Wine 101: What’s the Deal with Vintage?

“Vintage” means one thing when you’re talking about dresses from the forties or that cool thrift shop you’ve always meant to visit, but it means something entirely different when it comes to wine. I’ve always been vaguely aware of this, but unsure of how what exactly it means or, more importantly, how significant it is to making and choosing the perfect wine.

What makes a wine a vintage?

“Vintage” comes from the French “vin,” meaning simply wine. A wine’s vintage refers to the year its grapes were harvested. In France, the USA, and Canada, to be labeled as a vintage, a wine must be made from 95% of grapes harvested that year. Wines from other parts of the world sometimes have up to 15-25% of grapes from other years in their “vintages.”

Why does the vintage change the quality of the wine so much?

“Vintage variation” is the difference in taste between same wines from different years. Sometimes it is barely noticeable and others it can be very striking! This variation all depends on the way the weather influences the grapes during a given growing season.

A good vintage means the weather was well-balanced throughout the entire year. Not too much rain, not too cold or too hot, no unexpectedly harsh hailstorms… This type of balance allows the grapes to ripen evenly and slowly. Too much rain can cause the grapes to rot, while too much intense heat makes them overripe and increases the taste of alcohol in the wine. Lots of rain right around the harvest can leave grapes flavorless and watery. Even the smallest imbalance of weather, be it “too much” or “too little” of any factor, changes the wine.

Interestingly, a bad year for reds could be a good year for whites. A “cooler vintage,” meaning a year growing season with colder temperatures and perhaps more precipitation, can be a death wish for full, spicy red wines but create whites that are pleasantly crisp and acidic.

a quick look at vintages in the last ten years from www.winefolly.com

A quick look at vintages in the last ten years, from www.winefolly.com

Likewise, as this “overly simplified” vintage chart from Wine Folly illustrates, a bad year in France could be a good year in Washington, since weather varies so much between regions.

Does the vintage always matter?

To some extent, yes—wine is an agricultural, not an industrial product, and thus the climate and weather will always influence the way grapes turn out.

However, very decent wines can be made from not-so-decent vintage years, which is often where the skill and craftsmanship of winemakers comes in.

Wines that aren’t from the best vintage years often benefit from aging and can turn out great if they are cellared and stored for a few more years!

Further, some regions have less volatile climates than others. California, for example, is one of the biggest producers of wine in the world, but the weather is so dependably, consistently good that the vintages do not change much from year to year. For California wines, the vintage is not always important.

On the other hand, the famous Bordeaux and Burgundy regions in France are places where the vintage matters very much—and their good vintages are so well known that wine merchants often find it difficult to sell Bordeaux wine from an “off” year, even if it is quite good!

Here in the Pacific Northwest, vintage also matters. While the weather is a little easier to count on in the Walla Walla Valley than in the western part of the state, Washington in a place with lots of variation in our weather. Sometimes it snows in the winter and sometimes it doesn’t, and spring doesn’t have an arrival date—it pretty much comes whenever it feels like it!

While it is definitely not the only factor that makes a wine “good,” vintage is a great thing to know about when tasting or buying wine in Walla Walla!

Wine Grapes Vs. Table Grapes: A Comparison

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of visiting our vineyard just before harvest, you might be surprised at the dramatic differences between wine grapes and table grapes (the grapes you might buy in the grocery store)! Although both wine grapes and table grapes are the same genus, Vitis, they have many disparate characteristics.

Wine grapes are always one particular species of grapes: Vitis vinifera. This is a species that is native to the Mediterranean region, ranging from central Europe to northern Iran. Table grapes, on the other hand, vary. Some table grapes, such as Red Globe grapes, are also Vitis vinifera. Others are a cousin of the traditional wine grape. Concord grapes, for example, are Vitis labrusca, a vine that is native to the Eastern United States.

Table grapes and wine grapes have been selectively bred for different qualities, meaning that the grapes are pretty dissimilar! In comparison to table grapes, wine grapes are very, very small, closer to a centimeter in diameter. They have very thick skins, which will ultimately impart a lot of flavor onto the wine. Table grapes tend to have thin skins that are easier to munch on, meaning they’ll pop delightfully in your mouth. Wine grapes also have big seeds, which take up a huge part of the fruit. As a result, when you bite into the thick skin of a wine grape, they’ll sploosh open, leaving you with a big, hard seed.

