In addition to being a sommelier/wine-shop owner/wine educator, I fancy myself a bit of a historian.

My first love, before that glorious fermented grape juice forever changed my path, was political science. This was my major in university, and I was all in. My grand plan was to go to law school, become a lobbyist for the AARP, make tons of money and live in Washington D.C.

Well, needless to say, that didn’t happen—and I couldn’t be more grateful for the unintended career switch. Looking back, I was able to happily make the transition not just because it involved a 23-year-old getting paid to drink (definitely a nice perk!), but also because so much of what I was learning about the wine world was directly related to what I was learning in my political science and history classes.

The fact that I could tie the Franco regime and White Terror of Spain in the 1930s to the destruction of countless vineyards and the near-obliteration of white wine grapes from places like Rueda fascinated me. I loved learning how countries like South Africa were able to rebuild their reputation and export wine after Apartheid, and how Argentina and Chile became wine powerhouses due to the influx of French and Italian immigration after phylloxera (an insect pest that targets grapevines). Wine became so much more than just a beverage with dinner: It was an ever-evolving time capsule that told a story.

However, I’ve always struggled with wines from a historical standpoint in one way: vintages. Good years, bad years, average years … I just couldn’t keep up. Anyone who really knows me understands that I’m not exactly a numbers gal. I can have an encyclopedic memory when it comes to storytelling, but you put a number in there somewhere, and it vaporizes right out of my mind.

So … this got me thinking about the importance of vintages. Does it really matter?

Yes. And no.

It’s been said that a great winemaker can make a good wine in a bad vintage. I have no doubt this is true; however, this would suggest that the person making the wine is more important than what happens in the vineyard. This contradicts the ever-popular winemaker mantra du jour that “wine is made in the vineyard.” I have no doubt, however, that this mantra is also correct. As long as the wine produced is an agricultural product and not a commercial one, what happens during the growing season will (or should?) determine what the wine’s outcome is.

So, if we can have it both ways, where the winemaker can trump the vintage, why is the year (and more importantly, the climactic events that happened that year) so concerning to us? Not to be obtuse, but maybe it’s only important where it’s important.

Wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Tuscany top the list of vintage significance, not necessarily because they experience wilder weather than, say, Mendoza, Argentina, but because of the limitations on what they can do about it.

In 2000, famed winemaker Michel Rolland put plastic tarps over the vineyards at Chateau Fontenil in Fronsac, Bordeaux, to protect them from the rains. This was a big no-no with the French government, and they charged him with violating the rules of the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, the wine governing body in France), and he was not allowed to put the region on the label. While this would seem silly to any other agricultural department (I mean, who wouldn’t do anything they could to protect their crop?!), in France, this was seen as manipulation and adulteration. The vintage gives you what it gives you.

Mendoza experiences hailstorms so often that growers have covering the vineyards with protective netting down to an art form. No fines. No rule violations. No government punishment.

There might be less-than-ideal conditions in certain areas—like the frosts that happened in New Zealand in 2021. But the frost didn’t diminish the quality of the wine, just the amount of wine produced.

We also see the importance of vintages in other wine regions like Champagne and Douro, Portugal, where there is a collective group that decides if a year is of high enough quality to produce a “single vintage” wine from those grapes; historically, it happens only a few times per decade. Having a consortium of “experts” tell us that this is the year for their wine to be released is genius. There’s nothing like creating a little hype to get the consumer dollars flowing.

But what about places like California, Australia or Spain? Here’s where the conversation changes. You’ll find wine enthusiasts that say the vintage will always be important, no matter where the grapes come from. I disagree.

There might be less-than-ideal conditions in certain areas—like the frosts that happened in New Zealand in 2021. But the frost didn’t diminish the quality of the wine, just the amount of wine produced. Your palate won’t notice a difference in the way your favorite Kiwi sauvignon blanc tastes, but your wallet will notice: A smaller harvest means less wine, and supply-and-demand dictates higher prices.

That same frost in 2021 destroyed a massive number of vineyards in France, from Champagne all the way down to Provence, and even over to the vineyards in central and northern Italy, resulting in not only in a smaller harvest, but a vintage that was deemed poor.  

California has always struggled with determining a vintage’s worth. The year 1997 was the first time we heard the term El Niño, and it was hailed by wine critics as a perfect year: Big, juicy and ripe, the wines were scoring off the charts with Wine Spectator and Robert Parker. In 1998, we learned that we were now in the La Niña year, and that meant bad newsot: Green, tight and tannic, the wines were initially declared a disaster by those same critics.

Ironically, while the ’97s were great right out of the gate and didn’t need any time in the cellar, they were short lived and became lackluster in the glass if you sat on them for a while. Wines from 1998, the year that was universally panned, ended up the clear marathon winners and showed their beauty after a few years cellared.

Even with more than 100 appellations, the Golden State remains fairly weather-consistent, a place where the topic of good versus bad vintages doesn’t seem to be very important. Spain, Chile, Argentina and Australia also offer up little variation from year to year and provide consumers with a delightful sense of security when grabbing a bottle off the shelf.

If you’re like me and find fun diving into wine books, jumping down the rabbit hole of vintage reports might be your thing. If you’d rather just open a bottle of wine and not fret about atmospheric rivers, look for countries that are a little more weather consistent—or head on over to your favorite little wine shop and ask the resident nerd. They live for this stuff.

Katie Finn drinks wine for a living. As a certified sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and as a Certified Specialist of Wine, she has dedicated her career to wine education and sharing her...

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1 Comment

  1. An interesting point but one I would debate is wrong. There is more than simply weather conditions applied to a vintage date and more world wine regions that rely on the vintage date than the French or Spanish. Living on the East Coast of these United States I assure you vintage is very important. The vintage signifies historic events like 1940 – 1944 Nazi occupation of France, or 1811 the year of the comet, or the fire years of 2017, 2018 & 2019. Most important is a vintners need to track what each season brought in association with the quality of the fruit and extract that season. Yes California has near perfect weather but the drought season of 1974 or the rain soaked spring of 1986 or the near perfect season of 1997 all help not only the consumer and geeky wine advocate but the grower and vintner track and improve growing and production practices based on what happened and how they combatted things like Phylloxera, the glassy winged sharp shooter or the lantern fly. There are roughly 267 AVA’s in America, 110 of these are in California, my point here is that while California may flip off the vintage date as unnecessary the other 157 AVA’s rely on tracking what happened every year to better improve their final product and remember what steps might be best when the weather or mother nature attack the vineyard again. This importance goes for almost every wine growing region in the world.

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