What's in a Vintage?

Jul 04, 2022Roisin Kirby
What does vintage mean? Wine at home

After a barrage of questions on the issue of vintage and vintages, we thought it about time to untangle the word and its meaning. Read on and next time someone mentions the vintage wine or the wine's vintage, it will all make perfect sense.

The wine’s vintage

The most common use of the word vintage, is to describe the year in which the grapes were picked. We update the vintage or year of each wine on our website regularly so our clients can clearly see when the grapes for that wine were harvested. Not that you necessarily need to know this, but as wine is a natural product, it will vary slightly from year-to-year, according to the weather conditions; how much sun the grapes were exposed to and when, whether they were impacted by late or early frosts and so on. For most everyday wines, and certainly any that you find here on our website, we have already tasted the vintage and ensured they live up to our stringent expectations!

Cheaper and mid price wines available to drink now are largely not intended to keep for very long - roughly six months for white and rosé wines and a year or two potentially for red wines. Do keep your wines horizontal and in a dark cool place, as both light and heat will destroy wines fast - particularly as they contain no chemical preservatives.

A non-vintage still wine is made from grapes that have come from a few different harvests – a practice that is more common in mass produced wines that are blended from a variety of areas and years and tend to be of lower overall quality. We do not sell non-vintage wines at Wine at Home, with the exception of Champagne and Sparkling wines which follow different rules!

Vintage Champagne

An exception to this is the way the term is used in Champagne where most years are not good enough on their own to produce a Champagne from a single harvest. Most Champagnes are therefore NV (Non-Vintage).

A Vintage Champagne will demand a much higher price tag as it will have been made solely from one particularly good vintage.

A Vintage Year

When a wine growing season provides optimum conditions for the grapes and the vines, this may be considered to be a ‘vintage’ year. Each wine growing region, particularly in France where the concept is most common, will have certain stand out years where the wine from that year is considered better than the years previously. Wines from these years will command a higher price, even if made by the same winemaker on the same land.

For example, 2015 was considered to be one of the best vintages (years) in Burgundy for almost 70 years meaning that that all the conditions combined to give the wine the best possible flavours and aromas as well as the potential to keep it for many years.

What is a Vintage Wine?

Although this term is often used to denote a wine of quality – it doesn’t mean a lot out of context. It could, however, apply to a fine wine from a particularly good year. 

What makes a Vintage Year?

A vintage year is a term usually reserved for the best wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy and a few other well-known wine regions. What makes a wine a vintage year is determined by a range of factors governing the growing conditions that include the time and weather conditions of the vine flowering and the development of the grape. Other factors will include the amount of rain the vines receive, the amount and timing of the sunshine and the weather during the harvest.

The best vintages this century

Since the year 2000, the two best years for grape growing in France are generally considered to be 2005 and 2015. So not only will the red wines from these years be as near perfect as possible, in the hands of experienced winemakers, but they will also keep for many years if stored correctly in cellar conditions. Other stand out years for red wines, are 2009, 2012, and 2014 in Burgundy and 2009 and 2010 in Bordeaux. In Italy, the year 2015 in Barolo is also considered to be one of the finest in recent years. 

It's important to note, however, that for a wine to keep, it is not enough for the grapes to come from a particular year - it has to have been made by people who are at the top of their game, usually in extremely well regarded wineries - where the wine making techniques are in place to ensure longevity.

So, if you want to sound like an expert, ask what vintage you’re drinking, instead of what year, but don’t refer to vintage wine as a synonym for old wine that’s been knocking about in the basement for several years!

Investing in wine

The wines largely from Bordeaux and Burgundy in France, that were made in the best years, and by the most well-known Chateaux or Domaines may be referred to as Vintage Wines in terms of their investment potential. However – unless you really know what you are doing, or go through a reputable broker, bear in mind that wine is not a stable investment except at the very upper end of the spectrum.

The wine in your cellar will be unlikely to increase significantly in value just by virtue of its age. There have been many wine scams over the years where people have been persuaded to ‘invest’ in wines that never materialise or that were never suitable for investment in the first place.

Likewise, we are often asked to value a few bottles that someone has found in their late Aunt's basement - but unless these are from well known vineyards, have been kept in good cellar conditions - ideally in their original boxes - and have documentation on authenticity - they are unlikely to be worth anything at all. If unsure, contact a verified broker who will be able to advise you. If the news is not good - invite your friends over and enjoy deciding whether the wine is vintage or vinegar!

Collecting Wine

Collecting wine to drink and buying wine from vintages that are likely to improve with age – as long as they are correctly stored in cellar conditions - is a real joy - but buying and selling it as a commodity is a quite different ballgame so definitely get some advice if you’re interested in either investing or collecting wine.

Most of the wines that you find now in shops or online are ready to drink now and will not age well - so to avoid making expensive mistakes, it really is important to get professional advice if you are thinking of building a wine cellar full of bottles that you will still be enjoying years from now. There are, of course, wines that are produced every year that are really worth investing in - for both pleasure and profit - but you do need to know what you're doing.

When we find a vintage that we particularly like, we often do cellar it for the future - just for our own enjoyment. We created wine collections for the birth year of our offspring - and have thoroughly enjoyed tasting some of these wines 18 and 21 years later. If you'd like any advice on buying wines now for the future, we'd be happy to advise.

Wines to buy now to drink or keep

Vosne-Romanée Villages AOC 2015, Domaine Machard de Gramont

This spectacular 2015 Burgundy won't be around for much longer. Cannot recommend it highly enough. Made by the supremely talented Axelle Machard de Gramont, it is a rare gem. You will not find this wine anywhere else, and certainly not at this price. The wine is drinking exceptionally well now, but will keep quite happily in good cellar conditions, for many years to come.

Chorey-les-Beaune AOC 2015, Domaine Laboureau

Domaine Laboureau has been in the same family for 6th generations, and this tiny vineyard is garnering a reputation of extremely well made Burgundy. One of the last remaining 2015 for sale in the UK, drinking extremely well now, but worth cellaring a few.

Coteaux du Layon AOC St Aubin 2021, Domaine des Barres 

We recently enjoyed a bottle of this wine that we cellared in 1995, also made by the iconic Patrice Achard. It was packed with fruit flavours, maintained incredible complexity and still had that famous fresh finish we associate with his wines. Made from the Chenin Blanc grape, one of the few white grape varieties that can keep well. Dessert wines will also keep longer, due to their higher sugar content.

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