Different types of wine

Vintage vs non vintage wine

By BBC Maestro

If you’re a wine drinker, you may have heard the term ‘vintage’ being used to describe a certain wine. If you’re unsure about what vintage wine is or what the difference is between vintage vs non-vintage wine, you’ve come to the right place.

Wine terminology can be confusing, so we’ve put together a guide to help demystify the world of vintage wines.

What is a vintage wine?

The vintage of a wine refers to the year in which the grapes that produced it were harvested. This type of wine is sometimes referred to as ‘single vintage wine’, because all of the grapes used to make that wine come from a single harvest year or a single crop.

When you look at the label of single vintage wines, you’ll see a year listed alongside the type of wine and the wine region. The year corresponds to the year the grapes were grown, and that’s how you know what vintage the wine is.

What is a non-vintage wine?

A non-vintage wine is one which is made with grapes from different vintages. That means a bottle of non-vintage wine might be made up of grapes from two different harvest seasons, or even more.

When looking at the label of a non-vintage bottle of wine, you won’t see a year listed. They may say ‘N.V.’ on them, which stands for ‘non-vintage’.

This is typically the case for port, sparkling wine and Champagne. These tend to be non-vintage, as it means the winemakers have more control over creating a consistent taste profile from year to year (unlike if they were to rely on the same crop tasting the same each year).

Barrels of wine

What else do you need to know about vintage wines?

The year in which grapes were harvested can have a big impact on the taste and quality of a bottle of wine. That’s because the weather can affect the grape vines throughout the growing season. Depending on the weather conditions in a particular wine region, a wine vintage can be deemed ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

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What makes a good vintage?

In Jancis Robinson’s BBC Maestro course, An Understanding of Wine, she speaks to winemaker Jeremy Seysses to find out more about what makes a good vintage. He explains that:

“A great vintage is when you pick it at the right level of ripeness and where the fruit is perfectly healthy.”

However, ever-changing conditions can make this more challenging. Some weather conditions that can have an impact on the vintage include:

  • Excessive rain: As Jancis Robinson explains, “a particularly rainy year can encourage fungal diseases, swell the grapes and dilute flavour.”
  • Drought: Too much rain is problematic, but the opposite is true too. Jancis clarifies: “Drought years, especially in warm climates, can result in grapes with particularly thick skins and a shortage of juice so the resulting wines may well taste a bit tannic and drying.”
  • Disease: Some years, grape vines are particularly afflicted by disease. This is bad news, as Jeremy Seysses explains, “in a year when there was a lot of disease pressure, some of the canopy of the vines is a little damaged so the vines don’t ripen so easily anymore.”
  • Weather that’s too hot: If the weather is too hot, grapes can become overripe, altering the taste and viscosity.
  • Weather that’s too cold: If the weather is too cold, grapes can fall victim to frost, which means the grapes may not ripen fully.
  • Big temperature shifts: The difference in temperature between day and night is known as a diurnal shift, and it can affect the acidity levels of wine.  “A lot of grape varieties only like a limited range of temperature shift,” says Jeremy Seysses, which is why you rarely see grapes growing on mountains – where temperatures fluctuate dramatically during the day and night.

As you can see, there are a lot of different factors that all have to align to get a good vintage. A vintage with the right weather conditions, including plenty of sunshine and the right amount of rain will generally produce a better quality wine than a vintage with worse and more sporadic weather.

Of course, this can vary from region to region, even within the same year. As Jancis explains:

“Vintages are seldom uniformly good, medium, or bad, even within a small area. A generally recognised ‘vintage’ year can have its failures, often for reasons totally beyond the competence of vignerons and winemakers.”

The opposite is true, as well:

“Equally, ‘poor’ vintages can usually still produce good wines from particular locations and grape varieties, either because of the characteristics of the terroir or thanks to more precise vineyard management, or both.”

Superior-quality vintages tend to command higher prices than poor-quality vintages. However, because there can be such a variety, even within a vintage that’s considered quality (and vice versa), it’s a good idea to read up on different vintages from different wine regions if you’re looking to invest.

Many wine experts use vintage charts, which rate each vintage and suggest whether the wine is suitable for drinking now or should be stored before consumption until it reaches its potential. These can be useful for a quick overview, but Jancis Robinson goes into more detail about the growing conditions for each wine region on her website which may be more useful in helping you to make a decision.

The tops of wine bottles

Is vintage wine better than non-vintage wine?

Not necessarily. It all depends on what you’re looking for.

A vintage wine gives you a specific experience of what a particular wine region’s produce was like given the weather and growing conditions of the grapes grown in a single year.

A non-vintage wine, on the other hand, ensures a more consistent experience. For example, if you drank a Burgundy from every year, it could taste quite different. Non-vintage Burgundy, on the other hand, is designed for consistency, so every bottle you open gives you the same experience.

Some wines taste better the longer you keep them, whereas others are intended to be drunk in the first few years after they’re made. If you prefer to go for non-vintage wines, Jancis has some advice:

“If it’s white or pink, you probably want to drink it as young as possible. Really, probably the same year that’s on the label or the year afterwards. Reds can last slightly longer if they’re really inexpensive, but only slightly. Most such wines are actually at their best pretty much straight off the bottling line. They’re made to be consumed immediately.”

When is the vintage important?

If you do want to try vintage wine, there are some occasions when it matters more than others.

If you’re a fan of wine from regions that have unpredictable weather (like northern France, Germany, New Zealand, and northern Italy), then the vintage is more important than those from wine regions with a much more reliable climate. That’s because there’s likely to be more variability in the weather year to year, meaning a bigger disparity between the quality of the wine each year.

On the other hand, wine regions with more consistently sunny weather, like central Spain, Australia, California and southern Italy, tend to have less vintage variation year after year. That means most vintages are likely to be of a high quality.

For wine enthusiasts who are also collectors, purchasing wine from a good vintage can significantly increase the value of your collection. Vintages do come in and out of vogue though, so don’t be afraid to take a chance on a less popular vintage if you think it might come back into fashion.

Whether you prefer vintage wine or non-vintage wine really comes down to personal preference. You could even use our wine tasting template to compare different vintages and table wines to find your favourite.

If you want to find out more about wine, there’s no one better to learn from than Jancis Robinson and her course, An Understanding of Wine.

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