5 minute read
last updated 6 December 2023
Almost every single bottle of wine you pick up has that magic number on it – the wine’s vintage. And, if you’re ducking into the bottleshop to pick up a wine to go with dinner, do you really care? The answer is, in most cases, probably not. Sure, if you’re paying big money for a collectible wine then you probably do care (a LOT) and you’re likely to have done your research – although often that will be more about the wine’s resale value and investment potential than whether or not it’s a great drop to drink.
What does the year mean anyway?
In Australia, putting the vintage on the label is actually optional*. There’s no legal requirement to put it there … but once a producer does include it it has to be accurate. And accurate means that at least 85% of the grapes have been harvested in the vintage year. If a producer lists more than one vintage then they do have to add up to 100%.
* See Wine Australia’s Domestic Labelling Requirements.
Is the vintage important?
Yes and no! This really depends on the wine itself.
For example, if you’re purchasing a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and you love that bright, fresh, grassy, tropical fruit character then you want to choose the youngest wine on the shelf.
If you’re purchasing a cheaper wine that is made in large quantities year in year out, then vintage probably isn’t important. Firstly – the producer is aiming for a consistent product that is going to deliver what the consumer expects, year in, year out – and they’re going to use their winemaking skills to do just that. Secondly, these are wines that often sell in high volume so you’re unlikely to be faced with choosing between, say, a 2023 and a 2009 wine. If there is vintage variation on the shelf, it’s likely to be only a year or two and you can purchase either safely.
But … once the price starts to go up things do shift. The producer is likely to be seeking to make the best wine possible from the fruit grown in a given year. He or she isn’t bothered about creating a carbon copy of the previous year’s wine – they just want to produce a delicious wine. And this is where vintage does start to play a role.
Was it a really hot year? Fruit might have ripened very quickly (and the natural acidity in the grape might have dropped off very quickly) so perhaps the flavours might be a little simpler and the winemaker will have needed to correct the wine’s acidity levels.
Was it a cool year? The fruit might have struggled to ripen – if so the flavours might be quite lean or underripe (for example, green apple instead of stone fruit in a Chardonnay, very tart blackberry instead of ripe blackberry in a red wine) and the wine might be very high in acidity.
Was there inclement weather around vintage? If so – was the producer’s hand forced to pick earlier than they would have liked?
Or … was it a magic year, where the grapes were able to hang on the vines, ripen slowly, build up loads of flavour and be picked at a perfect balance between flavour ripeness, sugar ripeness and acidity levels? If you know a year was like this in a given region, you can usually choose wines with confidence! (Barossa 2018, for example!).
How does this affect quality?
Well, this is where what the winemaker did has an impact.
In a perfect year, you’ll find that a lot of the wines are pretty good indeed. Modern winemaking is a sophisticated beast and while it’s possible to make a terrible wine from great grapes, in general – if the grapes are amazing then the winemaker has an awesome starting point.
In less than ideal years (and let’s face it, that’s most of them), then the winemaker’s choices definitely come into play. Perhaps there’s more or less oak used, perhaps instead of producing a straight Shiraz the winemaking team decided to create a blend to add complexity, body, colour or to balance out some of the wine’s characteristics.
The first rule of thumb when it comes to aging your precious bottles is that time in the cellar is NOT going to transform an average wine into a stunning wine. (The second rule is that if you’re storing wine long term, you need to invest in the right conditions – that means a cellar or wine fridge or other means of keeping the bottles in stable, temperature controlled conditions).
So that $10 a bottle mass-produced wine we talked about first up? Vintage doesn’t matter. You’re not aging it. Just don’t do it. Some wines are ‘drink now’ wines – that’s not a bad thing.
But let’s say you’ve spent $50 or more on a bottle, or maybe it’s a gift you’ve received … does vintage play a role in how long you can tuck it away for? The answer here is … yes … and no.
Great wine from a great vintage, made from a grape variety such as Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon? Yep – it’s likely got aging potential. Something like a Sauvignon Blanc – not so much.
To age, a wine needs a few things …
- pronounced fruit flavours
- high acidity OR high tannins OR high sugar
- flavours that develop well
This last is where Sauvignon Blanc falls down – over time even the greatest Savvy B from the greatest vintage is going to become more and more vegetal. Do you like aromas and flavours of tinned asparagus in your wine? I thought not!
The final thing to remember when aging a wine is how do YOU enjoy wine? Over time, a wine will become much more savoury as the fruit characters develop into more leathery, meaty notes (red wines) or toasted nuts, honey notes (white wines). Some people love that, others not. Your sweet spot for enjoying an aged wine is likely going to be unique to you. There are plenty of resources out there to help guide you with aging (starting often with the back label on the wine itself) but ultimately it’s all about your palate. Buy yourself a few bottles and try one every year until you hit your own personal jackpot!