Small things that matter: vintage

 vintageThe idea of vintage may be one of the small things that discourage people from getting into good wine. I can’t think of any other beverage in which the year of harvest matters, and let’s face it: The idea of wine snobs sniffily examining labels and declaring, “1948 was a very good year” is enough to put most people off their feed.

Vintage, simply, is the year in which the grapes that made the wine were harvested. Okayfine, you may say, but so what? We don’t put vintage dates on the label of Coca-Cola or iced tea. But there are (at least) two good reasons why wine is different.

First, some wines are meant to be aged, and a visible sign of the wine’s birth year is useful for the cellar master. Turn that idea upside down, and for the 99 percent of wines that don’t merit aging, the vintage can serve as a hint to the wine’s “best by” date, a warning against picking up that dusty old jug of 10-year-old Beaujolais Nouveau on the back of a bottom shelf.

Second and perhaps more important, though, the combination of vintage and location information sets a wine in place and time. As an agricultural product, the grapes that make the wine can vary significantly – for better, for worse, or just for different – depending on the weather that prevailed during the summer at the place where the grapes grew. Long, warm days, cool nights, no fruit-smashing hailstorms and no rains near harvest? Those good things may yield grapes that make an extraordinary wine.

So, 2006 was a fine year in Tuscany? Mark it down, and make a note to buy the wine. In Bordeaux, 2005 was a year to mark down; 2004, not so much. The wine snobs in New Yorker cartoons memorize those years, but if you don’t buy a lot of wine, it doesn’t hurt to have a current, inexpensive guide like Hugh Johnson’s 2013 Pocket Wine Book around so you can look it up. Or for a broad, basic overview, visit the quick-and-simple vintage pages on the Website of London wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd.

Does vintage matter only for pricey, “investment-grade” wines? Not if your wine-geek instincts inspire you to pay attention to what’s in your glass. I recently had occasion to construct a mini-vintage check of Gabbiano Chianti, a modest ($ 10 or less) Chianti from a large producer whose medieval-knight label is found in restaurants and wine shops all over. Buying a few bottles for a tasting class, I inadvertently got a just-arrived 2011 mixed in with a batch of 2010s. Instant “vertical tasting.!

To my interest, while both wines were good, I found distinct differences between them. Both vintages are about equally rated, but I found the 2011 significantly more enjoyable. It was fruity, fresh and rounded, full of the ripe black-cherry and black-plum fruit that’s characteristic of Chianti’s Sangiovese grape, laced up with the crisp, fresh-fruit acidity that makes Chianti such an exceptional food wine. The 2010 vintage seemed a little more lean and mean, tart fruit and more perceptible tannic astringency. Has the prior vintage of this drink-me-now wine already started to fade just a little? It’s hard to say. Tasted alone without a comparison wine in the other glass, I’m sure I would have rated it fine. But vintage does make a difference.

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