Question from Jon: Is the vintage year important when purchasing red wines?
Answer: Hi, Jon. Thanks for writing! You’ve asked a complicated question, so I’ll do my best!
I always think the vintage is important because I want to know how old the wine is to begin with. The vintage date is the harvest date and tells you the wine’s true age. But, I suspect you’re wondering about quality differences from vintage to vintage. People love to say “that was a good year!” and the logical question to follow is “where?” For instance, 2000 was a great year in Bordeaux and more of an average year here. By coincidence 2005 happened to be really good in both regions. It’s all about the weather.
In warm, sunny climates like the Napa Valley the differences from year to year certainly exist, but they’re not as significant as they are in more challenging climates such as the Burgundy region in France or the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Our weather here is blissfully boring and predictable, and boring is beautiful when you’re a farmer. It’s not to say the years are the same, and you’ll hear that 2005 and 1997 were some of our best all-time vintages but, in general, we enjoy very good luck weather-wise. When I buy cold-climate wine, I like to take a quick look at my vintage chart to make sure I’m not about to purchase a wine from a “bad” year. Difficulties with rainfall at the wrong time or low temperatures that don’t allow the grapes to ripen properly are more common in cold climates than they are here. In most parts of California, more often we worry about hot temperatures ripening the grapes too quickly.
You don’t necessarily want to interpret these charts as “gospel” because wineries can have good luck on bad years or vice versa. For instance, you may read that 2006 was a poor year for Chardonnay on the north coast of California because so many vineyards were damaged by ill-timed rain. We were lucky at Goosecross and brought in our Chardonnay before the rain and it’s one of our best yet (not yet released, but soon!).
Getting back to the true age of the wine, it’s important to know your own preferences. For instance, if you like lots of fruity character you’ll enjoy the wine more when it’s young. Fruitiness is always a youthful trait. If you like your Cabernets big, fruity and powerful, as many of us do, then you should drink them young. As the Cabernet ages it gains complexity as the fruit gradually gives way to earthy, tobacco-like or leathery aromas and it gains subtlety and softness.
It’s smart to make a quick check on the vintage for whites, too, because the vast majority of them are at their best if you drink them within three years of the vintage date. Dessert wines and sometimes Chardonnay can be exceptions.
There’s more about this on our website or you can listen to our podcast if you like. We even have a Napa Valley vintage recap of our own! Since an off year is so rare here, it’s more of a recap than a rating by vintage.
I hope this is helpful to you. Thanks again for writing! Cheers! Nancy