Tag Archives: wine terms

Wine terms: Previous vintage

wine terms: previous vintageRegular visitors here have seen a lot of references to the term “previous vintage” over the past 18 months, particularly in regards to wines that are on sale. That’s because, thanks to the recession, store shelves are full of wines that aren’t the current vintage, but wines from previous vintages.

Typically, wineries release a new vintage every year, starting in the spring; the process is much the same as the one auto makers use when they introduce their new models every fall. In 2010, for example, most wineries released their 2009 whites and 2008 reds. That’s called the current vintage.

But what happens when retailers haven’t been able to sell all of the previous year’s current vintage? It becomes the previous vintage, and retailers cut prices to get rid of those wines to make room for the current vintage. In other words, every wine that isn’t the current vintage is the previous vintage. Note that this system doesn’t exactly apply to high end wines, which have limited distribution and are bought to age. But it is true for the other 90 percent of the wine in the world.

Again, the sales process is similar to what car dealers do. Most retailers don’t have the shelf space to carry the previous vintage and the current vintage at the same time, and most of them don’t want to anyway. Customers get confused if they see the same wine with two different years on the label.

The transition from previous to current vintage is normal, but it has been complicated by the recession and the slump in wine sales. Starting at the end of 2008, many retailers stopped buying new vintages altogether, and focused on getting rid of what they had. The wineries, figuring the good times would never end, had made too much wine, and retailers were stuck with wine they couldn’t sell.

Today, almost two years later, the situation has improved a bit, but talk to retailers and distributors, and they say it will be another couple of years before the excess of previous vintages works its way through the system. So expect to continue to see significant price reductions from retailers on previous vintages. Some retailers, in fact, have specialized in buying previous vintages and selling them at steep discounts over the past couple of years. I can’t tell you how many $15 and $20 wines I’ve seen marked down to $10 and $12 at these stores.

Wine terms: Residual sugar

Residual sugar in charts and graphs

Or, in laymen ?s terms, how much sugar is left in the wine after fermentation is complete. The amount of residual sugar tells you how sweet the wine is going to be.

This is not a difficult concept to understand, though we do have to make a brief detour through chemistry class. Wine is made by adding yeast to grape juice from the crushed grapes. The yeast converts the sugar in the grape juice to alcohol, which is the process of fermentation. It ?s similar to bread baking, in which the yeast eats the sugar in the flour and expels carbon dioxide, which makes the bread rise.

Fermentation can end naturally, when the yeast eats all the sugar and dies. When this happens, the wine has very little residual sugar, higher alcohol levels, and is considered dry. Or the winemaker can end fermentation early, before the yeast eats all the sugar. These wines have higher residual sugar, lower alcohol levels, and are sweet. (For the difference between sweet and fruity wines, go here.)

All wine, even the most dry reds, has some residual sugar. That ?s because some sugars can ?t be converted to alcohol (why that is requires another chemistry class, which we ?ll skip). What this means to wine drinkers is that most wines with one percent residual sugar or less are dry, and those with a higher RS (at it is sometimes known) are sweet.

So why didn ?t you know about this before? Because most wines don ?t list residual sugar on the label, and they don ?t even want to tell wine writers unless we ask. That ?s because winemakers know how fussy Americans are about sweet wine, and assume that if we see a label that says 2.12 percent residual sugar, we ?ll recoil in horror and assume it ?s as sweet as white zinfandel. The RS for white zinfandel, in fact, can be as much as double that of a dry wine.

Also important: There is a trend in California to add sugar to dry wines after fermentation is complete, which gives winemakers the opportunity to make high alcohol wines with higher sugar levels. These wines are still technically dry, but the added sugar (in the form of white grape juice concentrate) brings out more fruit flavor. You can replicate this technique at home when you make a vinaigrette. Mix the oil and vinegar and taste it, and then add sugar and taste it again. The sugar takes the edge off and rounds out the flavors, and the vinaigrette is still not really sweet.

Adding sugar after fermentation is an especially popular technique with less expensive wines from the largest producers. That way, they can use grapes of lesser quality and still get decent flavors.

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