Vintage-Smintage: Does it Matter?

How are wine drinkers affected by lowering the required amount of grapes that must be from a single vintage in order to put the year on the bottle?

Answer: Not at all.

Currently U.S. winemakers are required have 95% of the grapes coming from a single vintage in order to put a vintage on the label. The Wine Institute, a lobbying organization of California wineries, is urging the federal government to lower that requirement to 85%. Currently the law in Europe, Australia and New Zealand is 85%. In Chile and South Africa it is 75%.

The Wine institute argues argues the change will allow winemakers to produce better, more consistent quality wines. And indeed it will. When you can blend more wine from a better vintage into a wine from a lesser vintage, you get a better bottle of wine.

The question is: Does this better bottle of wine have any relationship to the year that will be placed upon the label? This blogger says NO.

It seems to me that if you are going to market and promote your wine as the product of a place and time, it really should reflect a definitive place and a specific time. Yet those who will gain the most from the rule change, those who are already putting a "California" designation on the label, are not concerned with promoting a wine from a particular place and a particular year. They are concerned with getting bright, happy wines on the shelves that are drunk within days of their purchase. We are talking $3 to $7 bottles of wine.

So here’s a tip: Anyone buying wines at $3 to $7 really shouldn’t care that much about either the vintage or the geographic designation on the bottle.  Just drink it and enjoy it. Don’t invest to much consideration in the wine.

Smaller vintners who are concerned with serving customers who do invest consideration into the quality of the wine are the ones concerned with this rule change. This group of vintners are concerned with variation among wines, specificity of place and year, distinctiveness of their product. These are the vintners who talk a great deal about "terroir", the notion that a wine should have the character of the place where its grapes are grown.

These vintners are opposing the proposal suggesting it will lead to further homogenization of wine. They are correct—it will do this, a little bit. But what they don’t address in their opposition is that the vast majority of small winemakers actually give up any REAL devotion to REAL terroir when they produce a wine made from grapes grown in different vineyards, even if those vineyards are in the same small appellation. This makes their opposition to the vintage change a bit less substantial when they base it on the notion that a wine should be distinctive of the the place and time it was made.

The acquisition and exposition of real terroir can really only be achieved when you are working with a single vineyard. The variations in soils and even climate from two vineyards no more than a mile apart can be terrific. The wine that is produced from grapes grown in various, though nearby, vineyards really doesn’t expose anything in particular besides a varietal and the winemaker’s style of winemaking.

So, if the vintage rule changes to 85% from 95%, don’t all of a sudden claim you have lost your ability to make a distinctive, terroir-driven wine. That bunch fell off the vine a long time ago.

Still, the Wine Institute has tried to accommodate the concerns of small vintners by proposing that only wines that carry American Viticultural Area designation on the label will still be required to have 95% juice from a single vintage, while wines carrying a county-wide or broader appellation would be able to take advantage of the new 85% rule. What this means is a wine labeled Napa Valley must have 95% juice from ma single vintage, while a wine labeled Napa County could have 85% juice from a single vintage.

As Peter Haywood, former owner of Haywood Winery, current owner of the spectacular Los Chamizal Vineyard in Sonoma Valley and a former president of the Sonoma Valley Vintners Association notes in a Press Democrat article, this little legal twist will lead to more wines labeled "county" rather than with a smaller geographic designation.

However, it doesn’t matter.

Posted In: Wine Business


One Response

  1. Tyler - August 30, 2005

    I respectfully disagree–consumers deserve more truth-in-labeling, not less. If you’re ok to go from 95% to 85% on vintage, why not 75% or 51%? Or scrap it all together?
    I agree with you that for a certain type of wine vintage doesn’t matter but the trouble is the dilution of the rules. How is the consumer supposed to keep up with which laws apply to which wines?
    No matter which side of this debate your readers take, today is the last day for comment on the issue at the TTB.

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