Wine Ageing: does the year really matter?
As many people know, wine has become an institution when it comes to France. Wine is highly respected and appreciated. However, drinking wine has its own rules and requires a bit of knowledge to understand the beverage's sophistication fully. French people will emphasize that drinking wine requires way more understanding than drinking beer, so much that there is almost an intellectual aspect. Rest assured, at Best of France; we will give you all the tips and tricks that make anyone a wine connoisseur.
When it comes to wine, one might think of whether to pick a red or a white one, the region it is from or even the price. Here we will look at a different aspect of wine tasting: vintage. Or in other words, does the year written down on the bottle of wine matter and should it guide us when picking a bottle of wine at the liquor store?
What is a vintage wine?
Vintage comes from the French word "vendange" and the Latin word "Vinum," which means to harvest the grapes of the wine. Therefore, vintage refers to the year the grapes were harvested to make the wine then. The year that one can find on a wine bottle reveals that the wine was made with grapes grown and harvested this particular year. As a result, when buying a 2012 Bordeaux red wine, one knows that the grapes were ripened and plucked this same year.
One might wonder, why does it matter? Why would I care if the grapes were grown and harvested in 2012, 2018 or 2020?
The answer is nuanced: it could matter in the same way that it could be completely irrelevant. Let us find out why!
How Does Ageing Affect Vintages?
But first, we could wonder how does ageing affects vintages? Why would a 10-year-old wine taste differently than one made in the past year?
Vintage wines go through chemical reactions until the bottle is opened and decanted. Those reactions are a result of ongoing interactions between the wine's alcohol, sugar and acid compounds. Skilled winemakers understand this chemical process and even manipulate the ageing process through the cellar environment to encourage certain flavours, aroma nuances etc. Winemaking is indeed a matter of science and an essential portion of talent.
How does the taste evolve over the years?
How does the mouthfeel of wine change as wine ages?
First of all, the aroma does not entirely change. The wine's signature flavour is preserved regardless of the vintage timeline. For instance, a Gewurztraminer will keep its apricot flavour while a cabernet sauvignon will remain peppery in its tasting.
But then, what will evolve over the years are the secondary and tertiary flavours. While ageing white wine such as Chardonnay will tend to become oilier, heavier and stickier over time, on the other hand, red vintages will more likely soften over time and offer a more gentle tasting experience.
How does the colour evolve over time?
Colour is the final aspect of wine that changes over time. To tell if a red vintage has been properly aged, one needs to look at its rim or the outer edge where the wine pour meets the glass. Rims that are lighter indicate an aged red wine, whereas a murky or opaque rim signals a younger bottle. Besides, as red wine oxidizes with age, their colours go from deep shades of purple to softened mauves and deep browns with more ageing.
Young white wines tend to be paler and turn more golden with time passing.
The changes of colours are due to the wine's oxidation, which remains very little, thanks to the sealing process of the traditional cork, whose goal is to limit the penetration of oxygen within the bottle.
Does it always matter?
A wine vintage illustrates the conditions in which the grapes were grown this given year. Each year is different since it bears different weather and climate.
Vintage matters more in regions with the most variable climate. For instance, in Europe's northern growing regions, including France, Germany and Northern Italy. These countries have intermediate climates and, therefore, pretty unpredictable climates, making the wine quality vary from year to year depending on the meteorological context.
Good vintage depends on two factors: Growing Season Conditions and Sunshine.
Growing Season Conditions
A good vintage reflects a successful growing season where the weather allowed to produce abundant, flavoury and healthy grapes. In the northern hemispheres, the grape growing season goes from April to late October. Therefore, Spring, Summer and Fall are crucial for good grapes to grow. For instance, if fall happens to be cooler than usual, the risks are that the grapes get frozen before the winemaker has the time to harvest them. Some bad years have been due to drought, flooding or just unusual meteorological conditions.
Sunshine matters as well considerably. Indeed, too little sunshine or too much precipitation slows grape maturity and causes imbalanced aromas, vine rot, or even favour diseases.
However, a good amount of sunshine will ensure that the wine's signature flavour is respected and that the balance between acidity, tannin, and sweetness is assured.
When Vintage Matters Less
That being said, vintage is not always a pertinent characteristic to look at. There are some cases where vintage matters less.
As crucial as vintage is for some regions and wines, it's not as important in others. For instance, areas with predictable climates and consistently sunny weather will not see their grapes' quality vary that much over the years. Wines from warmer regions such as Central Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Australia, California and Southern Italy tend to be similar from one year to another. Therefore, the vintage year loses most of its relevance.
Another case where vintage matters less is with affordable "industrial" wine. Some very cheap wines are made in an industrial style to produce large numbers for customers who care less about quality and more about affordability. Levels of alcohol, pH, total acidity, residual sugar are carefully manipulated to minimize vintage variation as much as possible. Wines from larger producers are generally consistent year after year.
Do all wines have vintage?
Not all wines have vintage. Non-vintage wines are wines blending grapes from multiple crops. As a result, they will not have a year printed on the label since they are from numerous harvests.
Many wineries worldwide have little time for vintages and prefer to make wines from blends that cross several years' worth of harvests. Generally speaking, this leads to a more consistent and reliable wine style. This is most obviously seen in N.V (non-vintage) Champagne - the Champagne houses have a signature style which they need to stick to, and so using grapes from one vintage is not going always to achieve the necessary character they're after.
Selling or collecting wine
A vintage wine is very appreciated when it comes to re-selling wine or collecting it. Indeed, because of the unpredictability of how particular wines will turn out each year, whenever a year is perfect for winemaking, the bottle of wine from the same year jumps in price since supply remains low and the demand can potentially be high.
So, if you are a wine collector or a reseller, yes, you should definitely pay more attention to vintage wine!
Vintage shows us that wine is a matter of science and requires very close attention to detail. But at the end of the day, vintage or not, the wine remains the Frenchiest way to have a good time and eat good food!
Are you still feeling too inexperienced regarding wine? Check out our Approach To French Wines For Beginners!