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Wine Advice that Nobody Asked For: ‘Twas a Good Vintage… ‘Twasn’t it?

Four little numbers. Four little numbers that tell us what year the grapes were harvested for the bottle of wine that you might be considering now. Those four little numbers on most bottles of wine can mean very little in the grand scheme of things, but sometimes they’re the difference between tens, hundreds, or thousands of dollars per bottle. When does it matter to you? That’s the question.

When one talks about a vintage wine, it is not testament to quality, but simply the fact that all (or enough of) the fruit harvested came from one year. For American wine labeling purposes depending where the wine comes from, 85% to 95% of the juice in the bottle must come from the stated vintage with an allowance for the rest of the blend coming from another declared year’s harvest. A winery striving for consistency may keep a multi year “reserve wine” on hand to blend into every vintage. This protects against slim harvests and makes it easier to create a consistent product from year to year, and this is the way that most non-vintage (NV) Champagne is produced. Whether or not that’s a good thing is a larger philosophical question.

There’s no doubt about it that weather is different year to year, creating different conditions for the grapes that are growing. Though one of the benefits of climate change is that regions at northerly locations in France or Germany, for example, have an easier time growing ripe grapes. Of course different growing regions have different challenges, and the tastes of wines do change from year to year, but I’m of the philosophy that you should find a producer that you like and follow them year in year out to see how their wine changes.

I believe that a quality minded producer will make sound wine in difficult years. A common problem in recent years for a number of famous regions was quality of the grapes, but quantity of the yields. Good grapes, just not much of them to be had.

Sometimes when we have two vintages of the same wine on the shelf I’m posed the question of which one should be chosen. I usually have an opinion, but I would say that if it’s in the budget, get both and have a really interesting side by side mini vertical wine tasting (a vertical is where you taste the same wine from multiple vintages).

Now, I don’t want it to come across that I’m completely cavalier about the subject of vintage importance though. If you’re considering wine for long term aging or investment to resell at some point, then certainly do your homework. There is gustatory enjoyment and money to be made here. To drive this point home, a quick search online shows a 2009 Chateau Latour going for around $1850 dollars, while a 2013 goes for a mere $730 or so. Per bottle.

One day a fellow who I had never met before, and haven’t seen since, came seeking Amarone, a full bodied Italian wine of some reputation. I took him back to the Wine Cave and showed him some of the options that I was rather impressed by and he said, “Oh, 2016, huh, bad year right? The grapes were bad or something. Nevermind.” I’m not sure if he wound up purchasing anything.

The blanket statement came with such little nuance that I was too taken aback to suggest that while 2016 was difficult for Campania and Abruzzo, in Piedmont and Tuscany it was an outstanding vintage. Meanwhile in the Veneto there was a mixed bag of lower yields in some places, but grape bunches that fostered the production of Amarone with low risk for fungal infection. Some Amarone producers thought it was a fabulous vintage.

I’d be hard pressed to say that the grapes were “bad or something” for Amarone production in 2016, but a little information can be a dangerous thing. And clearly the question of whether or not it was a “good vintage” is nuanced by region, vineyard, and in some cases even by producer.

I think that it’s certainly worth learning about vintage conditions for different wine regions to enrich your wine drinking experience and knowledge, but not to the point of pedantry and losing the opportunity to try what could be a wholly satisfying bottle of wine.

-Joe Buchter, Import Wine Buyer

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