The importance of vintage
Wine is an agricultural product. The grapes that are used to make wine are from relatively long term vines, many years old, which are tended in the vineyard over the growing year. These vines crop once a year in autumn and wine is made from that fruit.
The vintage or year of harvest, which is on written on the outside of a bottle, is the year the grapes were picked. In the Northern Hemisphere this is the year of the complete growing season. In our Southern Hemisphere, the growing season (spring, summer and autumn) spans the end of one year and the start of another, so the year on the label is the year of harvest.
Each vintage is a time capsule of weather, origin and history for that year of production. The year the grapes were picked and fermented into wine contains all of its components: summer sunshine and baking temperatures, rain, warm autumn days and cool autumn nights’ where the grapes were grown’ the soil’ the region and more. All of this is condensed into the glass of wine you pour from the bottle.
If you find a particular brand and style of wine you love, make a mental note of its vintage. As each growing season is different, so each vintage of the same named wine will also be different – sometimes markedly so. That’s why wines featured in this booklet have the vintage included in their description because that was the vintage that was judged and awarded a medal.
Some wines are termed ‘non-vintage’ as they are wines from several vintages blended together to create a similar style wine year after year. These wines don’t have a year on their label or may even state that they are non-vintage.
As well as giving us a picture of the positive aspects of the weather and growing conditions, wine will also show clearly the results of difficult growing conditions and these vintages are often designated lesser or poor years. This generalisation can be a double edged sword, as within any area there will always be sites which have their own unique microclimate. So against the odds of what is generally regarded as a vintage of poor wines can emerge wines that are absolutely stunning and fantastic buying for the discerning consumer.
It’s critical that the grapes are grown to produce the best quality fruit and that the fruit is physiologically ripe when harvested. There are two types of ripeness: sugar ripe and physiologically ripe. Physiologically ripe is when the fruit not only contains the desired sugar level but also tastes sweet and ripe and full of flavour. The process to get ripe grapes starts at the time of pruning in winter and continues with the care and management of the vines up until harvest. This is not a black and white process and is dependent on the weather and growing season and each year is different.
New Zealand is classified as a cool climate region and we tend to get, in ideal years, long cool ‘Indian Summer’ autumns. These allow the grapes to ripen slowly and steadily which produces intense ripe flavours without high sugar levels and the resulting high alcohol wines.
Unfortunately our climate is not always perfect. The skill of both the Viticulturist and Winemaker becomes critical in controlling disease and deciding when to harvest. For this reason the saying often used that “wine is made in the vineyard” is very true as it reflects that vintage’s growth and development.
Author: Jim Harre, Chair of Judges, New World Wine Awards