Is A Wine's Year Really That Important?

03/03/2015 07:31 am ET | Updated Mar 03, 2015
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Buying wine isn't easy. Okay, let's rephrase that, because buying wine by aimlessly pointing at a shelf is actually quite easy to do. Buying wine knowledgeably isn't easy. Between the kind of grape, the region and the elusive tasting notes, the seemingly simple task of selecting a bottle based on anything more than an affinity for the label seems lofty. Deciphering among the matrix of options is daunting to say the least, but the sometimes embarrassing process may have just gotten a little easier. According to an article published on wine website Vine Pair titled "Why You Shouldn't Worry About A Wine's Vintage," you have one less thing to think about when purchasing wine.

Author Adam Teeter argues that while a wine's vintage may be important to collectors who catalogue bottles, for the general population, the vintage doesn't matter.

What Is A Wine's Vintage?

The term "vintage" refers to the year in which the grapes were grown and harvested. It does not describe how long the wine has aged. A wine's vintage is supposedly significant because the climate of the given year affects the quality of the harvest. Warm weather during the day and cooler temperatures at night, with relatively dry air, should yield a bountiful volume of ripe grapes. Conventional wisdom says ripe grapes make better wine, Teeter says. Each year, Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator put out charts rating vintages. The status quo is up for debate, however, as winemakers and critics are coming forward to assert a once unspeakable idea: "There really is no such thing as a bad vintage of wine, only bad winemakers."

Why Vintage Doesn't Matter

Teeter calls upon a study conducted by University of Chicago professor Roman Weil that asked 270 wine tasters to try a selection of bottles that wouldn't break the bank. The tasters couldn't distinguish between highly and poorly regarded vintages. Nor did they noticeably prefer good vintages over bad ones. As Teeter puts it, "The tasters would have been just as well off flipping a coin." The only exception in the study was for Bordeaux, a wine for which tasters expressed a preference for esteemed vintages.

The exception is notable, and one that wine columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former wine columnist of Food & Wine magazine Lettie Teague confirms in her article, "Does Vintage Always Matter?" Because of its "challenging climate," which sees a lot of rain, Bordeaux's vintages speak louder than those of other wines. As seen in Weil's study, people can tell when a bottle of Bordeaux came from a bad weather year. (They didn't, however, universally favor the good year over the bad.)

So what about wines from anywhere else? Teague says that vintages matter little for wines from California, because of the state's predictable climate. The same goes for wines from Australia, Spain, Southern Italy, most of Chile and the Mendoza region of Argentina. It may be more useful to commit regions to memory as opposed to vintages, Teague points out.

Wine vintages are nothing more than guidelines, which may or may not indicate the quality of a bottle. Even in a "poor" vintage, you might find excellent bottles. Especially for drinkable bottles around the $20 price point -- as opposed to higher priced bottles that may be meant for collections -- the vintage simply doesn't say much. The quality of the wine is a reflection of the winemaker more than a reflection of the weather, Teeter concludes.

Why Vintage Does Matter

While this conclusion seems like a tidy way to challenge the importance of vintages, denying the significance of vintage altogether is a contentious statement in the wine world, Lorena Ascencios, the wine buyer for New York establishment Astor Wine and Spirits told HuffPost Taste. Ascencios argues that while a wine's vintage may not mean a wine tastes better or worse, it does produce noticeable differences in some cases -- and it's those cases that she cares about.

Large-scale commercial winemakers, which Ascencios likens to the Starbucks of the wine world, often take measures to ensure consistency across vintages. They might add laboratory yeast to impart a certain aromatic profile or texture, add enzymes to control color, or even filter wine, which Ascencios compares to cutting off the bad part of a fruit. These wines will taste the same from year to year, no matter the climate. Some winemakers don't do anything to manipulate their wine, however, choosing instead for their product to reflect the given vintage. If the weather was cooler one year, for example, a wine might have a lower alcohol. If they have to cut their yields, they do.

As an expert in the field, Ascencios is more interested in these wines -- the ones that do show variety and aren't altered. Vintage matters, in this way, because if it doesn't, it means you may be getting a mass-market, manipulated product. Vintage is worth paying attention to if you aren't only buying the big box stuff (and we're talking about more than just Franzia.) Ultimately, whether vintage matters, then, is up to you.

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