Posted on March 16 2017
Age appears to be best in four things; old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read. - Francis Bacon
The front of a wine label can give you lots of clues as to the character and type of wine that you will find inside the bottle. Some pieces of information, however, are more easy to interpret than others.
If the label gives you the grape name - Cabernet Sauvignon, say, or Chardonnay - then you may know what colour it is, what temperature to serve it at, what food to have with it and roughly how it may taste. The name of the country/region/village/vineyard can also give you some information - Spain is likely to produce more rich and alcoholic wines than Germany, for example, as it is warmer.
Amongst all of the clues, the Vintage year is perhaps the hardest to interpret without gaining more knowledge from an outside source.
Why is that though? Isn't wine the same from year to year if it came from the same place?
Well, no, fortunately it isn't!
Let me clarify. In mass-produced industrially made wines the vintage year may have less of an impact. People want to drink the wine they like and know, and they don't want it to be variable. So, the wine may be manipulated at source - by adding acid or sugar, for example - in order for it to be identical whenever you buy it. I like to think of these as Coca-Cola wines.
Most wine, however, is allowed to show its 'vintage variation'. That is, it is produced in order to be an expression of what happened in that particular year.
When you buy a 2012 wine, for example, this is a wine made from grapes harvested (in the northern hemisphere) at some point between late August and early November in 2012 itself. The grapes are then processed and turned into wine ('how' is a topic for another article!) which is released at some point from the February (most often, as the wine is aged and rested for a while) of the year after, so 2013 in this case.
More complex and fine wines may not be released for a few years after they are made, so that they can age and rest in oak barrels.
Bordeaux wines, for example, are generally released 2 or more years after they are made. This gives them time to age in barrels, gaining either oak flavours (if new barrels) or being allowed to integrate well - ie, allowing the tannins, acid and flavours to become more harmonious.
This is perhaps more important in an area such as Bordeaux, which has a wonderful but sometimes difficult vintage variation. From year to year temperatures and rainfall vary drastically, producing potentially dilute and 'green' wines one year or well ripened and fruity the next.
This is dealt with in Champagne by producing NV, or non-vintage, wines. Champagne is a very cool region, and in some years it is very difficult to produce an acceptable wine. So, by saving some of the wine each year and blending a few vintages together you can help a horrid vintage by mixing in some of a good one. Voila! It is also very useful in making a house blend and an interesting wine. Some Champagnes are a blend of 200 different wines from different vintages, grapes and vineyards.
Vintages to really look out for:
Bordeaux (red): 1961, 1982, 1989, 1990, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2015.
Burgundy (red): 1985, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1995, 1999*, 2002, 2005, 2009, 2010
Burgundy (White): 1985, 1989, 1992, 1999, 2002, 2005, 2009, 2012, 2014
Champagne: 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006,