What, Exactly, is a Wine Vintage?

And how should you approach it?

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What, Exactly, is a Wine Vintage?

If you live in Brooklyn, vintage is usually a pair of ripped Levi’s from the seventies. But when it comes to wine, a vintage is “one made from grapes that were all, or primarily, grown and harvested in a single specified year.”

This may sound simple, but even experienced wine drinkers can feel overwhelmed when it comes to vintage. Many think it is an exercise in memorization, but it doesn’t have to be.

I recently had the opportunity to attend The Vintage Effect, part of French Institute Alliance FrançaiseWine Tour de France led by Hortense Bernard, General Manager of Millesima USA.

Ms. Bernard believes that understanding vintage is “A lot of work … or, that is, a pleasure!” Basically, it depends on how you approach it.

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I get to taste wines regularly as a sommelier, which helps me to retain some information about various vintages in different regions. Discovering a few older vintages of wines you love may be a lofty enough goal for the casual wine drinker. If you are a Bordeaux lover, this type of tasting is a good place to start.

Held in the spacious sky room at FIAF’s Upper East Side headquarters, The Vintage Effect was a polished and thoughtful tasting. Place settings generously included bread from Pain d’Avignon, cheeses from Président and charcuterie from D’Artagnan.

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Tasting sheets and a pencil as well as notes on the wine program at Fiaf were provided. Participants introduced themselves to their neighbors and chatted, but overall it was quiet with occasional questions from the mainly American audience.

The format of the tasting followed an idea noted in Eric Asimov’s recent review of Oregon Pinot Noir for The New York Times.

“Instead of zeroing in on a vintage that is supposed to be great, it’s far more interesting to identify producers with whom you are stylistically aligned, and then to see how these producers respond to the challenges of each vintage.”

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Context is important and that’s why a tasting focused on vintage can be so helpful. To see the difference, taste the same or similar wines from different vintages side by side.

This particular tasting allowed the audience to juxtapose toddler and teenage wines from Saint Julien on the left bank of Bordeaux (cabernet-based) and Pomerol on the right bank (merlot-based).

An end of tasting vote indicated that the older wines were generally preferred, but the audience was split about their preference for the more intense left bank or the softer right.

Another helpful tip before drinking an oldie — the conversation about vintage includes the effects of aging. When we talk about vintage, we’re referring to the effect of weather conditions during the year the grapes were grown.

When we talk about age, we’re talking about the effect of wine sitting in the bottle. There are chemical changes going on inside that bottle while the cork lets in a tiny amount of air. Tasting older wines against newer wines allows us to have a conversation about the year the wine was made, as well as how it has changed during storage.

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You’ll probably notice that the condition of the fruit changes. Younger wines tend to have riper fruit flavors, while you may notice earthy and spicy flavors first in older wines and the fruit may be well-integrated, drier or baked. Chains of tannins may join and break apart during storage. Older Bordeaux tannins are often perceived to be softer.

Lastly, lets not ignore the price tag on older Bordeaux. Am I paying for the name of a prestigious Chateau rather then quality? Hortense thinks the price is proportional to quality. She says “Bordeaux prices go up and down, but California keeps increasing.” I don’t know whether this generalization can be proven, but it is encouraging for those intimidated by investing in an older old world bottle.

The Wine Tour de France continues with two more tastings. The Importance of Grapes is on Monday, April 18th at 7:00pm and will discuss varietals, which differ vastly from grape to grape and from continent to continent.

The Many Hues of Rosé is on Monday, May 23rd at 7:00pm. Consider checking it out if you are interested in a posh tasting. You’ll appreciate rosé even more once you know the particulars of the beautiful pink wine.

Katie Le Seac’h is a freelance writer and sommelier living in Brooklyn. She writes about wine, food and parenting.

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