Old Wine

Vintage is a term that is thrown around when discussing wine as often as we open bottles, yet it’s a term that leaves many people confused. Below, we’ll explain, as simply as possible, what it means and why it matters.

To start, let’s define vintage: the vintage of the wine is the year the grapes that were used to make the wine were grown and picked. It is not the year the wine was bottled.

Vintage Label

Get the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.

We know the vintage of a wine because every wine must print the year its grapes were grown and picked directly on the front of the label (scroll to the bottom of this post for an exception to this rule). For example, if the wine we are drinking was made from grapes grown in the summer of 1995 and picked in the fall of 1995, the wine’s vintage would be 1995.

So why do we care about a wine’s vintage? As we know, wine is made from grapes, and to make great wine, everything starts in the vineyard. Just like other crops, every region around the world has good growing seasons and bad growing seasons. This means the quality and quantity of crops, in our case grapes, varies from year to year depending on external factors such as the weather.

Generally, grapes that are grown in better growing seasons (ones that are ideal for the grapes to thrive) will produce better wine. If the fruit is higher quality then the wine will taste better, and this is why we keep track of a wine’s vintage.

So when a buddy pulls out an age-worthy wine from say 1999, it’s not only important to know that the wine is old, but also to know whether or not 1999 was a great year for growing whatever grape was used to make that wine in whatever region that grape was grown. If it was an excellent year, that’s why this wine will be more expensive than a wine that’s been produced from the same grapes but grown in 1997, a year that may not have had a great growing season. This would make the 1997 cheaper than the 1999 even though the 1997 wine is older. Confusing, we know.

The most important thing to know about vintage, though, is that we keep track of it because the quality of grapes grown in the vineyard year after year varies. And that’s why we care about vintage.

To add a bit more confusion to the mix, there are many wines out there on the market that are called “non-vintage”–they don’t print a year anywhere on the label. An example of a very well known non-vintage wine is Yellow Tail. What non-vintage means is that grapes grown over several different years are used to create the wine, and so therefore we can’t assign one vintage year to the bottle. Mass market wines are commonly non-vintage, as producers need not only a ton of wine to make the hundreds of thousands of bottles they are producing, but they also want the wine to taste the same year after year, so they blend wines from different years together to create a consistent taste.