What makes a wine great? From the producer and the process, to the grape varietal and simple personal taste, there are myriad factors at play – often subject to debate among wine lovers. But most would agree that one factor in particular plays a significant role – if not the most important role – in making a wine truly great: its vintage year.
A wine’s vintage is the year in which its grapes were harvested. In the northern hemisphere, the grape growing season runs from April to October (or thereabouts). In the southern hemisphere, the season runs from October to April, with the vintage dated for the later year. Non-vintage wines, meanwhile, are made by blending together grapes from multiple years. The key differentiator between vintages? The weather.
Plenty of sunshine during the growing period means the grapes are more likely to reach full maturity and optimal ripeness levels. Too hot, however, and grapes can be sunburned, resulting in flabby flavours and bitter tannins. Conversely, some rain is usually good, helping to keep vines hydrated and soils nutrient-rich, but too much rain means they’ll be susceptible to rot and disease.
There is a delicate balance, then, in the weather conditions necessary to produce a great vintage, but they vary between regions and grapes. Riesling, for example, does well in sunny spots with cool nights. Cabernet Sauvignon, however, needs a hot, dry climate to reach its potential. As such, a wine’s vintage year plays a bigger role in areas with variable climates. The weather in the likes of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Italy, for example, is liable to fluctuate considerably both throughout individual growing seasons and from one year to the next. When it comes to more predictable climates, such as California and Australia, vintage years tend to matter less, since the weather in these regions lends itself to more consistent wine styles.
Then again, weather conditions need not necessarily be perfect from the get-go in order to create a fabulous vintage. Some wines require maturation to show all that they’re capable of, and an older wine from a so-so growing season could easily end up out-performing a younger wine produced in a season where all the meteorological elements were perfectly aligned. Much of this will come down to the skill and expertise of the winemaker.
Indeed, advances in the scientific understanding of winemaking, coupled with ever-advancing technologies, means that the challenges associated with otherwise ‘poor’ years can be more easily mitigated. It’s almost (but not quite) inconceivable that a producer would release a bad wine blaming the vintage year, such are the options available to remedy it.
Nonetheless, regardless of how skilled a winemaker is there remains a marked difference between a wine borne easily of near-ideal conditions, and one from an average vintage requiring more intervention. These great – indeed, exceptional – vintages tend only to come along two or three times in a decade. For every other so-called ‘lesser vintages’ one must remember that every wine is an expression of a single year in time. These vintage years perhaps represent a more accurate expression of a wine’s true personality, and should be treated respectfully as a representation of its heritage.