The other night, I taught a class on vintages, and if they really matter anymore. The evening turned out to be quite interesting, particularly with the wines we tasted, so it seemed worth sharing.
Vintage is, quite simply, the year the grapes in the bottle were harvested and made into wine. (Though in most of the world, regulations require only 85% of a wine to be from the stated vintage, though that number can be as low as 75% and as high as 95%, with the balance coming from other years.)
For most wines, vintage is a way to determine a wine’s age. For others – such as Port and Champagne – vintage is a signal of quality, as these they are declared only in the best years.
Overall, though, vintage matters much less than it used to.
For one, advances in winemaking technology and ever more sophisticated techniques in the vineyard give growers exceptional control over the winemaking process from start to finish.
In addition, for new world producers (which are often regions that burst onto the wine scene in the past fifty years or so, from California to Chile), vintages tend to be much more uniform than the often-marginal climates of the old world (areas like Burgundy and Bordeaux.)
And although collectors and oenophiles will often pay a premium price for an excellent vintage of an age-worthy wine, they may not fully appreciate what’s in the bottle.
You see, an experiment by Dr. Roman Weil, co-chairman of the Oenonomy Society of the US and Professor at the University of Chicago, demonstrated that most people – professionals or casual sippers – can’t tell a good vintage from a bad one.
Bordeaux was the sole exception; most tasters properly identified the “better” wine from this region.
The kicker is, of those who identified the wine from the better vintage, only 55% preferred this wine to the one from the “lesser” year.
It was with that ominous fact in mind that we started our tasting.
The six wines broke down into cabernet from 2009 and merlot from 2011, with three different regions represented for each wine. This was the lineup:
Stella Merlot 2011, Veneto, Italy: This normally cool region saw a hot, dry vintage with lower than normal yields. The wine came across like a cabernet, with surprising tannins but classic merlot flavor. This was a favorite.
TerraNoble Classic Merlot 2011, Maule Valley, Chile: Another good vintage despite the circumstances. It was a long growing season, which actually was good for the merlot grapes, giving them time to ripen. This was the least favorite of all six wines, though, as one participant noted, “I wouldn’t kick it out of bed.”
Bogle Merlot 2011, California: This was the surprise of the trio, and everyone in the class enjoyed this wine. Fruit was sourced from three regions, all of which were cooler than normal. The grapes don’t seem to have suffered, given everyone’s oohs and aahs over the wine.
Tenuta Sant’Antonio Terre Meloiti Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Veneto, Italy: This was a hot year, though these hillside vines were spared the brunt of the temperatures. It was a solid vintage, reflected in the wine.
TerraNoble Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Chile: Made with fruit from the Colchagua and Maule Valleys, the grapes in this wine seemingly weren’t impacted by the drought conditions experienced in the vineyards. Another respectable wine.
Ladera Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley, California: For the class, this was the favorite of the three cabernets. It was a fairly easy growing season, reflected in the easy flavors and unusually low tannins in the wine.
As Dr. Weil’s study predicted, the challenges winemakers faced – at least in these six cases – didn’t seem to impact the final outcome. I’ve been paying attention to this in other classes as well, and wines from “bad” vintages have frequently been preferred to wines from “excellent” ones.
So the bottom line is, as with a lot of things wine, conventional wisdom isn’t always the best. Worry less and drink more! (Responsibly, of course!)