Wine 101: Vintage

2008 is a great vintage in the Willamette Valley

2008 is a great vintage in the Willamette Valley

One question I love to ask wine drinkers is: "What is 'vintage'?" Some people respond with "old," or the year the wine was bottled, or the year the grapes were picked. In this Wine 101 post, I'll explain the importance of vintage talk about how winemakers can create good wine in almost any year.

The debate in the wine community about vintage is always controversial, to say the least. Wine reviewers and connoisseurs swear by it, while many in the retail wine industry promote only great vintages. Some restaurants don't even add the vintages of wines on their lists. I asked several wine buyers: How do you decide what wines to buy? Their answers varied and included price, producer, wine scores, a fun label, and grape variety, but no one mentioned vintage.

So what is vintage?

The technical definition of vintage is the year the grapes were harvested. Most wine bottles at your local wine shop will feature the vintage year on the front of the bottle. For example, grapes harvested in Napa Valley in 2005 will have the 2005 vintage on the bottle. Why is the year important? Simply put, would you rather eat corn grown in a season with the right amount of heat, sunlight, and water or an ear that saw extreme drought?

How important Is a wine's vintage?

Ruwer Valley in Germany's Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region

Ruwer Valley in Germany's Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region

The year a wine's grapes were harvested is important but not as critical as two decades ago. It's important first because the vintage gives the wine buyer information about that year's crop. If the season had average rainfall, sunny days, little wind, and no frost, chances are high that the wine will be stellar compared to a year that saw too much rain and severe frost early in the spring. Napa Valley in 2000 and Chateauneuf du Pape in 2002 produced thin wines that lack concentration due to a poor vintage.

Around the world in 2005, Bordeaux, Napa Valley, Burgundy, the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, and Barossa Valley were blessed with perfect growing seasons and made wines to be cellared for decades. The winemakers were able to pick at will and had to do less work in the vineyards throughout the summer. Two wines from this stellar vintage are my early favorites for wine of the year: the 2005 Waterstone Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2005 Chateau de Sales Pomerol (Bordeaux Blend), which I scored 92 and 94 respectively and purchased for under $30.

Vintage may be somewhat less important than it used to be because winemakers today have the advantage of technology and improved winemaking techniques. If it is raining too much during the growing periods the winemaker can cut clusters of grapes (pruning) from the plant, which will allow the remaining clusters to make a more concentrated wine. Also, wind machines have been used to dry grapes and prevent frost from occurring. Jim Anderson, co-owner of Patricia Green Cellars in Oregon, was able to make some nice pinot noir wines in 2007 even though rains came at the worst time--harvest time. They farmed only 62 percent of the crop, waited for the rains to stop to pick the vast majority of the fruit, and sorted the grape clusters, putting the best in their higher-end wines. By waiting out the rains in 2007, other producers such as Bergstrom, St. Innocent, and Argyle made some nice wines that will be designed to drink well now instead of cellar for years.

Here are a few tasting notes on two similar wines from Willamette Valley. Though both are pinot noirs produced from the same region and vintage, and both cost about the same, the results were very different:

2007 Patricia Green Cellars Reserve Pinot Noir, $18 A beautiful nose featuring cranberries, chalk, strawberries, and smoke. Complex on the palate and a solid medium finish. 90 points

2007 Stangeland Oregon Pinot Noir, $15 Light purple. The nose shows strawberry and earth. The palate is a bit thin and too bitter. Shorter finish than the '06 version. 83 points

One region that is on a hot streak for recent vintages is the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer in Germany. Since 2001 they have had a string of outstanding vintages. With warmer weather than the '90s, they have been able to make riper wines with more interesting characteristics. A crowd favorite from the 2008 vintage for under $15 is:

2008 St. Urbans Hof Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Riesling Beautiful on the nose with apricots, lemons, and minerals. On the palate it has a nice balance of sweet and sour tastes. Medium finish and really refreshing. 90 points

All winemakers will tell you that Mother Nature is the ultimate factor in making great wines, and when the weather is ideal your chances of sampling a great wine is pretty good.

For more information on great vintages, visit my website.


John Glas