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Great Vintages: What they are, why they matter, and why they don't.

Great Vintages: What they are, why they matter, and why they don't.

Adapted from Great Vintages, an edition of Parcelle Press, Parcelle's Wine Zine.


On nearly every bottle of wine, you will see four numbers inscribed on the label. Unless you’re very fancy, nowadays, the first two numbers will always be 19 or 20. This is the vintage. Simply put, the vintage is the year the grapes for that particular wine were picked. But why does that matter?


In wine, the vintage can tell you a lot about what’s inside the bottle. People who “know about wine” use the vintage as a quick reference to identify both objective measures and, if they’re savvy, the subjective forces that give the number meaning. The structure of the wine and the weather inherently have an effect on whether or not a vintage is deemed good. Add to that the opinions of critics and the view of collective culture, and you’ve got a list of factors that add up to whether a vintage is something to be proud of, or if it will forever be sitting alone at the lunch table.


We believe that if you care enough about what you drink to care about the vintage, then you should understand what happened that year to understand whether you’ll like the wine. (We don’t necessarily think you should drink it just because someone said it’s a good vintage.) But we also believe that as long as winemakers are able to get across the annual finish line of harvesting grapes, chances are there’s some pleasure to be found in their wine, even if it’s different from the last vintage you loved—and frankly, that’s what keeps this whole wine-drinking thing fun. Vintage matters, but to us, the idea of a good year isn’t as interesting as the idea of a good wine.

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A vintage is most relevant when the wine at hand is age-worthy and collectible. Usually, these are wines from the classic regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Barolo, Napa Valley. This is the type of wine that someone may collect and age for ultimate satisfaction at a later date.


Aging wine is a hobby and for many, even an obsession. It requires storage without much movement at an optimal temperature. Some people have dedicated spaces just for this purpose. Aging wine does not work in your kitchen cabinet—you should just drink those wines.


Certain vintages age better than others because of the wines’ structure, which is a combination of the acidity, the tannin, and the level of alcohol. It’s how the wine tastes. Structure does not mean whether a wine is big or light; rather, it’s the raw material. A common assumption is that big wines age best. But just like a lanky man can be the hot dog eating champion or a ballerina can be the strongest athlete, bigger does not always mean better.


Today, the best vintages are the wines that have the highest acidity. This shift is in part because consumers’ collective taste has moved towards more refreshing wines—and with global warming (we’ll get to that in a moment), some vintages are now too rich and too full bodied. If you think of a peach, it’s optimal at its moment of peak ripeness. After that, when it turns from juicy to jammy, it’s just… gross.


Some of the greatest old bottles in the world come from Burgundy, where the wines are light in body and low in alcohol—but Burgundy has high acidity. It’s why certain white wines are actually age-worthy too. Although white wine does not have any tannin, some, such as riesling and White Burgundy do contain an abundance of acidity.

The Wonder Years

Some producers will only make certain wines in what they feel are the best vintages—and that’s because they only want to make the best wine. There’s no formula of factors to determine a “best” vintage. Sometimes it’s emotional, sometimes it’s collectively recognized, or sometimes it’s about making controversy.


Giacomo Conterno has only released their prestigious Barolo Monfortino in nine years since 2000. In other years, the same grapes go into their standard Barolo Cascina Francia.


Vietti has only made their renowned Barolo Villero in 13 years since 1982. In other years, those grapes go into a wine that costs 80% less.


The famous Champagne house Salon only made 37 vintages in the 20th century. Champagne is a particularly difficult place to declare a great vintage, and Salon represents the highest caliber of sparkling wine. For them, it would be shameful to make anything less than exceptional.

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These days, almost everything is vintage-marked—watches, cars, and even sneakers. But with those types of products, the weather of the year they were made doesn’t matter. Aside from diamonds, wine is the only collectible item we can think of that’s dependent on Mother Nature. Imagine if Ferrari made bad cars one year just because the sun didn’t shine enough.


The effect of the climate on wine is nuanced, but the most basic breakdown is to look at whether a year was cold, or as is increasingly common, hot. We don’t expect anyone to chart out the weather patterns of the South of France to determine whether they should be drinking this rose or that one. In fact, the vintage is nearly insignificant when discussing wines that are ready to drink in the first year they hit the market. But a general rule is that cooler years produce wines that are lower in alcohol, but higher in acidity, while the wines from warm years are bigger in body and lower in acidity. Remember, the combination of alcohol and acidity are the bones of a wine’s structure. So to some extent, structure and weather are inherently connected.


So how do you find a good vintage without studying The Weather Channel? You care more about how the wine tastes—and whether it tastes good to you—than what the vintage is. There are endless surprises of wines whose weather conditions don’t follow the great vintage recipe but have stood the test of time.

The Taste of Climate Change

Global Warming has caused the common flavor of some wine regions to change fundamentally, like Châteaneuf-du-Pape in France. The warmer the weather, the higher the alcohol content and the fruitier the flavor. This fact has pushed some wineries to explore areas that are higher in elevation, and has even put some regions on the map that were inhabitable for grapes previously—now you can get sparkling wine from England, for example.


Additionally, the unignorable increase in extreme storms and fires is so destructive that, really, we should worry a little more about saving the planet so we can continue to worry about how wine tastes. You know?


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It’s tough to remember, but before social media influencers, people read things on paper, like magazines and newsletters. One of those is The Wine Advocate. It was created by Robert Parker, America’s first (and likely only) Famous Wine Guy. Parker created the 100- point quality scale; using its simple calculation, he could declare a vintage as great or not so great. Many of the vintages we hold in high regard, we do simply because he said so. This is the stuff of subjectivity: A great Parker vintage is one that’s warm and has made the biggest and most powerful wines.


While any wine drinker today should respect what Parker achieved—and many do, as his point system is still widely used by other critics—it has created an obsession over the “best years” that deems some styles of wine as inferior simply because of the course the weather took that year. Not all wine is created equal, but in many instances, the vintage that was the dorky kid in high school went on to become your boss.

Points Make Money

Critics matter—for many wineries, receiving high points has been a game-changer. We’ve seen wines increase 3x in price simply because of a great rating. The winery Sassicaia’s 1985 vintage is 100 points. It trades around $3,000 a bottle, while the 1984 and 1986 vintages cost around $500. The 1985 is inarguably a superior wine, but its cost is also inarguably inflated as a result of its high score. In most instances, once a high-scoring wine, always a high-scoring wine.


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You can see how it all comes full circle: Weather impacts structure, which impacts the points rating. Now layer on culture. By “culture,” we mean what’s going on in the world collectively as well as what’s going on in the world to someone personally. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the quality of the wine.


Collectors love to stock up on wines from the birth years of loved ones, or in most instances, their own (we think it’s ok to celebrate yourself). Some people like to build a collection of vintages for a new addition to the family so they have a killer gift to share when that kid turns 21. And then some vintages resonate with all of us. The year 2000 speaks for itself, of course—and you can imagine 2020 wines won’t be flying off the shelves any time soon...


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