What does Vintage mean?
The word ‘vintage’ causes some confusion among wine lovers as it became synonymous with fine wine many years ago. In reality however, the word ‘vintage’ simply refers to the year that the grapes that made the wine were grown. Every year is therefore a different ‘vintage’; it’s just that some years are better than others due to optimal weather conditions. Vintages will therefore naturally vary not just from country to country, but from region to region and sometimes, even vineyard to vineyard.
What is a good vintage?
A ‘vintage’ is described as ‘good’ when the weather did all the right things to ripen the grapes evenly and to their highest possible quality, without destroying them with hail, frost, wind or too much rain or too much sun. It’s no wonder that until the grapes are safely in the winery at the end of the growing season, vineyard managers will be biting their nails, constantly watching the weather.
The harvest, which is sometimes also called the ‘vintage’, normally happens between the end of August and early October in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, it happens between February and April. Actual dates will vary each year depending on weather conditions.
What does Non-Vintage mean (NV)?
When a wine is ‘non-vintage’ (usually abbreviated to NV on the label), it means that the wine in the bottle is a blend of several different years or ‘vintages’. If you think about it, the term ‘multi-vintage’ would make more sense! These days however, we rarely see still wines that are non-vintage (NV); it’s usually champagne and sparkling wines that carry this abbreviation. This is due to the fact that many champagne brands have a house style at a certain price level which needs to remain consistently recognisable year on year. Keeping back a certain amount of wine every year allows the winemaker to have more blending options for the future; this ‘reserve’ wine can be blended in with the current vintage to make sure the house style is achieved.
If conditions in Champagne are particularly good during one year’s growing season most producers will also release a ‘vintage’ wine using grapes from that one, single year. These wines will be less about house style and more about showcasing the best elements of the year that are expressed in the grapes. They are usually quite a lot more expensive, but arguably, much more interesting to taste.
Do ‘vintages’ vary a lot each year?
In marginal climates like Champagne in northern France, conditions can vary hugely from one year to the next. What happens during the vintage in these places is so important as it has a huge effect on the final quality of the wine. These days however, great producers with great terroirs are usually still able to make a decent wine in a lesser vintage thanks to their winemaking knowledge and new technologies in the winery. Some wine regions – often the ones in warmer places within the New World such as Chile and Argentina – have much more consistent growing seasons, so vintage variation is much less obvious.
Every new vintage is exciting as it offers it’s very own, totally unique expression of the wine from a particular year. The vines and the soils may be the same, but mother nature always adds her own touch.
The spirits world and other drinks have their own version of vintages too: Glenmorangie’s Pride and Grand Vintage collections for example, showcase whiskies from a single year where the grain harvest and the spirit maturation were exceptional.