As you probably have figured out by now, there is so much to keep track of in the world of wine: grapes, regions, producer names, the list goes on. With so many descriptors in wine, it can be hard to keep track of what wines are mediocre, decent, and great. Wine vintages are also incredibly important in describing and in keeping track of wines. As more and more regions produce wine now than ever before, knowing particular wine vintages may challenge even the best of memories. Now, it’s no longer just a question of knowing what the year was like in Bordeaux and Burgundy, but also in Napa, Carneros, and Willamette.
A wine’s vintage is the process of picking grapes and creating the finished product. When referring to a vintage wine, one is specifying a wine that is made from grapes that were all, or primarily, grown and harvested in a single calendar year. A vintage-dated wine produced in the United States or Europe has to contain at least 85% of grapes from a specific year. In some New World wine countries, the amount of grapes from a single year can be as low as 75%. The key element is that the large majority of the grapes used in producing a wine must be from the same specified year.
What defines a “good year” versus a “bad year?” When it comes to discerning vintages, climatic conditions are the most important factors. As weather patterns are obviously different around the world, what might have been a “not so good” year in Napa might have been an excellent year in Argentina. Generally, one shouldn’t assume blanket statements about a given year. However, sometimes certain years can produce excellent vintages worldwide; 1990 was a year in which many wine-producing regions – including Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne – produced highly-rated and excellent results.
In a bad vintage, there might have been high levels of rainfall, which in turn could cause rot. There could have been excess frost or even hail, which damages or even destroys vines. It could also have been excessively hot, as too much heat can produce overripe grapes and high levels of alcohol.
In a good vintage, the key is balance. It might have rained, but at the optimal time during the growing process, providing the perfect amount of water to the plant. Just the same with heat, frost, or inclement weather. Either it occurred at a time in which it could be properly dealt with (hail occurs so often in Mendoza, Argentina that winemakers frequently cover their vines with protective netting) or not at all. Ideally, in a good year, vines will produce grapes that have ripened slowly and haven’t been through too much climatic stress.
Despite a myriad of climatic factors that go into producing the “perfect” vintage, experienced winemakers know how to take advantage of these elements to produce a good wine. Vintners make a thousand small decisions in producing wine: when to harvest the grapes, what type of oak barrels to use, what sort of yeast to use, and so on. Barring a devastating climatic event such as heavy rainfall, hail, intense heat, or extreme frost, vintners know how to react during varying conditions and still create fine wines.
More recently, there have been a higher number of good vintages as opposed to bad vintages in most wine regions. This is in part due to increasingly favorable weather conditions but also due to improved vineyard management technologies such as viticultural techniques that can negate various effects of bad weather.
Indeed, there are many vintages in regions throughout the wine-producing world that have yielded some of the highest-quality and highest-rated wines ever made. After mentioning some of the most famous vintages in regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy, we will go over some of the more recent vintage years in various regions in California, as well as Oregon and Washington.
2005 Burgundy and Bordeaux
Two particularly great vintages in the Burgundy and Bordeaux regions of France was the year 2005. Over the years leading up to 2005, many grapes in the regions failed to ripen evenly or at all. The summers were very hot and the winters were harsh, causing the grapes to go through high stress phases. In 2005, however, nature decided it was payback time for all that bad weather. Quite simply, nothing went wrong. The summer was quite dry, but the vines coped well. Temperatures and sunshine time were generally lower than average, allowing for lower temperatures and lower levels of water. This lack of water allowed for small grapes with thick skins full of flavor, tannin and color.
These thick skins meant that there wasn’t much need to struggle at extracting flavor, color, and structure out of the grapes. Nature seemed to be in control of the winemaking in 2005. After a regular vinification process, the unusually cold winter and early spring of 2006 allowed the maturation rate of the wines to slow down in order for the second malolactic fermentation to start late.
