What does vintage mean?
‘Vintage’ comes from the old french “vendage” or grape harvest, and while it’s often used to describe something old or classic the real meaning of the word vintage (at least in the wine industry where it originated) is to indicate the year of a particular grape harvest and bottling.
So If someone tells you that 2019 produced a great vintage in the Côte de Beaune, it’s just another way of saying that that year’s weather conditions created the potential to produce great wines in that region.
What makes one vintage different from another?
Innumerable minor details can differentiate the quality of one vintage from another; things like the timing of the grape harvest or the attention dedicated to discarding twigs, leaves, or damaged grapes before pressing. But generally speaking, the most important factor deciding the quality of a vintage can be summarized in one word: weather.
The combined effects of sun, rain, and heat over the year can make or break a harvest, and while irrigation and smart canopy management can mitigate these to some extent, weather is still the most distinguishing factor in determining quality across vintages - especially since it’s something growers have no control over.
Other factors, sometimes unrelated to quality, can influence the popularity of a vintage too. If hail, frost, or drought result in drastically reduced yields for prestigious vineyards, the scarcity of the resulting vintage can attract buyers simply due to rarity, a classic example of the law of supply and demand. Similarly, vintages grown during important historical periods like the immediate postwar years can also be considered particularly attractive due to their cultural significance.
Is vintage important?
With the invention of modern winemaking techniques, vintners have an easier time producing good wines even after a poor growing season, resulting in a growing debate among experts about the importance of vintage. Many argue that with wines becoming more consistent year over year, the difference between seasons becomes less pronounced and vintage becomes less important - more of a quaint throwback to a different era than an important distinguisher of quality.
While there is some truth to this idea, winemaking techniques can only go so far, and the consensus is that the importance of vintage depends first on the variability of a region’s climate, and second on how much winemakers are allowed to tinker with wines to achieve a desired flavor profile or hide the results of a poor season.
For instance, California has a very consistent and predictable growing season, which produces wines that taste very similar year over year, consequently reducing the importance of vintage.
Similarly, where winemakers use additives like extra sugars, alcohols, yeasts, or colorants to balance out (or mask) the variance of a given harvest, vintage is less of a concern. As mass market consumers often appreciate uniformity, these practices can be great for business, but what these wines gain in uniformity they can sometimes lose in individuality and character - even if they taste good nonetheless.
At the other end of the spectrum, Burgundy has a quintessentially variable climate, as well as more restrictive growing practices. The fact that irrigation is banned in Burgundy (as in much of France) is illustrative of the culture - wines should primarily reflect the terroir, and winemakers cannot tamper with their grapes as they do in many other parts of the world.
This results in some pretty astonishing variation year over year, elevating the importance of terroir. It also produces some of the most exciting, unique, and interesting wines because winemakers never truly know what a given vintage will taste like until it’s bottled, and in many cases until it’s had a few years to age.
What’s the catch? A poor growing season can sometimes result in less than stellar wines for a given vintage. This is where skilled and knowledgeable curation shines and at BurgDirect we take great care to assist our winemaking partners in offering wines that will give consumers the best experience that each vintage has to offer.
Vintage as history
At the end of the day, vintage is just as much about regional differences and winemaking practices as it is an indicator of quality. In some locales, it’s of little importance, but in others it can be a relatively reliable guide on what to expect from a given region for a given year.
But just as importantly, in areas like Burgundy where winemakers try to not interfere with what nature provides, and where terroir is allowed to take its natural course, vintage also represents a tangible taste of history and the changing of the seasons. It’s an authentic representation of the territory and winemaking tradition of Burgundy, and we think that’s worth raising a glass to.