Vintage can often seem both important and sometimes baffling to wine drinkers. The vintage of a wine is simply the year in which the grapes were picked. The idea of recording the age of a wine goes back a very long way. When archeologists in Egypt opened Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, they found wine jars buried with him labelled with the year of production, the winemaker’s name, and comments such as “very good wine.”
Because it takes time for grape juice to ferment into wine, wine from grapes picked in the fall is not normally ready to drink before next spring. Red wines can take even longer to be ready. So, usually wine is not normally available in the year of the recorded vintage. There are a few exceptions to this rule. For example, Beaujolais nouveau (new or young Beaujolais) is a red wine that is rapidly and only lightly fermented, and is released in November of the same year that the grapes were picked.
But things can get more complicated looking at vintages. Grapes in the Southern Hemisphere are picked when it is spring in the Northern Hemisphere. So, a 2014 Australian wine could be six months older than a 2014 wine from Cavender Creek Winery. Things get even more difficult when you encounter wines (yes, they do exist!) from countries such as Vietnam and Thailand. Here in Georgia the vines can only have one crop of grapes per year, but these tropical regions can produce two or even three grape crops per year. The vintage then becomes a bit difficult to record.
So, why does vintage matter?
The year of the vintage provides clues about both the quality and drinkability of a bottle of wine. Each year’s wine is different due to the weather during the growing seasons of the grapes. When we visit Cavender Creek, my wife is very picky about the white wine she drinks. There are two vintages of Petit Manseng wine available, 2012 and 2014. She immediately gravitates to just one of them – she has a distinct preference (though you might disagree with her choice, as your palate is different to hers).
Many of the mass-produced brands of wine do not declare any vintage on the bottle. The reason for this is that the manufacturers want to produce a totally consistent win, unaffected by the natural variations between years. So they blend wine from several vintages and vineyards to ensure the wine always tastes the same.
How long the wine has been kept in the bottle will affect how good the wine tastes. Like so many wines, Beaujolais nouveau is not suitable for keeping – it needs to be drunk within a few months of bottling. Most white wines should be drunk within about three years of release, and the majority of red wines are not suitable for long-term maturing either. So, if you have a ten year old bottle of Californian chardonnay hidden at the back of a kitchen cabinet – it is unlikely to be drinkable.