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Embracing the Vintage: Musings on Producing, Keeping and Drinking Vintage Wine
By Marguerite Thomas
Oct 13, 2020
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Have you heard this one?  “I told my wife that a husband is like fine wine--he gets better with age.  The next day she locked me in the wine cellar.”

Okay, maybe not that funny…but it did make me think about those people who stash a case (or several cases) of specific vintages of premium wine in their cellar, opening a bottle every now and then to see how the wine is evolving.  The expectation, of course, is that since fine wines generally improve with age these wines may taste just fine now but will get even better as time goes by.  Some people lay wines down with resale in mind, but that is a different issue altogether as we are talking here about people who are squirreling away wine for their own future enjoyment.  And there was a time when wine-loving parents would put away a case of wine for their newborn child to enjoy in 18 or 20 years.  I don’t know if people are still doing that, but one of the drawbacks to this type of gambling on the future is that sometimes that particular vintage does not turn out as well as expected (I mean the wine, not the child).  

It is hard to find specific information about the number of people who are currently laying down wine, but my guess is that fewer people are doing so today for a host of different reasons.  The growth rate of premium wine in general has been decelerating since late 2015, and wine consumption in the U.S.  dipped for the first time in 25 years in 2019 according to research from IWSR, which tracks trends in the wine, spirits and beer industry.  Millennials appear to be drinking less wine than previous generations, and a 2018 study reported by Penn State Extension indicates that members of Generation Z drank over 20% less wine per capita than Millennials did at the same age.  It’s also possible in this era of Covid-19 that more people are pessimistic about the future in general, so if you believe we’ve reached that moment predicted by William Butler Yeats’ in his 1919 poem The Second Coming--“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed”—then why not just drink that lovely wine that’s sitting in your cellar now instead of saving it for a tomorrow that might never come?

The reality is that the majority of wine drinkers do not lay wine down for the future.  For some people the emotional ramifications of following that path could be stressful, or as Eric Asimov put it in his New York Times column, “Aging wine is an act of hope and optimism laced with fear and dread.”  For others, impatience may be the driving factor as the fact that most wine is consumed within one to three years after it was released suggests.  

According to a recent survey by YouGov.com, only 17% of American wine buyers think a wine’s vintage date is important.  And for that matter the meaning of the word “vintage” itself can be confusing--is it the date the grapes were planted, or when fermentation began, or when the wine was bottled?  As most of our Wine Review Online readers probably know, “vintage” refers to the year the grapes were picked.  However, did you also know that the word “vintage” comes from the French word vendange (“vendange” is used only to describe the harvest of grapes, while récolte is the word for harvesting other crops including fruits, vegetables and grains).  

For most of us, that vintage date on the bottle of wine doesn’t tell us a whole lot about how the wine will taste, but for more serious wine consumers and/or collectors, knowing what year the grapes were picked may reveal hints about how a given wine will taste (a cooler year often yields fresh and lean wines with, perhaps, good aging potential, whereas unseasonably warm weather could produce sweeter, denser wine).  For a winemaker, vintage is all-important.  Will the weather variations in a specific year change the vintner’s approach to making the wine? Given the treasure trove of tools and techniques available to modern-day vintners (including different types of yeast, reverse osmosis and so on), how much do they try to control or compensate for variations in vintage?  With questions such as this in mind, I asked Theresa Heredia, winemaker at Gary Farrell Winery, to share some of her views.  Here are some of her thoughts on vintage variations, which deserve to get the last word on the subject, at least for this column:

“Vintage variation is as important as site specificity, in my opinion.  I don’t try to control how the vintage imparts its own unique characteristics to the wines because it would require too much manipulation.  Using 2015 and 2017 as examples, the 2015 crop was tiny.  Pinot Noir berries were small, as were the clusters, which meant we saw a higher skin-to-juice ratio than in much bigger crop years such as 2013 for example.  Both of those harvest seasons were also very warm, so the vintage variation is mostly due to the drastic difference in crop size and resulting concentration of fruit flavors and tannin.  I fully embraced the 2015 vintage character of concentration and structure.  I would have had to add fining agents to reduce the tannin concentration, which we just don’t do.  
 
As for 2017, the crop size was above average, but it was really hot at the start of harvest.  We started picking early and picked a lot of grapes very quickly to avoid desiccation and raisin-like flavors as much as possible.  Because we did this, the vintage expression in our wines is beautiful, bright and aromatic, with really balanced tannins, as opposed to being ripe and jammy.  Quite different than what one might expect from such a hot harvest season.  
 
In the end, I suppose my way of controlling vintage variation is a stylistic preference, which is to always try to pick when the flavors are fresh and vibrant, with as much natural acidity as possible.  I prefer to address it straight away with my picking decisions, and avoid manipulating the wines later.  Beyond that, I embrace what the vintage has to offer.”