If you’ve ever wondered about wine vintage, whether it matters, or when to pay attention to it, you’re not alone. We’re here to tell you that, as is true in most cases, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all explanation.
Whether the vintage of a wine matters depends on you, your tastes and your budget, and how you like to enjoy your wine. And to some extent, it depends on where you shop.
What is wine vintage?
The “ vintage” of a wine is the year the grapes in a wine were harvested. Good wine is, at its core, an agricultural product. And farmers always operate at the whims of nature. Rain, sun, frost, and wind — all impact the growing season, and subsequently, the produce grown during that season. Such as grapes.
A frosty spring can keep vines from budding, and insufficient sun can prevent fruit from ripening. Hail can wreak havoc in vineyards, as it did in Champagne in 2018, and too much rain at harvest can result in swollen, bland grapes.
All of these factors affect the wine, and for some people, make wine vintage very important.
When does wine vintage not matter?
But vintage doesn’t always matter. Or, let us rephrase: vintage isn’t the most important part of wine for us at Dedalus.
“We're talking about artisans who are making the best wine possible given the circumstances of each vintage,” says Chris LaBranche, Dedalus wine buyer. “It's important to us, like with a farm CSA, to support our producers in years with good and bad weather.”
And while yes, we want to support our producers. We also trust them. As Chris said, they know their vines and their land better than anyone, and they’re not interested in making bad wine. These are immensely talented people with strong community networks who know how to solve challenges presented by weather.
Take, for example, Oriol Artigas in Alella, Spain. In 2020, this winemaker lost 90% of his harvest to mildew. Rather than throwing in the towel — which could have put his tiny estate under — his neighbors came together to supply him with fruit. He named the wines “SOS,” a lucky case of a cry for help that was answered.
We’re all a little selfish
If you’re still plagued by questions of whether a vintage is “good” or “bad,” remember this: The producers we work with make wines that they love to drink. As Creative Manager Nicole Bull says, “They are not precious about them and just want them to be enjoyed.”
Will each year be different? Of course. Like we said, wine is an agricultural product, even more, when it’s coming from the small estates we work with at Dedalus. These producers are constantly responding to the differences in each growing season by adjusting their harvest schedule, or when they start or stop maceration. Their goal is always to make great wine, and if they have to adjust course due to vintage conditions, they will. No matter what the conditions of that vintage.
When does wine vintage matter?
There are, of course, situations where you’ll want to pay attention to vintage. If you’re interested in starting a cellar and aging wine, knowing about the vintage would be useful in making an informed decision about a bottle of Burgundy or Barolo to bring home.
Starting a wine cellar isn’t for everyone — but it’s not as hard as it might seem. As Nicole says, “there’s this magic, sentimental value of hanging onto something — especially something you already know you love — to see how it can change, how different and beautiful it will be.”
Where does wine vintage matter?
If you’re in the camp that’s interested in starting a cellar or throwing down a larger sum on a bottle of wine, it can be helpful to know where vintage matters. Or, where vintage variation mostly occurs.
Not all winegrowing regions experience extreme vintage variation. In fact, some climates are relatively steady and favorable, like Central Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Australia, California, and Southern Italy.
Less predictable climates, however, are more likely to see a lot of vintage variation. You could have golf ball-sized hail one summer in France and then perfectly tempered sun the next, or a steady fall drizzle in Piedmont rather than the usual blue fog blanketing the Alpine foothills.
Wine vintage variation is most noticeable in Northern Spain, Northern Italy, Austria, and most of France. When buying wine from these regions, consider purchasing at least six bottles per vintage if you want to study the nuances in vintage variation.
“When we're talking about wine that is meant for aging, like Burgundy,” Chris says, “vintage is a huge deal both because Burgundy has huge swings in climate — some very cold, some very hot — which, in turn, produce wildly different expressions of the region's very terroir-expressive grapes. Characteristics of a vintage — sugar, acidity, pH, etc. — have a significant impact on how (or if) the wine will age well.”
Chris notes that the impact of vintage swings both ways. Warm vintages like 2015 and 2018 produced many wines that were delicious when drunk young but didn’t have as much aging potential. Warm weather leads to more sugar and less acidity in the grapes. Since acidity is necessary for aging, warm vintages aren’t always great candidates for the cellar. In 2013, a combination of a cold rainy spring, a humid summer, and a cloudy fall resulted in lower yields. The wines were almost undrinkable at a young age and needed a few years of cellaring to loosen up.
What’s the bottom line?
At the end of the day, whether or not you pay attention to wine vintage depends on your relationship to wine. Knowing the vintage isn't necessary if you’re looking for Thursday night crowd pleasers that you can pop off immediately.
If you’re looking to cellar your wine, knowing a thing or two about vintage variation will serve you well. Chris recommends checking out wine writer Jancis Robinson and Allen Meadows for relatively unbiased vintage reports or checking in with one of our sales team.
That said, at Dedalus, we are excited by every bottle and every producer in our shop. If it’s on our shelves, it’s good to drink today. We stand behind the farmers we work with, and the wines they produce each year. Because we believe that no matter the vintage conditions, a good winemaker works with nature to make great wine.