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Does Vintage Matter? The Truth Behind Vintage, Wine Quality and Aging Potential

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.

And Aging?

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!

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Bust a Myth: All Wine Gets Better With Age

(and its friend – “but only if it’s red!”)

4 minute read

I’ve often come across people who have received a ‘special’ bottle of wine which they’ve carefully put away for a ‘special’ occasion. When they’ve come to open it, they’ve been wildly disappointed. “But wine is supposed to get better with age!”.

Sadly, this is, in general, NOT the case. In Australia, most wine is drunk within 24 hours of purchase (and someone from a big chain once told me that internal research showed it was closer to THREE hours) – so if you’re a producer, what kinds of wine are you going to release to the market? Ones that need to sit in a carefully controlled environment for 10+ years before they look good? Or ones that consumers can buy on their way home from work and enjoy with dinner?

You don’t need an MBA to figure out the answer there!

The other thing is, that in order to improve with age a wine needs to be good (nay, bloody good!) in the first place. Something average is going to stay average and, honestly, get worse over time.

In order to age a wine needs a combination of some or all of the following:

  • great tannins
  • great acidity
  • intensity of flavour
  • flavours that develop in an appealing way

The tannins and acidity act as the wine’s bone structure. Generally, it’s tannins for reds and acidity for whites. There are some black grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, which have great tannin and acidity and that makes them ideal candidates for ageing. The tannins and acidity will both soften off over time – so that Semillon which feels like it’s shredded the enamel from your teeth thanks to the high acid will feel very different in 10 years’ time.

The intensity of a wine’s flavours will also decrease over time, so if a wine is a little insipid and boring now – it’s going to get MORE insipid and boring if you leave it for 5 years!

And finally – the flavours do need to develop in an appealing way. This might sound a bit odd – but Sauvignon Blanc is a great case in point here. Savvy B has really intense aromas and flavours and high acidity, so it sounds like an ideal candidate for ageing, right?! Sadly – no. Those beautiful intense notes of grass, passionfruit and gooseberry will actually develop into increasingly vegetal aromas and flavours. The passionfruit will give way to notes of broad bean, pea and asparagus. And this is not everyone’s cup of tea when it comes to wine. A few years ago I was lucky enough to taste a Coonawarra Sauvignon Blanc that was about 15 years old. It smelt and tasted like tinned asparagus! So if you’re after the bright notes most people associate with Sav Blanc – stick with the young ones!

And it’s not only the reds that age! Riesling and Semillon are two wines that, in general, have amazing ageing potential thanks to their naturally high acid levels. Many years ago, I went to work overseas for 4 months – leaving my (university budget) wine collection in a cellar. When I returned 8 years later, almost everything was stuffed – EXCEPT for my collection of Clare Rieslings. None of these had been wildly expensive wines in the first place, but thanks to early adoption of screw caps and Riesling’s amazing ageing ability, the wines all looked FAB!

A lot of good quality, high end Chardonnay also can age – less reliably and in general for not as long as a Riesling or Semillon but still good for a few years in the cellar.

So – what are the Wine Academy ageing hints & tips?

  • if in doubt – drink now! It’s demoralising to pull out that special bottle and discover it’s on its way to vinegar
  • if your budget allows – buy a case and drink a bottle now, see what you think. If you think there’s ageing potential, drink the next bottle in 12 months time. Rinse and repeat until your palate decides the wine’s hit its sweet spot. Remember – everyone’s palate is different. Some people prefer fruit-forward younger wines while others prefer the more savoury character of older wines – and you might be in the middle!
  • invest in good storage. If you’re storing wine long term, you do need to store it properly – in at least temperature controlled conditions (potentially also humidity controlled if your collection is predominantly cork)

Looking for something with ageing potential? Browse our Rieslings and Cabernet Sauvignons as a start!

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