Getting a Grasp on Vintages
A vineyard can produce a great wine one year and yield something barely drinkable the next. Why the inconsistency, and how concerned should you be about vintages? The bottom line is that unless you have a cellar for storing wine, you are going to be drinking what your market has available. So you needn’t worry too much about a particular vintage/year. Of course look for great vintages when and where they may be available, but realize you will pay dearly for them. If you want to see the difference that vintage makes, try a side-by-side comparison of the same wine from one vineyard from a range of years. This is often a very instructive exercise and you might find out that the differences between vintages, although quite discernable, are much more subtle than you had expected.
What makes a great vintage? A great year is produced by a combination of factors that are all related to weather. First, it requires a warm spring, with no freezes and mild temperatures during bud-break (when the first new buds appear on the vines), then steady, moderate weather throughout the growing season (April to September in the Northern Hemisphere; October to March in the Southern Hemisphere). This is especially important at the time of flowering (in June or December, respectively). The ideal scenario is warm days and cool nights, with a little bit of rain to keep the vines irrigated. A long, slow growing season is most desirable because the grapes not only need to ripen (make enough sugar) but they need to mature (develop all their flavor nuances). Most important, the weeks leading up to harvest must be free of rain or any other kind of weather aberration.
Although some wineries do rent helicopters to blow the moisture off grapes after a rainstorm, we can’t really do much about the weather. However, growers over the years have learned much more about how and where to plant vines to take advantage of a prevailing climate. Vineyard management techniques, such as selective pruning and crop thinning (dividing growth among a smaller number of bunches), and organic pest and disease controls also help. Careful irrigation at key times during the growing season can also ameliorate the effects of low rainfall. Thus, to a certain degree, science has saved us from vintages that vary wildly due to uncontrollable weather.
A vintage year is not quite the same issue nowadays as in previous centuries — but it can still make a difference. There have been many good and several great vintages recently. In general the 1997 vintage in Italy and the year 2000 in Bordeaux, for example, are exceptional vintages (keep in mind that vintages are always a few years away from actual release). In areas such as these, where the vines struggle each year for enough sun to ripen them, an extra-warm summer is needed to provide near perfect growing conditions. In California, where a deficit of sunshine is rare, 1997 was a superior vintage because it had a textbook season of long, slow, and steady maturation without weather incident. The result is a large quantity of superbly balanced wines.
What About Aging?
A great vintage typically ages better and longer. When a wine begins life, it is youthful, brash, and bursting with fruit. As it ages, the lively fruit begins to soften and is replaced by a mellow complexity called “bottle bouquet.” All during its life, the wine continues slowly, steadily, to exchange fruit for complexity. Because fruitiness is a desirable characteristic of white wines, they are usually aged for less time than reds. As a rule, white wines — other than Chardonnay — require no aging. Chardonnays can be aged for several years.
In red wines, tannin — that astringent, puckery quality in the mouth — can be strong when the wines are young. Through a red wine’s aging, the tannins will soften and slowly disappear. Consequently, red wines usually improve with age. Cabernet Sauvignon (or Nebbiolo from northern Italy) generally needs more aging time than other red varieties, while Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Zinfandel tend to require less. In a restaurant, one of the latter varieties often makes a better choice than Cabernet, because most restaurants don’t age Cabernet enough, or if they do, they charge considerably more for it.
When are the ideal times to drink wines? It really depends on your own personal preference. If you like fresh fruitiness in your wine, then opt for wines on the young side. If instead you prefer softness and complexity, drink them on the older side. Trial and error is the best way to judge your own tastes. A good test is to buy a case of red wine and drink a bottle from it once a year. Discovering when you like it best will give insight into your preferences.