I’ve never been much of a student of history. I just can’t keep a lot of dates in my head. Or even recall why they matter at all. In my defense, I like to quote Einstein, who once declared, “I never memorize anything that I can look up.” He probably wasn’t referring to wine (perhaps it was someone else’s relativity theory?), but I think that his policy might apply. With wine, there’s so much to keep track of: grapes, regions, producer names, not to mention all those vintages, too. The latter may challenge even the best memories, as there are so many more places where wine is made now. It’s no longer a question of knowing what the year was like in Bordeaux and Burgundy, but also in Central Otago, Rueda and Calabria, as well. Or is it? Are there some places in the world where vintage just isn’t that big of a deal?
Vintage (the word is derived from vin, the French word for wine) is simply an indication that a wine was made in a particular year. More or less. The fact is, a vintage-dated wine made in either Europe or the U.S. may legally contain up to 15 percent of grapes from years other than the one on the label. And in some New World countries, that total may be as high as 25 percent. Perhaps these wines should be labeled plupart—the French word for most—instead?
- Lettie Teague’s Buying Guide: Wine Vintages To Remember
- Affordable Wines for Aging
- Bargain Bordeaux & Luxurious Dinners
- Tasting Room’s Best Bargains of 2007
What makes a vintage bad or good? Weather is key, not just at harvest but throughout the year. In a bad vintage, there may be excess rain, which could cause rot. There might be frost or even hail, which could destroy the vines, the canopies or the grapes themselves. (Hail happens so often in Mendoza, Argentina, that producers often cover their vineyards with nets.) Excess heat is also a problem, as it can result in wines that are too alcoholic or overripe.