Table grapes vs. wine grapes Walla Faces

Table grapes vs. wine grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon from the Walla Faces vineyard)

Wine grapes are also much sweeter than table grapes, since that sugar is necessary for fermentation. Wine grapes are harvested when they are around 22-30% sugar. Table grapes might be closer to 10 or 15% sugar.

In addition to the genetic differences between wine grapes and table grapes, the vines are also treated differently. The T-shape of the grapevines maximizes their exposure to the sun. Table grapes use a trellis system in which the grapes hang under the vines. They get less exposure to the sun this way, but they don’t rub against each other. This increases the amount of fruit they can produce, yielding up to thirty pounds of grapes per vine. (For comparison, wine grape vines would be lucky to get to ten pounds!)

Worldwide, there are 75,866 square kilometers dedicated to grapes. A solid 71% of these grapes are used for wine. 27% are consumed fresh fruit and 2% as dried fruit. Thus, it seems that even though wine grapes aren’t as delicious right off the vine, their unique characteristics make them the more popular of the two!

Wine 101: How To Do a Wine Tasting

It’s always handy to have a quick review on the steps of one of our favorite activities: wine tasting! Each step of the wine tasting process allows the person drinking the wine to fully appreciate the flavors and aromas of the wine. Once you’ve uncorked a gorgeous bottle, what steps come next?

Wine Tasting Step #1: See

Watch as the wine is poured into the glass. Different elements of the color will become apparent as the wine is poured. Holding the glass by the stem, hold the glass up to the light. By keeping your warm hands away from the bowl, you prevent your fingers from heating up the wine, which can cause a brash alcohol flavor, which may disguise the more subtle flavors hiding in your glass.

The color of the wine can reveal a great deal about the wine. Different grape varieties can produce different wine colors. For example, a Pinot Noir will look nothing like the deep, intense red of a Cabernet Sauvignon. The intensity of the color can cue the observer to how light or heavy the wine may be. Looking carefully, a slight blue hue may indicate the level of acidity.

The opacity of the wine can also yield important clues. For example, an unfined wine like the Walla Faces Cabernet Sauvignons will be much deeper and more opaque than fined wines, like the Fusion Red. Looking at the Fusion’s rim variation, the gradation of color at the edge of the wine, can help the viewers predict its clarity and smoothness. The opacity of the Cabernets suggests that they will be more full-bodied, with great tannins. As they age over the next few years, they will also gain some brown rim variation.

How To Do a Wine Tasting: See

Wine Tasting Step #2: Swirl

Holding the wine glass at the base, swirl the wine. This allows the wine to oxygenate a bit, revealing the true aromas of the wine.

In addition, the aromatic compounds of the wine are released into the air, making them easier to smell.

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Wine Tasting Step #3: Smell

Anyone who has ever had a cold knows that tasting is mostly scent. When your nose is plugged up, it’s impossible to taste your dinner, let alone your wine. Wine connoisseurs have known the importance of your sense of smell for centuries.

To smell your wine, stick your nose into the glass and take a deep inhale. Try to determine what flavors you are smelling. Is the wine spicy? Pungent? Floral? Take a few good sniffs, and be sure to compare your first and second impressions.

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Wine Tasting Step #4: Sip

Of course, if you are doing a wine tasting, you have to taste some wine! Start with a small sip to cleanse your palate. Next, allow the wine to hit all parts of your tongue. Different parts of your mouth will reveal different flavors. If you like, you can slurp the wine in your mouth, allowing for even more oxygenation.

The wine will change in your mouth. The first phase of wine tasting is called the attack phase, where the alcohol, tannins, acidity, and residual sugar are clear. Next, in the evolution phase, the flavor profile of the wine comes out.

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Wine Tasting Step #5: Swallow

There aren’t very fancy instruction for swallowing! Be sure to note how long the finish remains in your mouth. Some wines will persist on your palate, whereas others will have a more short-lived finish.

Of course, don’t forget the more important wine tasting step!: savor and enjoy the wonderful wines you had the opportunity to try!

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Cheers!