What Makes a Great Vintage for Wine?
I was teaching a wine basics class last night and one of the topics that came up was vintage years for wine, and what makes one so much better than the other? I thought it would be a great topic for the blog as well and decided to recap my answer here. The first thing that needs to be understood when it comes to vintage – or years – is that grapes are an agricultural product which are farmed just like anything else we eat…tomatoes, oranges, etc. There are certain conditions and locations that promote the growth and ripening of grapes . Assuming that a winery has already chosen an appropriate site with soil and climate conditions that are ideal for the type of grape that is planted (a whole other topic), the main factor that affects vintage is weather.
Grapes are picky. They want (in general) the weather conditions we all wish for. Moderate winters, and summers full of warm, sunny days and cool nights with some rain but nothing overwhelming. In a perfect vintage, this is what happens. It may be easier to explain what vintners don’t want to happen rather than the ideal conditions (where none of these things would happen).
Frost/Severe Weather in the Spring: Bud break usually occurs in April/May (for northern hemisphere vineyards), if prior to that the area has frost or some kind of severe weather on the cold side, bud break can be hindered resulting in a reduced crop.
Severe Weather during Flowering: Early in June, the buds typically begin to flower which will in turn start the production of berries. Any severe weather – hail, strong thunderstorms and wind, chilling temperatures – at this stage can be incredibly devastating to a vineyard. The result will be berries that fail to develop or grapes that are uneven in size making ripening and harvesting more difficult.
Summer: This is the longest and most crucial part of grape development. The grapes need the right amount of sunshine/rain to properly ripen. In a drought, grapes will not ripen. Too much rain, same thing. The warm summer days keep the ripening process moving during the day while the cool nighttime temperatures prevent an early harvest.
Harvest: At harvest, rain is the biggest potential destroyer of a crop. If the area receives too much rain, the grapes are engorged with water and will develop watery flavors.
In general, the best vintages had perfect weather. If you are a wine enthusiast planning on starting a collection of premium wines, pay close attention to vintage. Erobertparker.com is a great resource and contains a vintage chart and ratings for just about every available vintage and region. Just buying wine to drink? Trust your local wine professional to sell you a decent vintage. Most vintages are good (in ratings about 80 – 90) and the wineries produce good wine. Professionals will be well aware of great vintages and most often point them out (over 90 points). Terrible vintages? You shouldn’t event be able to find them in our stores!