Vintage Wines: Definition of Wine Vintage
The word, much abused, implies that the wine bears the date of the year in which it was made – and therefore when it was vintaged, or harvested. There are two reasons why this can be important. With wines that are at their best when they are drunk young and fresh, when their charm is at its peak, it is helpful to know how young they are; so that they are not kept beyond the time when they are at their most enjoyable – old wines of certain types decline and may be disappointing or downright unpleasant. With wines that are capable of achieving great quality if allowed to mature over a period of time, it is also important to know how old they are – and. therefore, how soon they may be ready for drinking.
In the ‘young and fresh’ category, one might put Muscadet, certain sorts of Beaujolais, and types of the finer German wines that do not possess additional qualifications suggesting that they may get much better with keeping. In the ‘When will they be ready to drink?’ category are the great red Burgundies, clarets and many other red wines, also the finest German wines, certain white Burgundies and vintage port.
With regard to wines capable of changing and improving in bottle over a period of time, the characteristics of their vintage years is of great interest to the drinker. A claret of one year, for example, may need 15 or more years even to be drinkable; although the wine of the preceding or succeeding year from the same property may be at its best within 5 or 7 years. This is the sort of thing where only experience and knowledge of the experience of others can guide. Also the taste of the drinker is personal. In many wine regions, the drinker who lives there will prefer to drink even the finer wines while they are young; in the U.K. The tradition tends to be for the finer wines to be allowed to reach their maturity slowly and not risk losing the additional enjoyment that they may give even at what may seem a great age.
A really silly use of the word ‘vintage’ is when people insist on ‘a vintage wine’. The term in itself implies that the wine so described is initially of quality and has the potential to get better – it cannot, therefore, be applied to the majority of the good wines that give immediate pleasure to the majority of drinkers. The bulk of Champagne and nearly all quality sparkling wines are non-vintage; most of the good ‘everyday’ wines are non-vintage. The sort of branded wines that can be bought anywhere in the world and assure the purchaser of a certain type of quality – and enjoyment – are non-vintage. Sherry, port (except for vintage port) and Madeira cannot be ‘vintage wines’ because of the way they are made; however high the proportion of old wines in them. Most vin rose, all vinho verde and Asti Spumante, and many commune wines are non-vintage. No possible advantage is achieved by putting a date on them, as they are not inteded to be put down for long-term maturation. They will be ready to be enjoyed from the moment they are offered for sale in the bottle.
With certain of the finer wines, the ‘off vintages’ can be very interesting. These are the wines of years which are not generally considered as exceptional, but in which some good wine can be made. The owners of estates with great names are chary of putting their estate labels on to wines that may disappoint drinkers or that fall short of their owners’ standards of quality. So, if an estate wine of a year not otherwise highly reputed is sold under its own name bearing the label of its estate, it will be well worth trying, because it may be a small-scale or lighter version of the wine as made in more favourable conditions. These are the wines to drink at lunchtime or as the first wines at a wine dinner. But everyone buying the wine of an unknown property or an estate without a reputation for quality, bearing a vintage date indicating that the wine must have been made in adverse conditions, is risking a possibly unsatisfactory experience. In an otherwise bad year, the conscientious owners will often declassify their wines or, if something has gone wrong that cannot be put quite right, put the wine into a house blend.
The ordinary drinker, whose knowledge is not equal to discriminating between what could be interesting in the off-vintages and what might be disappointing among the pretentious bottles, would be wiser to choose a non-vintage wine if in doubt. It is non-vintage wines that have introduced most people to wine drinking and form the bulk of the wine of the world.
Charts of assessment in terms of points or ‘good’, ‘medium’, ‘poor’ are frequently published by wine merchants and societies whose members are supposed to be interested in wine. The use of such charts, however, cannot be very helpful, simply because assessments in these terms have to be personal. Indeed, sometimes they are astonishingly chauvinistic, as when the winegrowers of one particular region mark every single year high. Even almost-disastrous vintages, or those yielding dreary unattractive wines, are given points indicating some quality, or the comment ‘fair’. It obviously depends on whether or not the compiler of the chart is selling wine! Also, whereas there will not be any ‘great’ wines made in a medium type of vintage. There can be indifferent wines made even in a vintage reputed as ‘great’. Depending on the winemaker. Conversely, in some indifferent years, certain wines of moderate to superior quality may be found. With the improvements in winemaking, it is possible to make pleasant drinkable wines in years that formerly would have been disastrous: the great wines, capable of long-term maturation, are the rarities and few people would need a vintage chart before ordering such wines, which should be for special occasions anyway. The interested drinker can easily make a little time to learn about vintages of such wines where the date is of supreme importance – port, fine claret, red and white Burgundy and the greater German wines.