Posted on May 2, 2013 by Michael
As the first wave of the 2012 vintages start hitting store shelves, we’re being inundated with all sorts of reports telling us that California experienced a terrific vintage in 2012. A long, sunny summer produced an abundance of ripe fruit that we’re just now getting the opportunity to savor. At the same time, prices and yields were down in Europe, squeezing a wine industry that had already been weakened by their domestic economies. And all of these reports beg the question, “Does vintage really matter?” As with all things wine, the answer is, of course, “Yes, no and maybe.”
A Bit of Background
The term vintage refers to the year in which the wine grapes were grown and harvested. For a wine with a vintage of 2011 printed on the label, substantially all of the grapes used to make the wine must have been grown in 2011. Although percentages vary from one jurisdiction to the next, usually 85% or more of the grapes must be from the vintage printed on the label. For wines produced in the southern hemisphere, harvest takes place in April or May, so their vintage dates refer to the date of the harvest, not when the grapes started growing.
Grapes, just like all other agricultural products, are subject to all of the vagaries and forces that mother nature provides. It’s natural to expect that some years will provide better growing seasons than others and therefore better or worse wines. The idea of great vintages has been around for at least two centuries. In the year of 1811, Europe (especially France) experienced an exceptionally good growing season. The bumper crop was a welcome surprise following two lean years of bad harvests. The summer growing season was accompanied by an unusually bright comet that hung in the night sky throughout much of the summer and shown brightest during harvest time. Consequently, the vintage was the first to be known as a “comet vintage,” as many subsequent great vintages have also been associated with the passing of comets. The association in 1811 was so strong that many cognacs included comets on their bottles, and Veuve Clicquot Champagne continues to print a comet on the corks of its vintage releases. Since that time, the appearance of comets have had a notable correlation with great vintages. Science, however, has yet to determine any conclusive link between the celestial objects and viticulture. Comet or not, the weather of each wine growing region continues to weigh heavily on how fine wines develop.
Comets often accompany foreboding, except when it comes to wine.
When Vintage Matters
It would be easy to say that the more expensive the wine, the more that vintage matters. And while price might strongly correlate with a great vintage, the price is usually a result of the vintage and not the other way around. Take, for example, two bottles of Chateau Latour. Production and subsequent storage costs weren’t terribly different between the 1982 and 1983 vintages, but the ’82 currently sells for about $2,500 and the ’83 sells for a comparatively paltry $500. Not surprisingly, the fruit grew extremely well in ’82 and produced a wine that ages beautifully, but ’83 was a different story.
A better guide than price as to whether or not vintage is important is the size and location of the wine’s appellation of origin. With appellations, the theory of terroir becomes important, and to many wine lovers, terroir is the essence of fine wine drinking. Here in the US where appellations are simply geographic boundaries, wine drinkers can use the rule of thumb that the smaller the appellation the more that terroir becomes apparent. Wines claiming the extremely large “California AVA” can blend grapes from anywhere in the state, so there’s very little sense of place to those wines. By comparison, the tiny Green Valley of Russian River Valley enjoys unique soil and also happens to be greatly affected by the cool waters of the Pacific Ocean. Consequently, weather influences are more apparent in a bottle of Green Valley AVA wine than a California AVA wine. Luckily for winemakers in America, appellation rules do not include restrictions on grapes used or yield levels, which give American winemakers the benefit of blending grapes from different individual vineyards or grape varieties when necessary.
Appellations in Europe, however, often carry restrictions on grape varieties used and yield levels. These added restrictions tend to place additional pressures on winemakers seeking a specific AOC status and put them at the mercy of weather. The rules restricting premier cru Meursault wines almost exclusively to chardonnay mean that a late summer heat wave or a wet, damp autumn have the potential to greatly influence the wine. These small changes in weather can have an outsized effect on not only the flavors and balance of the wine but also the age-ability of the wine. Hence the great differentials amongst vintage prices, like those we saw at Chateau Latour.
Good weather in 2012 means lots of good wine in 2013 (source: wikimedia)
When Vintage Doesn’t Matter
Very few of us consider vintage when purchasing wines for everyday drinking, and that’s perfectly fine. After all, most wine lovers are reaching for something pleasant, tasty, and easy on the wallet. Winemakers know this, of course, and they blend wines and source grapes from multiple appellations to create wine brands that are consistently good. Winemakers that choose to display extremely large appellations (e.g. “California” in the US, or “vin du pays” wines from France), are usually seeking to provide an enjoyable wine that is easy on the pocketbook. It’s not unusual for some mass-produced brands to not even list a vintage on the bottle.
One might be inclined to think that a wine without a vintage is a nondescript, boring wine, and in many cases this thought would be correct. There are a small handful of cases, however, where nonvintage wines are the norm. Most notably, sparkling wines and fortified wines. Because of the way that sparkling wine, including champagne, is made, multiple vintages are blended into the same bottle. Most sparkling wine producers strive to maintain a “house style” that provides consistent quality from year to year. Similarly, fortified wines are typically blends of wines from many years. In the cases of sparkling wines and fortified wines, the overall strength of the winery is considerably more important.
So why do we sometimes see sparkling wines and ports with vintage years? It’s because of that original fact about grapes — they are agricultural products effected by the weather. Some years are undeniably better than others, and they produce better grapes. In these exceptional years, sparkling wine and fortified winemakers alike will choose to bottle wines utilizing grapes from only that year. In the opinion of the winemakers, these vintages produce great wine and are worth drinking. Generally speaking, it’s worth taking the winemaker’s advice and paying a few extra dollars for that vintage champagne. Winemakers are, after all, like all of us — they like to show off their very best.
Which brings us to our final point. Great winemakers are capable of making good wine in bad years. In a growing season like 2012, it’s fair to expect that there will be an embarrassment of 90+ point ratings coming out of Napa Valley, but those high ratings were tougher to come by in 2010 and 2011. Wineries that consistently produce high ratings year in and year out are choosing to focus on quality, and they can represent a good buy in bad years. Granted, they are not immune from bad weather, but they will work hard to mitigate its effects and give you something enjoyable to drink.