A vintage-dated wine is designated so when at least 95 percent of the grapes used were harvested in that year. A wine's taste, complexity, and quality can change from one vintage to the next, mainly influenced by weather, especially in areas with varying climates and severe watering restrictions -- like France. For instance, their 2003 vintage, when all of Europe succumbed to 100-plus-degree heat during the summer, produced completely uncharacteristic wines. They were higher in alcohol, with in-your-face ripe fruit -- a far cry from their normal austerity. That's why it behooves you to pay attention to the vintage in French wines.
France has watering restrictions for two reasons: It keeps production down and quality up. Lack of water stresses a vine so it produces less fruit with stronger, more concentrated flavor and, thus, higher quality. Higher quality means more cash for the vineyard owner and, as a result, more tax revenue for France. Spain and Italy have also practiced irrigation limitations over the years, although they're not as draconian.
Does that mean you need to keep a vintage chart in your wallet for $10, everyday purchases? Not exactly.
In warm, sunny regions like California and Australia, where the weather is fairly consistent and there are few government restrictions on vineyard management, vintage dates don't matter so much. Due to the lack of weather extremes during harvest, wineries can produce more consistent product year after year. Unless some kind of natural disaster occurred during a particular harvest -- hail storms, fire, or floods -- the wine in the bottle is probably pretty close to last year's version. Of course, there are better years -- like the 1997 vintage in California -- but all in all, you're safe.
But there are times when knowledge of the good vintages will come in handy. Let's say you want to celebrate with a bottle of Bordeaux or Burgundy: Before you go popping a Franklin or more on this special bottle, it's good to know if the wine will pay you back.
Thankfully, there are some "no-brainer" regions when it comes to choosing good vintages. In France's Champagne region and Portugal's Oporto region (where Port originates), a vintage is only declared in outstanding years. If the wines for a particular year don't meet high standards, they use them in nonvintage blends instead. So vintage Champagne from France or a vintage Port from Portugal are safe investments.
Here are some recent French vintages that "people who know" have gushed over:
• Bordeaux: 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004
• Burgundy: 2000, 2002, 2003
• Rhône Valley: 2001, 2003, 2004
To find out more about vintage years, including which years these wines should be consumed for maximum pleasure, check out www.vintage-charts.com. But none of this stuff is an exact science. A talented winemaker can make good wine even in bad years, and vice versa.
To test all this out, see if you can find a "vertical" of the same wine -- a series of vintages from the same maker. Compare them. Even if you can't taste the difference, at least you'll have an excuse to drink three bottles at once.
Chateau St. Jean 2005 Gewürztraminer Sonoma County -- This is a grape that everyone loves but finds hard to pronounce (Guh-VERTS-tra-MEE-ner). This rendition is wildly floral, with fragrant peaches, ripe mango, and sweet honey. $15