The Importance of Knowing Your Wine Vintages & How to Age Your Wine Part 1
You’ve finally nailed down the styles of wine you like and producers you prefer. You know what regions to reach for when you hit your local wine shop. But as has happened to all of us at some point or another, you’ve likely picked up a bottle only to take it home, opened it, and found yourself slightly disappointed by its contents. You swirl the glass again…the wine wasn’t corked and didn’t have any other perceivable flaws. What went wrong? Odds are, it was the vintage.
Vintages are crucial when it comes to selecting a great wine; in a good year you can purchase virtually any wine from within a region (there are exceptions, naturally) and expect delicious results while in other years, you’ll struggle to find something which is up to scratch. Wine vintages aren’t just a number, they represent the sum of a year’s toil in the vineyard, working with or fighting against the slings and arrows of weather, climate, and unforeseen hiccups during the growing season. At the end of the day, wine is an agricultural product; it comes from grapes which are farmed and are at the mercy of Mother Nature’s whims. Factors like drought, rain during flowering or harvest, hail, and other weather conditions can have a profound effect on the overall health and quality of the grapes.
And vintages vary from region to region. A poor vintage in France might be a phenomenal one in Italy and even within countries, the quality of a vintage can vary dramatically. A generally cool year which can spell disaster for heat-loving grape varieties can yield beautiful, elegant wines made from grapes which thrive when the temperatures stay on the more moderate side of things. You get the idea.
Some folks have argued that paying attention to vintage doesn’t matter. I’m inclined to disagree but I’ll meet halfway and say that on occasion, it is true that vintage matters less. Good winemakers who are consistent in their farming and winemaking approach, especially if they’re blessed with having vineyards in more moderate climates, will tend to make good wines year in, year out. But take Burgundy. Home to some of the world’s greatest and most expensive wines, a region like Burgundy is a veritable landmine when it comes to inconsistencies across a single vintage and genuinely requires you to do your homework before you hit the store. If you’re someone who collects wine or simply likes to hang on to a bottle or two for a few years to see how it develops, what took place during a given vintage can make or break a wine’s ability to age.
Aging Your Wine: What to Look For
So you’ve kitted out your cellar (or cleared some space in the closet) and are ready to start amassing your wine collection or sit on a few bottles for a couple of years. What next? I briefly alluded to this in my last article on wine investment in terms of what to look for when buying wine to age/collect. Generally speaking, characteristics within a wine which can contribute to its overall ageability are influenced by what occurs during a vintage. I’m talking about acidity, alcohol, residual sugar, and tannin levels (for reds). These structural elements will play into how long a wine will last.
High acid wines are top candidates for aging. Acid helps preserve wine, so wines with high acid, whether they be white, red, sweet or traditional method sparkling, are good prospects for your cellar. Great vintage Champagne and sparkling wine can improve for several years and remain stunning to drink for up to a few decades.
As far as reds are concerned, medium to high tannin wines will tend to age well, especially if their other structural parts are in harmony. Balance, as always when it comes to wine, is key. A wine that may seem too tannic in youth may mellow out beautifully with age (e.g. Barolo and certain Cabernets).
Some of the longest-lived wines in the world are dessert wines; the residual sugar found in them acts as a preservative. A well-made dessert wine is balanced out by high acid, so if you have a sweet tooth, these are definitely worth aging, so take note, all you Okanagan ice wine lovers.
Oxygen reacts with alcohol and causes wines to oxidize. A little O2 is a good thing – this is why we let our wines ‘breathe’ when we open them. But when it comes to long-term aging, high alcohol wines aren’t a great choice as they are more likely to turn. Opt for medium alcohol wines instead.
Wine which has seen a bit of time in barrel can also sometimes age well. Wood tannins and other phenolic compounds which become integrated into the wine during barrel fermentation or barrel aging can improve a wine’s overall potential to age.
Checkout Part 2 on our next delivery.