What Is A Vintage?

In our constant pursuit of delicious wine, it is inevitable that we come across vocabulary that is foreign to us, including terms that are may be unfamiliar or in a different language. Take, for example, "cosecha" (Spanish), "millésime" (French), "vendemmia" (Italian), and "jahrgang" (German). All of these words simply mean “vintage” in their respective languages. But what is a vintage and why is it important?


In the wine world, the term “vintage” relates to the harvest. Some parts of the world use this term to mean the physical process of harvesting grapes, but more importantly, a wine vintage is the actual year in which grapes were harvested, or picked. The vintage will show up on a label in the form of a single year.


Note: In the Northern hemisphere, this stated year is when the grapes were grown and harvested (roughly March through October, from bud break to harvest), while in the Southern hemisphere, the growing season begins in the previous year (September through the following April).


If a producer states a specific year on a label, all of the grapes, regardless of whether the wine is a blend or not, must be the product of that year’s harvest. One exception to this rule is "non-vintage" wines, or "NV," which consist of a blend of several vintages, often seen in the production of bulk and sparkling wine. A blend of vintages allows for consistent style from year to year. Vintage Champagne, for example, is only produced in very special years when conditions are ideal for grapes to ripen perfectly. Hint: If you find a bottle of vintage Champagne, it’s worth a try - these bottles are generally more expensive than NV Champagne but tend to be more complex and can age well.


So why is a vintage important?


Let’s say you buy a bottle of Chateau So-and-So from the 2014 vintage, and you loved it. The next year, you notice So-and-So has released their 2015 version made from the same grape, so you snag a bottle. But it’s not quite the same - it’s not as full, not as fruity, and maybe a little bit more tart. This difference is likely caused by vintage variation.


All wine regions have general climates or long-term weather patterns, but from year to year, there are slight differences in temperature, rainfall, and sunlight hours, among other things. Every grape, while suited to a certain climate, will be affected by these annual differences. A little extra heat in the growing season can mean the difference between a perfectly ripe grape versus one that is over or under-ripe. Those overripe grapes might result in a wine that isn’t quite as refreshing in its acidity, while under-ripe grapes give you a wine that is astringent, sour, or even “green” tasting. You get the picture.


Not all vintage variations are created equally. Marginal growing regions with already cool climates, like Champagne, tend to have a much more significant vintage variation. However, an important thing to keep in mind that there will always be variations in vintage and these weather patterns are just one factor of many that influence a wine - so vintage alone shouldn’t dissuade you from trying wines from a particular year.


Maybe the cool year in Bordeaux that wasn’t great for Cabs results in fantastic Sauvignon Blancs. Or a year where Napa reds were very tannic means those wines may age better than usual. Either way, you win!