Vintage Dates—What’s the Big Deal?

A 12 bottle case of Chateau Mouton Rothschild from 1982 (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Wine is like any perishable food, it usually has a date on it. But it’s called a vintage date, and it’s really more of a reference point than a “consume by” date. It simply means the majority of grapes that went into the bottle were grown in that year, the percentage of which may vary by countries or states. But be assured that roughly 85 to 95 percent of these grapes are from the specific year on the bottle.

How important is this date? Well, vintages worldwide vary in quality from year to year. One year might bring really bad weather, with much of a crop lost or of poor quality. Another year might bring ideal conditions where all of the crop survives and prospers. And still another year might be exceptional, where some alignment of the stars (and the weather) results in an extraordinarily high-quality harvest.

Until about 30 years ago, the quality of each vintage was described in verbiage, such as: Excellent, Above Average, Average, Below Average, and Abysmal. Today, vintages are rated in numeric terms, usually between 80 to 100 points. Grape prices are usually tied to this level of quality, and the crop sold to wineries is priced accordingly. It’s fair to say that the subsequent wines made from each of these vintages will more or less mirror the quality of the grapes grown during that year. Of course there are exceptions, where a winemaker might have poor quality fruit yet achieve the equivalency of a winemaking miracle and deliver a beautiful wine. But, more often than not, the quality of the wine-growing year is translated directly to the bottle.

Generally, great vintages command higher prices, and weaker vintages, lower. The wines from great vintages are also presumed to age better and age longer than lesser vintages. So the importance of the vintage date is that it’s a harbinger of quality, and has a direct effect on the cost (or value) and age-ability of a wine.

What if there’s no date on the label? The wine may be labeled “NV” (non-vintage), or some generic equivalent of Red or White wine, or merely state the region of origin (Champagne or Port). An NV or lack of vintage usually means the wine is made from multiple vintages, with less than the required percentage necessary to label it with a single vintage date. These are often considered inferior, but in many instances, NV wines are sought out for their value. For instance, Champagne and Port will not declare a vintage every year. In the off years when they don’t, much of the wine is bottled as multi-vintage, without a specific date. But the blending of these multiple vintages always achieves a very nice wine, and the price of these wines is usually much lower than their vintage counterparts.

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