What is Vintage Variation and Why Does it Matter?
Vintage variation is a term used to describe the differences in wine from one year to the next. It is a natural occurrence that affects certain types of wine and growing regions more than others. The impact of vintage variation on the taste, price, and longevity of wine makes it an important consideration for wine enthusiasts.
Understanding Vintage Variation and Its Effects on Wine
One of the reasons people seek out superior vintages is to enjoy wine as closely to the winemaker's intended taste as possible. Different weather patterns from year to year can significantly alter the flavour and aroma of a wine, which can be both positive and negative.
The price of a good vintage wine is often reflective of its quality. In general, superior vintages can command a higher price than their counterparts. However, there are occasions where excellent wines can be found in what is perceived to be a poor vintage and can be purchased for a bargain.
Small changes in weather patterns from one year to the next can have a significant impact on the aging process of wine. For example, hotter summers can produce sweeter grapes that can help a wine age longer.
Factors that Influence Vintage Variation
Wine is essentially an agricultural crop, and as such, it is susceptible to climate variations that can directly affect the quality and volume of the crop. Even small changes in weather at the wrong time can have a dramatic impact on the crop for that year.
The ideal scenario for a good vintage is above-average temperatures and sunshine, and dry weather. The potential crop size is determined at the time of flowering, which typically occurs in May. If wild weather occurs during this time, it can significantly reduce the volume of the crop, which can, in turn, affect the price.
High summer, which occurs in July and August, is not especially important, although growers in some areas will take measures to avoid devastating hail (Burgundy) or work hard to ward off fungal attacks if warmer conditions are accompanied by excess humidity. An 'Indian Summer' in the month before picking is desirable to aid in ripening and keep disease at bay.
On the other hand, bad years tend to be characterized by cold and wet weather. Rain before harvest can be disastrous, as it can bloat and split ripe berries, allowing fungal attack to take hold. Even if the grapes do not rupture, the diluted juice can lead to a less flavorful wine.
The Role of Winemaking Techniques in Reducing Vintage Variation
Advances in winemaking techniques have made significant variations in vintage less common. For example, if drought has over-ripened grapes, reverse osmosis can be used to reduce the high alcohol content. Similarly, if windy conditions during flowering have led to uneven flowering and ripening, an optical sorter can be used to weed out and destroy subpar grapes.
Vintage Charts and Guides
Vintage charts and guides are available for many wine regions and can be helpful in providing an indication of which vintages are considered great, average, or poor. However, it is important to remember that vintages are never uniformly great, average, or poor. Even within a small appellation, some producers will have fared better or worse than others in any given year.
The Bottom Line: Good Producers Make Good Wine Every Year
While vintage variation is an important consideration for wine enthusiasts, it is worth remembering that good producers tend to make good wine every year. Moreover, mass-market wines, which are typically blended from across vast regions to maintain consistency, are often 'corrected' in the winery to smooth out any bumps that remain. Nonetheless, for wine lovers who appreciate the unique characteristics of a particular vintage, understanding the impact of vintage variation on wine is essential.