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What does ‘vintage’ mean? – Ask Decanter

Although it can cause confusion, the meaning of the term 'vintage' is actually very simple. A wine's vintage simply tells you which year the grapes were picked.

The word vintage refers to the year in which the grapes were harvested. This year is displayed on the label of the wine.

Still wines

Most still wines come from a single vintage, meaning the wine inside the bottle was made using fruit harvested in that given year. In some cases, still wines might be made using a blend of different vintages, and these tend to be cheaper, mass-produced or branded wines.

That being said, high quality multi-vintage blends do exist within the still wine sphere. Take Penfolds Grange’s G3, for example, Vega Sicilia’s Unico Reserva Especial, or Opus One’s Overture.

Fortified and sparkling wines

Conversely to still wines, most fortified and sparkling wines tend to be a blend of wines from different years’ harvests. This is called non-vintage. For these particular styles of wine, the aim is to create a consistent house style, particularly important in Champagne. In Sherry production, the solera system uses fractional blending of many vintages to develop complexity in the wine, as well as ensuring consistency.

Vintage Champagne and vintage Port are the exceptions here – in some years, where the vintage has been particularly good, Champagne and Port producers may decide to declare a vintage. In this instance they won’t blend multiple vintages, instead bottling a wine from a single vintage and labelling it as such.

In both cases, it is down to the producer to decide whether a year is sufficiently good to produce a wine from a single year’s harvest. The conditions have to be just right to produce grapes of a sufficiently high quality to make vintage Champagne – this generally means that there are only about four or five such vintages in a decade.

Vintage variation: what affects the quality of a vintage?

How can one vintage differ from the next? The answer lies largely in the weather during the vines’ growing season. When a wine’s aromas, flavours and overall quality change from one year to the next, this is called vintage variation.

The weather in any particular wine-growing region can vary each year. On top of this, different grape varieties respond to different climatic conditions in their own particular way. For example Syrah/Shiraz responds well to dry, sunny conditions, which is why it grows well in South Australia’s hot and dry Barossa Valley. On the other hand, Sauvignon Blanc responds well to cooler, damper conditions, which is why it thrives in the Loire Valley and New Zealand’s South Island.

Mother Nature is both friend and foe to a winemaker. The weather during the growing season and at harvest time has a big impact on the quality and size of the harvest produced.

Poorly timed spring frost can cause reduced yield later in the season. Whilst too much rain just before harvest can cause grapes to swell, due to the vine’s increased water uptake. This has a risk of diluting the resulting wine, or even causing grapes to burst on the vine, leaving them at risk of disease before they’ve even been picked.

Climate change is having an impact on weather patterns across the globe, which directly affects grape growing and harvesting. Severe drought and extreme flooding can destroy an entire harvest. Whilst in the last couple of years the wine world has witnessed hauntingly devastating wildfires blaze through vineyards and wineries. And if the fire hasn’t absorbed the vines, then the smoke can still affect the grapes and the resulting wines.

Mitigating the effects of a bad vintage

These bad vintages are arguably the true test of a good producer, for it is their knowledge and experience, through manipulation of the vinification process and skillful blending, that extracts the best possible performance from the grapes. It is said that a great winemaker can create a good wine from poor grapes; but a mediocre winemaker will only ever make an average wine, even if they achieve a harvest of perfect grapes.

A winemaker might adjust the date of harvest to compensate for adverse weather conditions.

The elements test even the most superior of winemakers. The El Niño cycle, whose effect is particularly strong in Australia, results in unpredictable weather patterns, with attendant complications for the area’s wine producers.

One shot

Unlike beer or whisky production, where multiple batches can be made at any time throughout the year, a winemaker has only one harvest and thus one opportunity to make their wine, and their living, for that year.

Related content:

How common are multi-vintage blends?

What makes a good Bordeaux vintage?

What is a vertical tasting?

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