Vintage variation, by extension, refers to the extent to which the wines from one vintage differ from another.
Vintage variations - i.e. differences between vintages are essentially caused by the weather during the growing season. Different weather scenarios can cause significant differences in both the quantity and quality of the vintage. Extended cold weather can delay or hamper ripening. Excessive rain can cause dilution and rot. Too much heat can cause over-ripeness or even shut the vine down.
While vintage variation exists all over the wine growing world, it is most noticeable in wine regions, which have cooler climates or more variable weather patterns. Typically the classic old world wine regions cited above, as well as Germany, the Rhône Valley, Northern and Central Italy, and even many parts of Spain such as Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Galicia.
Wines from variable regions strongly reflect the character of any given vintage. Good weather years should yield perfectly ripe grapes to make balanced, characterful wines, while in less clement weather years the grapes either struggle to ripen or over-ripen, producing respectively, leaner, more austere wines or flabby, overly-alcoholic wines.
Why Old World and Not New World?
Of course vintage variation exists in the New World. Just take the last four to five vintages in the Napa Valley where you certainly have variation. It is the same for Australia, especially in areas such as the Hunter Valley, Margaret River and even in the warmer Barossa and McLaren Vale regions.
That said, in general we can say that new world wine regions have more consistent, ideal grape ripening conditions, such that the vintage differences are usually less marked in the wines.
Should WIne Consumers Be Concerned?
The answer is no. Today most wines sold around the world are not about vintage expression. Instead, their aim is to express a consistent taste profile that consumers like.
Take any such high-volume entry-level, mid-market wine or even premium wine brand. Most of these wines have been so inter-regionally or even cross-regionally blended and manipulated that any indication of vintage has been well and truly blended out. All in the name of 'consistency' and 'taste'.
In real life, the expression of vintage variation really only applies to higher end wines, wines that are not manipulated to taste a certain way. But even with high end, expensive wines, the producer will do his/her utmost to minimize the negative taste effects of a poor vintage. This could be as simple as having a severe sorting and selection process for the grapes to the use of sophisticated high-techniques to render the vintage flaw unnoticeable.
The Importance of Vintage Variation
Understanding the conditions of the vintage helps one understand what to expect in a bottle of wine. While many wine drinkers prefer wines from riper more opulent vintages, there are others who prefer the leaner, classic styles of lesser (bit not necessarily wretched) vintages.
In regions that make highly sought after, vintage variation is definitely important. Wines from vintages deemed excellent receive higher scores (if that is important to you!) and fetch significantly higher prices than those from lesser vintages. Wines from the better vintages are seen as a better investment, both from a cellaring and secondary market perspective.
Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. In 2012 she was honored as a Dame Chevalier de L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne
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