Recently I attended a screening of the documentary Vintage: The Winemaker’s Year, a film about the Virginia wine industry. During the film, the topic of vintage being of particular importance to Virginia vineyards was brought up as the climate in the state varies from year to year in relation to the wine making business. This got me to thinking about my own thoughts on vintage. Does it still matter? Does the region make vintage relevant?
Advances in Technology
Vintage used to be of particular importance as it was worth noting when there was a particularly good or bad year due to weather, vine disease, or some other external force that would have either a positive or negative effect on the vines. However, the times they have changed. Advances in wine making, particularly where irrigation is concerned, have lead to the ability to salvage good, even great wine, from seasons that in the past would have been less than stellar and perhaps even a disaster.
In addition to advances in technology, knowing what leads to quality wine – soil, temperature, etc – has lead to improved selection of what grapes to grow where. You don’t see vineyards trying to grow Pinot Noir in a place that just won’t support it and losing an entire crop.
It’s been argued that vintage charts are dead, and while I’m certainly not here to end the argument, I’ll certainly throw my two cents into the ring. I don’t think that vintage charts are dead. However, I do think that they, like most things related to wine, should be taken with a grain of salt.
Wine is an inherently subjective industry. Everybody has a different palate and that difference will lead to differing opinions on wines. That’s the beauty of the industry. That being said, vintage charts are trying to apply an objective measurement to wine. While assessing a harvest can be fairly objective – comparing last year’s tonnage to this year’s is easy enough to do – the quality of the wine from that harvest is impossible to know until the wine has been finished. Because of that, there is and will continue to be debate on the veracity of vintage charts.
California has pretty regular seasons. Sure, they may have extra rain one year, or less the next, but in the major wine making regions of the state, the vineyards know what to expect from the weather and can plan their plantings accordingly. This isn’t true of every region.
Several of your New World wine growing regions, including states such as Virginia, Oregon, Washington, and New York, and countries such as Chile, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand can have variations in heat, rain, and in the case of Chile recently, natural disasters. While skilled wine makers can overcome much of this, it’s worth noting for wine buyers when choosing wine from these regions.
So What’s the Verdict?
Vintage will always matter. Buyers continue to demand that the year of the wine in the bottle be notated somewhere on the bottle, and so vineyards will continue to place it on there. However, vintage doesn’t have nearly the level of importance as it used to. Advances in wine making have helped to eliminate the variations from year to year that external forces can cause. This is a good thing, as you can find a wine you enjoy and continue to enjoy it year after year thanks to the expectation that the wine won’t change from year to year. While there will always be ups and down in certain wines from varying regions, the advances in wine making mean you don’t have to spend days doing research on a vintage of a bottle you’ve had before, you can buy with confidence knowing that you’re getting a bottle you’ll enjoy.