Vintage wine is sometimes thought of in vague terms as either old wine or a particularly good drop. In actual fact, the vast majority of wines are from a specific vintage, which simply means that its grapes are primarily or all grown and harvested within a single year.
The micro-climate of each wine-growing region will vary year on year, leading to substantial vintage variation. Grapes are fairly particular; they enjoy warm days and cool evenings in order to ripen slowly and evenly and there should be just enough rain at the right times to provide sufficient moisture without stressing the vines. If these factors are all in place it will be a great vintage. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
However there are many disruptive factors to consider. Frost in the spring can severely reduce yields, while erratic weather such as hail, strong winds and thunderstorms as the buds flower and berries form can cause substantial damage, often wiping out entire crops. If the grapes don’t receive enough sunshine and heat through the summer then they won’t ripen properly, too much and the vines can shut down. And finally, a sudden downpour at the time of harvest can be disastrous as the grapes will swell and lose their concentration. This alone can ruin a vintage. It’s unsurprising that English wine doesn’t rule the roost.
Does it really matter which vintage to select? When we’re considering fine wine then the answer is a resounding yes; the success of the vintage will have a significant impact on both the quality and longevity of the wines. The finest vintages will lead to more top quality wines that can have the capability to age for a long time, often many decades. In poorer vintages there are far more challenges when vinifying the wine and quality is likely to be lower across the board, although some winemakers relish the opportunity to demonstrate their skill, with the finest still able to produce excellent wine. Either way, wines from lesser vintages generally won’t age for as long as those from outstanding vintages.
So should we only select wine from the best vintages? Not at all, it is simply important to consider the vintage quality when buying wine. Wines for long-term investment should predominantly be from good vintages as these will improve with age over lengthy periods causing the prices to increase as supply diminishes. However, wines from top vintages do command a premium and, if you’re buying to drink in a few years, then savvy collectors often look towards good producers from lesser vintages for more forward-drinking bargains. Remember, a vintage doesn’t define a wine and the winemaker still has to do their job when the grapes have been harvested. It is however a very good guide for understanding the market and building a collection.
Nobody expects you to know about every vintage of your favourite regions but they’re easy to look up online or just ask a wine expert. The City A.M. Wine Club advisors are always happy to help.