In vino veritas, part XVI: The importance of vintage

“A 2008 Chateau X? Or how about the 2009? Who cares about the year, just give me the one that tastes the best!” is a conversation you have probably overheard at a restaurant before. It might have even been you uttering these words at one point. Or, instead of asking for the best of multiple options, you’re simply demanding the cheapest. And, importantly, ask yourself how many times multiple vintage years of the same product appear on your wine list?

Unless a patron has previously visited a specific winery and participated in a vertical tasting of different vintages from the same vines, he or she probably won’t know very much about the nuanced aesthetic divergences from the same wine sampled year-over-year. Probably the three biggest components of a purchase year are price, varietal and where the grapes were sourced. Vintage year doesn’t really enter the equation. After all, this is bridging on the insider knowledge of sommeliers, and they probably wouldn’t want to divulge too much of their expert wisdom lest they become obsolete.

And so the question arises: Is a vintage’s year really important to the average consumer? Perhaps it isn’t at the moment. But therein lies an opportunity for you, the avid hotelier. The whole point of this “In vino veritas” running series is to enlighten you on various topics concerning wine, whiskey, beer, cheese and anything else in-between so you can pass the lesson along to your servers and they in turn can use said knowledge in conversations with patrons. It’s all about developing rapport and giving guests value. One way of accomplishing this is by being a proficient beverage guide to help patrons maximize the enjoyment of their meal.

Let’s try this again: Does vintage year REALLY matter? Yes, because it is one more piece of the puzzle your F&B team members should know so they can enrich dining experiences and possibly sell some booze in the process. The year by its very nature also tells the consumer whether the wine is sufficiently bottle-aged and ready for consumption or, perhaps, if it is past its prime.

Before the mass adoption of complex, computer-controlled drip irrigation systems, vintage used to be far more important than it is today. That’s because a drought might lead to underdeveloped grapes and low sugar volumes for the yeast to feed upon for the making of alcohol. But this problem is quite manageable nowadays, even with El Niño, La Niña and whatever other erratic “global warming” climate shifts come our way. However, consider the opposite: flooding or, at the very least, a month of heavy rain. This affects the quality of the topsoil and will dilute the concentration of sugars within the grapes, drastically changing the flavor in the process.

Year-over-year weather conditions for behemoth production regions like California and the Mediterranean are fairly stable, so the wines are also quite unwavering in their quality levels. Given that I live in Ontario, Canada, where we experience the full force of the four seasons, a farmer’s almanac is a good resource to accompany any talk of vintage year. Because the growing season in my local viticultural region, Niagara-on-the-Lake, is effectively May through mid-September, the best years are ones with heavy storms in the beginning of the summer with very hot, very dry August weather to help the grapes mature and ripen. If we get a wet August, we get wines with lower acidity, reduced tannins and less of a sugar hit on the palate.

But this only really applies to one of the most northern — and minor, from an overall volume of production standpoint — wine regions in the world. What about Australia, a continent where extremely low-precipitation, almost drought-like conditions are prevalent?

Many doubt that vintage year is even worth discussing at this point due to our technological prowess, but I argue it is still an element of the equation that patrons wouldn’t mind knowing a bit about. In fact, vintage has such a strong legacy you can actually buy wine futures, betting on how the wine will turn out based on the growing season’s weather patterns. Little morsels of knowledge like this are all you need to add some life to the conversation and generate better rapport with guests.