The Differences in Vintage
In contexts outside of winemaking, the word vintage holds the connotation of antique, old or classic. With the age statements that appear on fine bottles of whiskey, it stands to reason that an older vintage date on the packaging would inevitably belong to the higher-quality spirit. However, any wine enthusiast would be quick to point out that this is a misconception.
In winemaking, vintage refers to the process of harvesting, or picking the grapes to be used in wine. If the grapes used in a single bottle were all picked within the same calendar year, that year is known as the vintage, and it will usually appear on the bottle's label. As you know, the weather patterns from one year could be extremely different from those of the very next year. That's why a wine's vintage may have a significant impact on its balance, finish or overall taste.
Harsh winters could kill grape vines; an unexpected frost in the spring could damage premature buds; and a summer could be cursed with rain. But, no matter the circumstances, all weather is local. One region may have a difficult vintage, while another raises excellent varietals. There's even such thing as the weather being too perfect, as we see in regions where variation in weather patterns is desirable for the grapes to achieve a certain degree of ripeness. In short, the weather carries a heavy hand in the way that it can impact a grape's overall performance.
Possibly the most important aspect to remember about vintage is that it can only be used as a guideline for the quality of a wine. The weather conditions of a certain year and region may be flawless, but there is still a long way to go before those grapes become a wine worth serving at the dinner table. A winemaker could start with perfectly harvested grapes, but one misstep in the fermentation process could alter the wine's course forever. Likewise, a vintage that produces a less-than-desirable harvest could still yield an excellent wine when developed by a skilled winemaker.
Learning about vintages and studying weather patterns is one way to narrow down the wines you may prefer most. However, the best way to decide between bottles is to try the wines yourself. Everyone's taste buds are different—and yours are the only ones that matter.