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A New Vintage: “Secrets” Explained

Why do wine vintages matter? 

“There’s nothing worse than a bunch of jaded old farts, and that’s a fact.” -R. Plant

I read an interview recently where Robert Plant, singer for Led Zeppelin, was asked to name his favorite Zep record. Of course he dodged the question, saying he loves them all for different reasons, but his description of why all of those records from the same artist can sound so different struck me. He said, “The external stimuli changed… so the songs are full of lots of different meanings. Each album has a different atmosphere.” 

His response got me thinking about vintage variation in wine, and how an artist [in this case, the winemaker] crafts wines from one vineyard that, from year to year, express subtle variations in flavor, color, and aroma. 

The 2023 RedThumb varietals will be on shelves soon. And like the aforementioned British rocker, I don’t have a favorite vintage; the slight differences are confirmation of a living, dynamic wine. Some years yield a pale rosé; other years a darker one. The ABV might be 12% this year, 13% next year.  So what are the “external stimuli” influencing these characteristics? 

How does climate affect a vintage?

The primary cause of vintage variation is climate; specifically, temperature and rainfall. Wine magazines will often describe a year as “warm” or “rainy,” but that’s an oversimplification. Just as impactful as the deviation itself is when it takes place. Take, for example, a condition known as “wet feet” in which waterlogged roots struggle to pull nutrients from the soil. The cause? A rainy spring. On the other hand, rain late in the season can make grapes swell with water, diluting the flavor of the juice.

Likewise, temperature fluctuations can hugely impact wine vintages. A few degrees warmer or cooler can alter the sugar and acid content of grapes, and, for better or worse, influence the final flavor. 

In more extreme cases, early-season frosts can damage buds before they become fruit, while late-season heat can spoil ripened fruit on the vine. These are critical variables that vignerons need to consider when they make decisions in the vineyard, as these are the choices that lead to the subtle flavor differences from one year to the next.

“A good year”: for premium wines only?

More and more, discussion of a “good vintage” of a particular wine or region has been relegated to the high-end, expensive, age-worthy wines out of reach for most consumers. But all wine grapes are subject to the same external influences in any given year, so why doesn’t the flavor of a bottom-shelf Cabernet noticeably change from vintage to vintage? 

One reason is that more often than not [prepare yourself], your hump day Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t entirely Cabernet Sauvignon. In the state of California, for example, a wine labeled as a single varietal [aka wine made from just one type of grape] is only required to contain 75% of that grape. The remaining 25% can be any other wine grape. 

That Cabernet is not 100% that bitch

In the case of a California Cab, winemakers will often blend in grapes like Petit Syrah, Merlot, or Zinfandel to make a “Cab” that tastes like what their customers expect. Not to mention beaucoup chemical additives conventional winemakers use to adjust flavor, aroma, color, mouthfeel, etc. The result of this weird science are wines that are consistent from vintage to vintage, but lifeless and void of character.

But fear not the inevitable homogeneity of all things [or at least as far as wine is concerned]. As natural wine moves into the mainstream, let’s tune in to subtle variations our in each of our favorite wine vintages. These differences should be celebrated as evidence of thoughtful winemaking that allows the vineyards to speak.