Exactly what does ‘a great vintage’ mean
“It’s a great vintage,” the sommelier says after recommending the 2000 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
What exactly does that mean? Does it mean you’ll enjoy the wine more than another on the wine list that comes from a lesser vintage? Does it mean the recommended wine provides greater value? Will you even be able to tell the difference between, say, the 1999 and the 2001 vintage of the wine?
Let’s start with what a vintage is. The vintage of a wine refers to the year in which the grapes in that wine were grown. That 2000 Chateau Montelena Cabernet, for example, would be made with grapes grown in 2000.
That is, for the most part. In most wine-growing regions of the world, including the European Union, Australia and New Zealand, a wine qualifies for the designated vintage year provided at least 85 percent of its grapes were grown in that year.
In America the same ratio has applied since May 2006, when the federal government mandated, with the support of a number of large wineries and the opposition of a number of specialty vintner collectives, that the 85-15 rule would be the law of the land. The exception in the U.S. is with wines that designate the AVA (American Viticultural Area) of its origin on their labels. Those wines must have 95 percent of their wine come from the vintage. For example a wine labeled as a “California” wine can be 85-15 from the vintage, but a wine labeled as being from the Carneros region (which spans the southwestern end of the Napa and Sonoma valleys) must be at least 95-5 from the vintage.
So what does that mean for the quality of a wine? Well, in bad years it gives winemakers an opportunity to improve the quality of the wines by blending better juice with that year’s grapes. In great vintages, the winemaker may not blend as much old juice, but conversely they may, for efficiency’s sake, continue to blend and hold great juice for another day. The key in today’s mass wine market is to make wines that are as consistent as possible. Wine drinkers today, for the most part, don’t want surprises in their wine. They want the 2000 to taste pretty much like the 1999.
That’s not to say that vintage is unimportant. Each year, each season is different. Early rains or torrid temperatures can and do impact the quality of a growing season. Ask most growers and specialty winemakers and they will tell you that fine wine is made in the fields, the vineyards, where and when the grapes are grown. A great wine-growing season will likely produce a great wine. But the definition of a great season depends on both the region and the grapes being grown.
In addition, in the past, when winemaking was more of a varied undertaking than it is today in our technologically advanced age, vintages were very important in indicating what wines were great and what wines were so-so. Bordeaux is a region that is strongly subject to variations in vintage, and when oenophiles gather to taste and discuss great wines, the unique nature of various vintages is paramount to the conversation.
So, does the vintage of the wine you order actually matter? As a rule of thumb for younger, less-expensive wines, probably not. The quality of those kinds of wines, coupled with the blending laws, dictate that there will likely be less significant differences in wines of recent vintages than the average palate can discern.
For older, more expensive wines, especially those from Bordeaux and Burgundy, if you don’t know the top vintages, ask your sommelier before ordering. And be sure to quiz: Why is the 1985 La Tache so much better than the 1980 La Tache, and is it really worth the extra $3,000?
A good sommelier will be able to give you a good answer.
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