Understanding Vintage & Aging

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Shuffling through the wine shop- we restock, we straighten, and above all, we check vintages. So- it may seem basic, but here we go: What’s in a vintage? The vintage on the bottle is the year that the grapes were in the vineyard. That eventual fermented juice could spend a few years in a barrel, but the vintage will not change when it is bottled.  Some regions have aging requirements on the label to inform the consumer how long it was in the barrel (for example Crianza in Spain or Riserva in Tuscany) and some do not. And then, then there is non vintage (NV).  This is when a winemaker decides that blending of two or more years produces the results s/he wants. It is found most often in fortified or sparkling wines such as Champagne and ports.

Most wineries have their style for their wine and do their best to keep that mark.  Why does it matter if one year is different or not and what would make it any different?  Well, crafting wine is not the same as making legos. Winemakers cope with the weather, which (as we know in Seattle) is more variable than one might expect. As much as winemakers desire to hold true to their style, each year has a challenge.  For those of you that enjoy visiting wine country, you have heard the stories- and every year has them!

  • Early frost, or surprise frost for that matter
  • Hail– as seen this year in Chablis and few years ago in Piedmont
  • Over the top temperatures (2015 California)
  • And even a simple rainy finish prior to harvest can create watery juice…

All situations create unique growing adventures. Variable weather conditions have to be accounted for through vineyard management- early harvest, tarping and heating the vines, or adjusting pruning and maintenance.  And all play a factor in how winemakers maintain their end product- that potentially delicious bottle of wine.  The winemakers with the ability and skill to manipulate from vintification to vinification are classically the wines that people seek when the vintage reports are claiming poor years.

Want to learn more about each years’ vintages per region?  Check out Jancis Robinson>

So as much as we seek consistency, wines are variable.  The same applies when it comes to aging wines.  It is a gamble!  A potentially delicious and fascinating gamble, but a gamble nonetheless. There is the dynamic of vintage year and the above mentioned impacts, but as the wine ages the variables increase! Proper storage is vital. That is, out of direct light, with little vibration, with no contact with chemicals and odors, minimal fluctuations in temperature as well as humidity, and of course, on its side so that the cork stays moist. When that is said and done, which wines age? Think of freshness- fresh whites with no oak as well as rosé wines should be consumed in the first few years of bottling. Wines with high residual sugar age well as do wines with supple tannins and higher acidity. The last component to look for is alcohol.  High alcohol can turn your wine to vinegar, if the wine is out of balance of other said components (sugar, tannins, acidity).  For example, port is high in alcohol +  residual sugar  + tannin, so it’s balanced and ages well.

So as you endeavor in the world of wine, aging and vintage choice, ask your local wine merchant to guide you.  That’s what we are here for!

Cheers!
Jaci, Sommelier, Wine Writer & Portalis Manager

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