Crafting a wine takes time.
It takes time for the farmer that initially plants vines to let those vines mature into grape-producing plants. Vines typically take three to four years before really producing on a sustainable level.
It takes time for the grapes to grow and be harvested, and the juice to be pressed (either next to or without the skins present), fermented, aged and bottled. That time is reflected in the final product that consumers pick from grocery store shelves every day — in the year printed on the bottle.
That year represents the vintage of a wine. More precisely, it represents the year in which the grape juice was harvested and the wine from that juice was made (vinted).
The vintage, then, at its core serves as a sort of wine clock. It marks the passage of time in the life of a wine for anyone interested in a certain product.
For some wines, vintage can be quite important. But for the majority of wine consumers, vintage means far less. In a world where the average bottle of wine lasts in a buyer's home for less than a week before being consumed, the vintage means little.
Vintage means more when wines have acquired some age. This is because the vintage year answers several questions about the wine:
– What were the weather conditions during the growing season?
– How was the vineyard managed that year?
– What was the state of the vines?
The answers to all of these questions, and many more, affect the quality and often the quantity of the grapes from which a wine is made. For instance, a hotter summer during prime growing season can produce smaller grapes that are higher in natural sugar content. Such fruit must be handled differently by a winemaker than grapes that are grown in a year where there is more precipitation, and thus larger, less concentrated grapes produced because the fruit has absorbed more water from the extra rain.
Vintage also reveals age. Certain varietals age better, or more gracefully, than others.
While there are exceptions, red varietals such as cabernet sauvignon or petite syrah will be more drinkable longer than many white varietals such as riesling or chardonnay. So for many wines, especially whites, a vintage that is older can be a warning to a consumer that there is a possibility the wine may have aged past its peak.
Of course, the key here is the person in control — the winemaker.
Ultimately, it is up to the winemaker and his or her staff to craft the wine that makes it into the bottle and onto the shelf in a given year.
In years when growing conditions are good in an area (there are vintage charts compiled by experts, broken down by growing regions across the globe), a good winemaker likely will make a great or even transcendent wine. Some vintages themselves, 1988 and 1989 for instance, produced terrific growing conditions nearly everywhere on earth. Those conditions led to virtually every winemaker being able to make good wines, no matter what their skill level in the art of winemaking.
An old saying states, "There are no bad wines, only bad winemakers." The idea behind that saying is simple. A good winemaker always will make a good wine, no matter the vintage. A bad winemaker may make a good wine in a vintage with great growing conditions for the grapes, because of the greatness of the fruit. But the quality of a poor winemaker's product will waver in difficult years that don't provide optimal conditions.
Only the vintage will tell.