Vintage Wines – so what does that mean?

There’s a nip in the air. The leaves are turning, the nights drawing in. It’s legitimately acceptable to resume casserole consumption. Autumn has arrived. And for the grape growers north of the equator this means only one thing – the grape harvest, the most important time of the year. This is where the vignerons get to see the fruits of their labour, and for us wine drinkers, we get our first indications of the likely quality of this year’s wines. But for the average consumer the vintage is just one more factor in making wine purchasing that little bit more confusing. So, how important is it to consider the year the wine was made in, and is it something you need to worry about?

For some of the classic regions of France, 2013 has been a tricky year. Spring was difficult, summer was wet and the harvest will take place a good few weeks later than average. Bordeaux and Burgundy both suffered this year from devastating hailstorms, which decimated the crop in many prestigious vineyards. Hail is a winemaker’s worst nightmare; it can totally destroy a whole year’s work in a matter of minutes. In areas like Burgundy, where the vineyards are very fragmented and a farmer might only own a couple of rows of vines, for those without appropriate insurance the financial repercussions of losing their entire crop are very serious indeed. There are many vineyards that will not be able to produce any wine at all this year.

For the consumer this isn’t great news either. You might assume that in a bad year you’d be able to buy these wines at a much lower price to reflect the lower quality of the harvest, but when the size of the crop is reduced so significantly it means that the laws of supply and demand will dictate that prices will be much the same, if not higher than last year.

For the uninitiated it seems like a bit of a minefield. It’s hard enough to get to grips with the often completely impenetrable wine labels simply to understand what it is that you’re buying, without having to worry about memorising a list of good and bad vintages. So how important is the vintage on a bottle of wine? There’s an old truism that says, ‘You can’t make good wine out of bad grapes.’ the editor's grape harvest!However, the vintage is just one of many factors that contribute to the quality of the wine, and the good news is that for many of the wines sold in the UK, the vintage hardly matters at all. The secret? It’s all in the blend.

Let’s take Australia as an example. A wine labelled as coming from ‘South Eastern Australia’ means that the grapes that go in to making it can be taken from a vast area of vineyards thousands of miles wide, covering the whole of South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. Therefore if you have a bad vintage in the Barossa Valley near Adelaide, you can simply use a few more grapes from the Hunter Valley to the west of Sydney instead. Equally, due to Australia’s flexible labelling laws, only 85% of grapes actually have to come from the region stated on the label, so there’s even an option to blend in some wines from the vineyards near Perth, in Western Australia. This means that in Australia, they can blend their wines from an area of vineyards roughly the same size as Western Europe.

It’s a similar story in many ‘New World’ wine countries, and coupled with the fact that weather patterns are generally much more reliable here and few areas will ever struggle to ripen their grapes, these are the regions to go to if you don’t want to worry about vintages, especially for everyday wines.

The key to the importance of the vintage is how geographically specific the wine region on the label is. For wines that come from a smaller area, including all the famous European vineyards, vintage variation will play its part, and for some wines it is very important indeed.

My advice – it you’re going to splash out and treat yourself to a really expensive wine then it’s worth doing a bit of homework first. Otherwise, don’t worry about it – there are so many factors that go in to making a decent tipple, and vintage alone is no guarantee of quality. A better approach is to look out for a producer that you like, or ask the advice of your local wine merchant – they do a lot of ‘educating the palate’…And if you get stuck, drop me an email at and I’ll do my best to help!

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