The concept of vintages is fundamental to understanding wine, yet confuses many people. Here are the most important things to know.
What is a vintage?
Vintage means year. The vintage on a wine label refers to the year in which the grapes were grown. For the vintage to be listed on the label, most wine regions require that at least 85% to 95% of the grapes be from that year, so a small portion from other years may be included.
Why do vintages matter?
In a word: weather. Weather conditions have a huge impact on the grapes in any given year. A warmer year might yield grapes with higher sugar content, which would translate to a more alcoholic wine. A cooler year might yield slightly underripe grapes with more vegetal characteristics. Rain near harvest time is a notorious vintage spoiler, because it causes the grapes to absorb extra water which dilutes the juices.
Do vintages matter everywhere?
Some climates are more prone to vintage variation than others. Maritime climates, such as Bordeaux and Oregon, tend to experience more weather fluctuations from year to year, so vintages matter more in those regions. Also, a year that produced a great vintage in one wine region, might have produced a terrible one in another region.
Can I use this information to find wine bargains?
Yes! If you know which vintages were outstanding in a certain region, you can expect all the wines from that region, even the less expensive ones, to be better that year. Therefore, you can spend less money to get a great bottle of wine. For example, if you normally spend $25 for a good Bordeaux, and you know that 2009 was a great year, you might spend less on a bottle from that vintage, knowing that the cheaper wine got a quality boost from the weather that year. (Conversely, you also might decide to spend more on a bottle from that vintage, because you have confidence in its quality and want to buy a really amazing bottle.)
Do vintages affect aging?
Yes. Even within a region that makes great wine, which is capable of aging for many years (like Bordeaux), a wine from a great vintage might have a significantly longer lifespan than a wine from a lesser vintage. (More on wine lifespans here.) In the vintage charts below, you'll see recommendations for when to drink a wine based on its vintage, such as "early maturing and accessible," "still tannic, youthful, or slow to mature," and "ready to drink."
Is there a handy reference for good and bad vintages?
Yes. Various organizations produce vintage charts.
I recommend Robert Parker and The Wine Advocate's vintage chart (preview below). This is a one-page quick-reference vintage guide which goes back to 1970 and includes "drink vs. hold" suggestions. You can view it on a web page at this link, or download a pdf version here. (I downloaded the pdf to my phone for easy reference.)
In the rare event that you need vintage data older than 1970, you can look to Decanter's vintage guide, which goes back to 1960 for some wine regions. Decanter's guide offers good vintage information, similar to the Wine Advocate/Robert Parker chart, but is only updated through the 2008 vintage, whereas Robert Parker's goes up to 2013.
You might also be interested in:
Is your wine over the hill?
Burgundy, Bottle Aging, and Tertiary Aromas
Building a Better Wine Tasting