hear raves about do exist. But typically only the best wines age well for extended time periods such as this. Exceptions to the rules abound, of course. And that’s part of what makes wine so interesting! (Nonetheless, those who wait too long to drink their red wines will often be disappointed.)
Getting Back to Vintage
Weather conditions during the growing season and even during dormancy will affect the way grapes ripen. When grapes ripen fully, their flavors tend to be more pronounced in a fruit-forward way. But if temperatures are low and sunlight is marred by rain, for example, the grapes may deliver more herbaceous flavors with higher acidity than desired. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, because wines made from “difficult” vintages can still be excellent (especially when made by really good winemakers).
In other words, a “bad vintage” doesn’t necessarily lead to a “bad wine.”
Consumers who are aware of vintage variation can make educated guesses about wine quality; but again, they won’t know for sure until they taste the wine. For collectible wines, a poorly rated vintage will inspire the market to offer discounts. But as soon as a new vintage is rated top notch, prices will go up again!
Still, it’s important to remember that there are good-tasting surprises to be found in so-called “off” vintages. Serious winemakers respect the vineyard and the vintage, while trying to harness the best qualities of each.
As we begin to embrace vintage 2018—which has already started in parts of California and Israel—we winemakers are thinking about all of the above. So far, things are looking good on both continents! But the vintage is not over until all the grapes are in. So I’ll reserve judgement until later. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying a whole lot of great wines from many vintages, both recent and long ago!
Vintner Jeff Morgan is the co-owner of Covenant Winery, in California and Israel. He’s also the author of nine books on food and wine and a former wine journalist. Jeff is available for select speaking engagements. To inquire about a possible speaking appearance, please contact Jodie Morgan at email@example.com.