Vintages – Do they really matter?

Yesterday we discussed the importance of flavor profiles for wine. Today we look at vintages.

Typically when we speak of vintages we are referring to a wine containing grapes that were all grown within the same year. This information tells us a lot more than just the age of the juice. So many factors enter into how the grapes ripen which in turn then effects what ends up in your glass. In many ways a vintage wine is a snapshot of the weather for that year’s growing season.

There is an old adage that great wine begins in the vineyard, and as is often the case with old adages, it is the truth. And what happens in the vineyard is as much dependent on the whims of Mother Nature as it is on the grower’s skills. Great wines require that the vines struggle to stay alive. The stress causes the vines to send everything that the soil and the weather can deliver to the grapes in an effort propagate new vines and hopefully survive. There is much that viticulture can provide, but without cooperation from the weather the grower’s skills can go for naught.

A great way to see this in practice is to compare the same wine from two different years. Do a little research on how the vintage of the two wines are rated and then taste them side by side. Depending on the wine and the disparity between the rankings there should be a very discernible difference in how they taste. Not only is this instructive, it is also a great excuse to have an extra glass in the name of science.

So, how does any of this help us as consumers of wine? Besides the obvious reason that most people consider, that it helps us avoid wines from a certain region in bad years, I can think of two much better reasons. The first being that it often will drop the price of an exceptionally good producer’s wine. While would you want to try an inferior wine? Because it is probably superior to what you would normally drink at the same price point. This is not a case of buying a Rolex watch that doesn’t work, it is more like getting a sports car that has a top speed of 100, but that usually goes up to 130 or more. If that sports car costs significantly less, that would be a pretty good bargain, wouldn’t it? Applying that principal to wine means that a lesser vintage can allow you to taste something that would normally be out of your price range. The style and flavor profiles should remain the same as in a good year, just not quite as good.

The other big reason for paying attention to vintages is that sometimes a good wine can take that leap into greatness when it has just the right year. A perfect example is Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel. This is a staple wine in our household. It is a reliably good wine, oftentimes very good, that is widely available and very affordable. Year after year you can grab a bottle of this off the shelf and be assured that it will not disappoint. However, the 2007 vintage is something remarkable.

In fact, it was remarkable enough that Wine Spectator gave it 93 points and made it the number ten wine on its Top 100 Wines of 2008 list. The other wines in the Top 100, as is typical, are much more expensive and are very difficult to obtain due to limited production. Due to the ranking it is becoming more difficult to find, but with a little searching it can still be found as Seghesio produced a whopping 68,000 cases. It is well worth the effort to hunt some down. We’re hoarding as much as we can at my house.

The 2007 Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel is an almost perfectly balanced example of everything that a California Zin should be. Huge mouthfuls of berry flavor coupled with brown sugar and baking spices and just enough tannin to give it a very long, delicious finish make this wine an incredible treat. It lists for $24, but we have found it for as low as $17. The other wines in the Top Ten have an average price of about $75.

All of which demonstrates how important vintage can be when selecting wines. It may not always be the most important factor when selecting wines, but having some knowledge of what vintages were good from a given region can provide great benefits.

There are a lot of vintage charts to be found, many of them for free on-line. They come in a lot of different formats. Here are just a few of the easier to use ones that I sometimes consult:

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