The vintage of a wine – by which we mean the single year the grapes were picked – is an important influence on wine. Exactly how important is the subject of a little discussion, but it depends, in part, on where in the world you’re growing your grapes, the weather conditions there, and the extent to which the vintner’s expertise and tricks of the trade come into play.
If you’re growing your grapes in a northerly climate, such as Europe, then the weather is going to matter significantly more to you than for a producer in, say, Argentina, Australia or California. Their climate is more stable and invariably warmer, though not without its own challenges.
Weather clearly plays its part in how grapes grow – it could destroy a crop before it has even flowered – spring frosts are particularly common in the Chablis region of Burgundy (follow this link to see Elden’s great Chablis wines from this unique region), hence the smudge-pot warmers and the ice-jacket techniques the region is famous for. If the summer was particularly wet, then you risk fungus, and if too dry then a vine may actually stop growing until cooler weather appears. Then in the fall – supposedly the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness – excessive rain can swell grapes so much that they lose their flavor and even rot away.
But if the stars align and a fair wind blows, a good vintage can be the best thing to happen to a grape. A confluence of positive factors can produce some really collectable wines – not only do they ripen well, but they are able to age (and improve) for a very long time – meaning their rarity value, and their price, will increase. Good vintages with good weather have the potential to produce fruitier, refreshing, or full-bodied wines. It can imbue them with extra complexity and add years to their cellaring potential.
For those who don’t know where to begin with vintages, sellers who really know their producers, like Elden Selections, will be able to advise. They know where to look for the best bottles at the best prices, following wines vintage by vintage – and good vintage years are a great time to buy wine, because if the grapes are of a high quality, then less time, effort and cost needs to be spent on them in the cellar.
Of course, the vintner is not totally in the hands of nature, powerless to influence things at all. The expert wine producer has a range of tools available in his or her arsenal to compensate for when things go a little meteorologically awry. This might include using different types of yeast when fermenting, or adjusting alcohol or color levels. But a really great vintner will only ever adjust or enhance – never completely try to change a wine’s identity.
In the Bourgogne region, the wines are mainly single varietal. This “purity of expression” means that each plot gives each vintage its own personality and unique characteristics. Grape varieties grown in Bourgogne can be particularly susceptible to weather conditions – like Pinot Noir, for example, whose acidity can vary significantly according to vintage. In this part of the world, it’s sometimes said that ‘June makes the quantity, and September makes the quality’. Let’s take 2012, as a classic example of that. Locals commented that every month seemed to claim its own part of the crop – a frigid February; a spring-like March; then four months of showers until a scorching August, where the grapes were almost grilled on the vine. A still-hot September raised sugar levels considerably, but it ended coolly. The result? Wines of brilliant color, delicate aroma – and a lot of hard work for all involved.
So, to really get to know about vintages and how they can affect wines, do your reading about the vintage and weather conditions in recent years. You will probably come across vintage charts – matrixes with years and locations scored and ranked by the quality of the wine that year. Of course, these are broad-brush in nature and you may disagree, but isn’t that the fun of it? You could even make your own as you sample your favorite wines from recent years. In this way, you’ll get to know what your own preferences are for vintages and what to look out for.