Wine 101

12: Wine Vintages

You’ve probably noticed that wines – unlike most people – like to show off their age in large and shiny print, right?

This is one of many idiosyncrasies of our lovely drinkable friend, and the why and the how of it can sometimes be confusing. Indeed, why bother to indicate a date on a bottle? Does older necessarily mean better wine? If a wine does not mention a vintage date, is it necessarily a sign that it will be gut-wrenchingly bad? Time to answer these questions by dropping some intel on you right now.

Wtf’s a vintage anyway?

This is another fancy-sounding word that means something very simple. A vintage, basically, is just a reference to ayear indicating the age of a given product. They are found on the majority of “quality” wines, some spirits (mostly Scotch and some whiskeys), some beers, and even auto parts and tins of sardines (yep, not joking!)

As you can see from this photo, the bottle’s vintage is clearly indicated.

So yes, vintage means “age”, but the age of what, exactly? In the overwhelming majority of wine-producing countries, the year shown on the bottle must be one where the harvest of grapes used to produce the wine was. Basically, though the wine may have been preserved in casks, bottles, or tanks for many more years before ending up on the shelf, if the grapes were picked in 2010, the bottle vintage should be 2010. The majority of wine-producing countries have also additionally framed this legally to standardize practices and avoid inducing consumers errors.

Why bother?

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I bet many of you have already asked themselves the question. What’s particularly striking, though, is when one notices that the same @#%?! bottle can go from 100$ to 3000$ in price just because one’s a 2004 and the other’s a 2005. Sound absolutely crazy, huh? Well, I don’t have the time nor space to go into too much detail about this, but this is at least partly justified (though loads of it is mainly marketing, wine critic schmoozing, rarity, and – as always – marketing). Let’s spend some time discussing what this changes in the bottle  though.

2.1. Each year brings a different terroir.

As we saw last time in my article on how terroir affects wine, the same grape, cultivated by the same producer in the same @#$%%?! country can make COMPLETELY different wines should the grapes be grown on a hillside 200m higher or lower in the valley. (Good) wine actually tends to be very sensitive to terroir, and greatly varies in quality depending on climate, temperature, soil type, sun exposure… you get the drift..

Well, now that we know all this, we can easily understand why vintages are relevant in assessing the quality of a wine. For example, if it snowed one year until July and rained like cats and dogs every two weeks in a vineyard in year X, but things were super nice and warm from April to November the following year, do you think the wine of year X will be better or worse than the other? Well there you go.The vintage year gives us the necessary information to evaluate the particular effect of a given terroir on a given wine by letting us know what happened to the vines that particular year . This also (partly) explains price changes, since better climatic conditions (usually) give better wine, vintage X would be a lot  cheaper than vintage Y. Basically, better wine, more moolah. Capice?

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3. Why We Care Less and Less These Days

As you MIGHT have noticed, technology has evolved in the last 50 years, even if wine remains a very traditional product compared to, say, meat – and I advise you not to think too much about that last one if you’re not already a veggie…. – Indeed, tech has managed to solve many “classic” winemaking problems.

Among them are many that could have completely destroyed a vintage not too long ago. For example, many Californian growers now use drip irrigation, which helps provide juuuust the amount of water each vine needs even in times of drought. We also see more and more stupidly large fans blowing warm air over the vineyards in times of spring or autumn frost to avoid what would have not so long ago completely annihilated the harvest. In short, humans are playing god a little more each day. Hate it or love it.

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You’ll also understand that all these tech advances make vintages a fair bit less important than before, since we now have much better control over temperature variations and other “big” problems of the like. If you’re hesitating between two vintages and their prices are very different, please ask the somm to explain whether and/or why the vintage matters here. It might also be a good idea to ask whether the producer works in a modern or traditional manner. After all, it is not because the technology exists that people are obligated to use it…!

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In the most dire of cases, just buy both and compare them, then tell us whether it was worth it!

In closing, if you ever want to see what vintage is recognized as better or worse, you can go to any SAQ branch and ask for a copy of their “vintage chart,” which is usually updated every year. Just spot a person in a black shirt and ask her. It’s 100% free! If you don’t care for leaving the house (lazy SOB), here’s a link (sawry ya’ll, in French only) that will take you to the excellent table prepared by the good people at Les Fidèles de Bacchus. It is also more comprehensive than the SAQ’s, so get some learnin’ done while you’re at it!

What about you? Did you ever taste an aged bottle in which the vintage truly made a difference? Tell us about it in the comments!

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