Wine terms: Vintage

There are two things to know about vintage. First, it refers to the year that the grapes used to make the wine were harvested. Hence a wine label that says 2007 means that the grapes in the wine were picked in 2007. Second, in 90 percent of the wine made in the world, the vintage doesn’t make any difference.

This, of course, is not what most wine drinkers — or non-wine drinkers, for that matter — think. We have been taught that vintage is one of the most important elements in wine making, and even people who don’t drink much wine are always asking: “Is this a good vintage?”

Instead, they should be asking: “Is this a quality producer?”

The basics of vintage start with weather. The grapes’ growing conditions are different each year, since the weather is warmer or colder or rainier — all of which affect the quality of the wine, how it tastes, and how long it will age. If there isn’t  enough rain, there is often little the winemaker can do to make up for the difference, and the wine will be different from a year in which there is enough rain.

There are also government regulations regarding vintage and its cousin, non-vintage, which refers to wine made with grapes from more than one vintage. Interestingly most champagne and sparkling wine is non-vintage (which is a topic for another day).

What we need to know about vintage is that there are three main reasons why it isn’t important for most wine, or about 9 out of 10 bottles on store shelves:

• Most wine is made to taste the same regardless of vintage. Producers want the wine to be consistent from year to year, so they try to even out any variations. The best example is $10 California grocery store merlot, which is amazingly consistent not just from vintage to vintage, but from producer to producer. They know what their customers want, and they make the wine that way.

• Technology has changed the way grapes are grown and the way wine is made. Many high-volume producers have high-tech vineyards, with sensors in the ground that track moisture content, temperature and the like. This allows producers to fiddle with growing conditions by changing the amount of water the vines get to account for rain and temperature variation. The goal here, again, is to make sure the wine is consistent from vintage to vintage.

• Grapes today are grown in regions of the world where the weather is almost always conducive to winemaking. In France and Germany, summers are shorter and cooler, and vintage is more important than in California or Australia. The joke among European winemakers that I talk to is that there is no such thing as a bad vintage in California. There are only good vintages and better ones.

When does vintage matter? Generally, the more expensive the wine, the more important vintage is. It’s irrelevant in a $10 wine, may matter a bit in a $25 wine, and comes into play in wine that costs $50 or more. And how many of us drink $50 wine regularly?

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