The dominant characteristic of these wines were their incredible combination of ripeness and acidity. 2005 Burgundies and Bordeauxs have both the freshness of a cool vintage as well as the richness and texture of an overripe vintage, making for a very interesting wine, being able to be enjoyed now or having high potential in aging.
2009 and 2010 are both famous vintages for the Bordeaux region of France. 2009 produced some of the most interesting, unique wines, while 2010 produced some of the most balanced, classic wines to ever come from the region.
Due to fantastic weather conditions in 2009, many consider this year to be one of the greatest vintages to come from the region ever. The reds were rich, ripe, and fruity, with plenty of tannins that were surrounded by softness in the finish. Every part of Bordeaux produced fantastic reds, and this vintage is highly sought after by connoisseurs and enthusiasts alike.
2010 followed up with more ideal climatic conditions, though they were considered less extreme and more “classic” to the region. This allowed for the production of some of the most well-balanced, classical Bordeaux wines to come from the region in the past couple decades. Reds were gripping, firm, and tannic, with high levels of concentration and density.
2007 Napa Valley
2007 was considered nearly perfect for cabernet sauvignon, according to many wine critics. Many producers considered the weather conditions during the growing season to be ideal, free of any climatic extremes and other threats, allowing the winemakers to harvest the grapes at what they believed to be the ideal point of ripeness, instead of allowing nature to decide for them. Moderate weather allowed for the region to produce balanced, high quality wines.
2013 Napa Valley
The year of 2013 is another vintage year that many wine producers and critics believe to be one of the best in recent years. The weather was perfect – dry conditions with a long and sunny summer.
The harvest was largely uneventful, marked by warm weather and low threats of rain. Producers were able to harvest at peak flavor levels and maturity, which allowed for high levels of color and tannins, especially with cabernet sauvignon, resulting in huge reds with opulence and complexity.
2013 Santa Barbara
2013 brought along with it a near-ideal set of growing conditions, and, much like Napa, Santa Barbara produced some of its best wines in recent years. Following a dry winter, there was an early budding on the vines and that in turn allowed for a high yield of fruit. The growing season was warm and consistent, gradually turning into a moderate and dry fall.
Harvest was very quick, with many producers taking only seven weeks to fully harvest their yield. Pinot noir was the winner this year, with a lot of power, concentration, and deep dark color. The wines showed great richness, depth, and balance, even in their infancy.
2008 Willamette Valley
This was a highlight year for wines produced in the Willamette Valley region of Oregon, especially for pinot noir. An uncharacteristically dry September and October, with warm days and cool nights, allowed the grapes to achieve prime ripeness without sacrificing the freshness provided by good acidity. In contrast to wines produced in hotter years, the alcohol levels reached only moderate levels, around 13 to 14 percent.
The wines produced were well balanced and structured, with high levels of acidity. The reds were full of color and red-fruit flavors without being over the top or too forwards. Well-balanced, the wines had a combination of both fruitiness and restraint.
Washington produced its highest yield of crops ever in 2012, topping its previous record in 2010 by almost 20 percent. While the crop was great, so was the wine made from it, with cabernet sauvignon and syrah shining brightest. After a couple of cool summers the years previous, the 2012 season was ideal from start to finish, allowing for even ripening and high yields matching this quantity with quality.
The steady ripening allowed for the wines to be structured and elegant, bringing out freshness of the fruit as well as the acidity created from the cool nights on the vine. The finished products balance fruit, acidity, and tannins that make for wine that can be enjoyed right now, or will undoubtedly gain complexity over the years.
Overall, vintage is a great way to keep track of particular years in which wine from a certain region were noted for their high qualities. Many different things can affect the vintage, mostly climatic elements, and the end result is very much a combination and result of these factors. Good winemakers know how to keep track of these factors, and change their growing, harvesting, fermentation, and bottling processes accordingly. While many wine connoisseurs and enthusiasts love a good cabernet, there really won’t be anything that compares to that 2005 Burgundy.