The year in which the grapes were harvested is called the wine vintage. The wine’s vintage can significantly affect the taste and quality, predominantly because of the weather that the vines are exposed to throughout the growing season.
- In the Northern Hemisphere the grape growing season is from about April to October.
- In the Southern Hemisphere (South Africa, New Zealand, etc) the growing season is from October to April (and vintage-dated with the later year).
Wines without a vintage date: Non-vintage wine is made by blending numerous years together. Non-vintage wines are known for their reliable, house style and are usually a good value. For example, a common non-vintage wine is Champagne labeled simply as “N.V.”
What Defines a Good or a Bad Vintage?
If vintage just reflects a region’s weather configurations in a given year, then what makes a vintage good or bad? Essentially, the defining feature of a vintage is sunshine. Sunny days give grapes the best chance of reaching full maturity and prime ripeness levels. If a region receives too much rain and clouds, grapes do not fully ripen, may be more prone to rot and disease, and tend to deliver lower quality grapes. Conversely, if the region is too hot (33 ºC) and sunny, then grapes become raisinated before they fully ripen and the resulting wines may be floppy or have bitter tannins.
How Weather Affects a Vintage
You can figure out if a vintage was good or bad yourself by identifying key features about the weather in a vintage.
- Spring: Spring frosts are common in semi-continental climates and destroy crops before they even flower. Hail storms can break off flowers and buds, reducing the vintage’s size sometimes by 100%. These features do not necessarily reduce quality unless they greatly reduce the length of the growing season.
- Summer: Wet weather during the summer causes fungal diseases which will ruin grapes. Conversely, drought and extremely hot weather causes the vines to pause their growth until cooler weather returns. These structures can reduce quality in the grapes.
- Fall: Rain at harvest swells grapes, causing them to lose concentration or rot. Cold weather slows grapes from ripening. Harvest time foul weather can greatly reduce the quality of a vintage.
Different types of grapes prefer different types of climates. For example, Riesling grows well in sunny areas with cool nights. Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other hand, needs a dry, hot and sunny climate to properly mature.
When Vintage Matters More
- When Collecting Wines: When collectors buy wines, vintage matters. Good vintages produce grapes that are well-ripened, carry considerable tannin and acidity (both function as a preservative).
Last Word: Expert Weigh In
Considerable debate swirls as to who exerts more influence over a given bottle of wine. Is it the vintage or the vintner? In days gone by, wines were at the ruthless mercy of Mother Nature. However, in today’s tech-driven cellars the winemaker has plenty of trendy tools available to combat and compensate for less than stellar weather cycles. From introducing specific strains of yeast to shake up aromatics or sculpt palate texture, to utilizing reverse osmosis to tame elevated alcohol levels and additives that adjust color components, the winemaker’s tool belt is brimming with tips and tricks.
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