A bottle of wine typically has a year printed on its label. That year is the wine’s vintage, the year in which the grapes used to make the wine were harvested. It’s a useful piece of information for a discerning wine drinker to have – to a certain degree.
Vintage dates were first placed on bottles – the earliest versions were painted on the bottles or written in chalk – for a very simple purpose: to let the wine drinker know how old the wine was.
Those early wines were not laid down for extended periods of time with the belief that they would gain complexity and enhance enjoyment, so the vintage date wasn’t provided for that reason. Rather, the date was placed on the bottle as a reminder that the wine should be consumed before it had a chance to go bad.
This was particularly important when it came to white wines because – as is the case to this day – most whites have a shorter shelf life than most red wines.
Beyond the “use by” concept, vintages also can provide information about the wine’s potential style and quality.
An excellent example would be the 2003 vintage in France, a country known for producing somewhat austere wines that can take years of cellar and bottle aging before they reveal all of their aromas and flavors.
But 2003 proved to be an exception to the rule. That year was extremely hot in France, and a vast majority of the wines ended up being more fruitful and softer than usual, which made them much more accessible in their youth than is typical with French wines.
Even so, bottlings could still vary from appellation to appellation and even from chateau to chateau within a single appellation.
Ultimately, while its vintage can provide a clue about a given wine’s quality, only the wine itself can provide the “answer.”