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What Makes a Vintage Great?

October 18, 2023

Vintages are a lot like people: Some are hot, some are cold, and the occasional is a disaster, but they all have something to say. So, what constitutes what the press calls a “great” vintage? And why is it better than a different year, and not as good as another? The answer is complicated.

Climate is the single most important factor in every vintage. Was it unusually hot? Were there weather anomalies such as hail, or frost, or extended heat waves, or rain, or hail? Was there a gigantic fire nearby? A plague of locusts? A Taylor Swift sighting? Or was the weather moderate and mild throughout the growing season? What sort of weather makes the best wine?

Those are all valid questions. However, maybe it’s best to think about each vintage as a representative of that year’s climate and not in a contest to be a “great” vintage. Wine writers and wine publications like to rank vintages but there’s something off-putting about that. Ranking vintages, like scoring wines, is more about the denial of pleasure than it is about embracing it. As though one had to settle for a “mediocre” vintage when others are drinking wines from a “great” vintage. I’d rather have a wine made by a talented winemaker from a “lousy” vintage than I would a wine from a great vintage from a shabby vineyard. Talented winemakers know to embrace what the vintage has given them to produce something interesting and delicious and thought-provoking. I almost never look at vintage when I buy wine. I look for the great producers. Vintage almost never befuddles them.

One of the great joys in wine is to learn to recognize the differences between wines made in different types of growing seasons. In a very hot vintage in a normally warm place, you tend to get wines that have enormous appeal early on. I think of these wines as rather gracefully punching you in the face. They come at you and grab your attention. Many consumers prefer those wines. And those wines tend to get higher scores from the press. But they are not necessarily better than wines from a cool vintage.

In a cooler vintage, a vintage where temperatures are well below normal, you get wines that have higher acidity, that are lean and reserved. Yet those grapes in many cases were able to find more time in the sun because of the cool weather, which leads to more developed phenolic compounds in the skins, which can translate to more complexity down the road. They can be a little unyielding or even austere at first, but with time in the bottle they blossom and become long-lived cellar treasures.

Personally, I love wines that come from a cooler vintage in a normally hot place. As well as, of course, wines from a warm vintage grown in a normally cool vineyard. Vintage is what sets wine apart from the other alcohol delivery systems out there—beer, vodka, whiskey, sake, gin… All of the other alcohol delivery systems are formula driven. Wine is about place and climate and culture, and all the variables inherent in those. If you start worrying about “great” vintages when you’re buying wine, you’ve may be missing the point entirely.

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