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A Winemaker's Journal

Does vintage matter?

By Elias Fernandez

Let’s start with a quick quiz. On most bottles of wine you will find a vintage date that indicates what? (choose one)

a) The year you are supposed to drink the wine
b) The year the wine was bottled
c) The year the grapes were picked
d) The year the wine was released for consumption
e) The year the winemaker last got a date

The correct answer is … c. If you got the answer wrong, you’re in good company. In a 2005 survey of U.S. wine drinkers a whopping two out of three wine consumers could not correctly describe what is meant by the vintage date.

Why is it important to know the year the grapes were picked? Because it can make a difference in your glass, especially with wines that you’re going to cellar.

The date indicates the conditions in play when the wine was “born.” A good year typically offers the vines a warm spring and summer with no unexpected jolts of heat, cold, rain, frost, or hail.

Overall, European vineyards tend to experience more extremes from year to year than we do in California. But worldwide, winemakers have learned a great deal about mitigating poor conditions in the vineyard.

Vintage date matters most when a wine comes from a small appellation such as Cote de Nuits located within Burgundy, Montepulchiano within Chianti, or my own home turf, Stags Leap District, which covers just 1300 acres within Napa Valley.

As an example, here in Napa Valley 1998 was an El Nino year, meaning that we experienced a great deal more rain than usual. On Shafer’s hillside vineyards we had to prune away about half of our fruit, which was not maturing properly, so at harvest we only picked grapes that had achieved true ripeness.

Contrast that with 1999, which was a perfect vintage thanks to ideal conditions in spring and summer. The fruit we harvested was beautifully ripe with loads of color and flavor.

Recently I conducted a side-by-side tasting of our 1998 and 1999 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon and the influence of vintage became clear. The 1998 from our El Nino year is showing beautifully. It’s aromatic with deep rich color. But the ‘98 is less likely to last as long in the cellar as some of its siblings. In my notes I wrote “drink now to five years.”

The 1999 Hillside Select meanwhile is a youthful blockbuster with loads of jammy fruit. My notes say “drink now to 13 years.”

So let’s assume you’re busy and don’t have the time to memorize vintage conditions in every wine producing region of the world. How are you supposed to learn this stuff? Most wineries will be happy to supply vintage information – a quick call or email is all that’s required. Numerous wine-related books and websites also list such information. But if you really want to have fun, put together a vertical tasting of wines from your favorite winery. Take the time to find the same wine from at least three different vintages and taste your way through the years.