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What Makes a Good Year for Wine? Focus on These Indicators

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What year wine is best? This is a question many novices ask themselves. In this article, we will guide you to the wine’s best periods with an overview of vintage years. But before diving into the subject, let’s understand what vintage means. When it comes to the subject of wine, one of the terms that many people tend to find complicated and confusing is the term “vintage.” 

It seems that different people, when asked the question, “What does the word vintage mean?” will have varying ideas on the true meaning. However, the true meaning of the word “vintage” is quite simple.  A wine’s vintage is simply the year in which the grapes that were used to make the wine were picked.

Read below for more interesting facts on what makes a good year for wine and why. 

What Makes a Good Year for Wine?
What Makes a Good Year for Wine?

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What Makes a Good Year for Wine?

The answer to this question almost always lies in the weather conditions of the region in which the grapes were grown that particular year. When climates of very specific regions are discussed, they are often referred to as micro-climates. The micro-climate of any particular wine-growing region can and often do vary from one year to the next.  

In addition, different grape varieties can respond to different micro-climatic conditions in their own particular way.

For example, Syrah/Shiraz usually responds very well to dry and sunny conditions that favor the ripening of its sugars, which are the key ingredient of its particular style. 

This explains why Shiraz/Syrah producers in South Australia have been particularly successful in producing wines made from this grape.  

On the other hand, Sauvignon Blanc tends to respond very well to a somewhat cooler and damper microclimate, which is why it thrives in the Loire Valley and New Zealand’s South Island.

What happens if the micro-climate does not cooperate with the grape variety that is being grown?

What if the usual sunny and dry conditions that are favorable for Syrah/Shiraz productions turn into cloudy and damp conditions for a particular year? 

This becomes the true test of a masterful wine producer, as they will then need to use their knowledge and experience to overcome the hand that nature dealt them. 

The best wine producers can manipulate the winemaking process and use techniques that will extract the best possible performance from the grapes. 

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Does a Year Matter for Wine?

Does a Year Matter for Wine?
Does a Year Matter for Wine?

The year matters for wine because a wine’s vintage (the year in which the grapes were harvested) can greatly affect the taste and quality, primarily because of the weather that affects the vines throughout the growing season. Essentially, the defining feature of a vintage is sunshine. Sunny days give grapes the best chance of reaching full maturity and optimum ripeness levels.

If a region receives too much rain and clouds, grapes do not fully ripen, may be more prone to rot and disease, and tend to deliver lower quality grapes.

On the other hand, if the region is too hot (too many days above 92 ºF / 33 ºC) and sunny, then grapes become raisinated before they fully ripen and the resulting wines may be flabby or have bitter tannins.

Let’s take a look at an example below. 

Australia endured a stormy 1990, and this is a good example of how each year may have very different weather condition, independent from the year before, and within each year, the particular weather conditions that a region experience affects different varieties of grapes grown within that region in a different manner.

What this means is that one cannot make a blanket statement like “1998 was an excellent year for Australian wines.” While it is true that it may have been an excellent vintage for Australian Shiraz, it may be a less than ideal vintage for Australian Sauvignon Blanc.

To be a true expert on the vintages of wine, an expert must truly understand the numerous regions in the world where particular grapes are produced, how certain weather conditions affect each of those particular grapes, and what the weather patterns were in each region for a given year! This can definitely be a challenge! 

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What Was the Best Year for Wine?

The answer to question of what was the best year for wine can be best answered with an example of the year 2014 in Italy. Savvy consumers know where to look for the best wine deals.

A good vintage is a great time to buy value wine because good grapes coming into the cellar mean less work (and less expertise) is needed from the winemaking.

2014 was a great vintage year for red wines from Sicily and Sardinia and offers tremendous value from this stellar Italian vintage! 

Keep in mind that while one vintage may spell disaster for a region’s red wine crop, the cooler temperatures may raise the bar on regional whites by compensating for crisp acidity and vibrant palate profiles.

What Was the Worst Year for Wine?

2018 was the worst ever on record for the Washington region. The heavy rains the region experienced that year helped to spread disease, which destroyed tons of fruit. The notorious black rot wasn’t the only problem. All that rain was bad for the grapes just by itself. 

The refrain echoed through grapevines all over the Washington region. Some growers said it was the worst year they had ever seen. The rain forced growers to make a tough decision: pick some grapes too soon or let them rot on the vine.

For the last 20 years, winemakers in Virginia and Maryland have strived to show the world that exceptional wines can be produced from grapes grown in this region, even though they say vineyards here struggle with more bad weather than their counterparts in the West.

But the weather in the year 2018 was very bad, maybe as bad as it had ever been, so it was very hard to find any redeeming wine from this year. 

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What Year Was Good for Wine? List for the last 10 Years

You can look at vintage charts to see experts’ opinions on vintages. Keep in mind that if it was a good vintage in one region, it might not be one in another.

Also, great vintage for red wines may not be as good for white wines from the same region. Take a look at the following list for the last ten years covering some of the various world’s wine regions.  

YearResultShort Explanation
2012BadA hit and miss wine year globally. However, more good wines were made than bad wines this year.
2013GoodNearly a perfect year in California!
2014GoodGood overall but with some problems in Europe because the summer was marked by dark and humid conditions.
2015GoodThe 2015 vintage was an excellent year for wine. Europe had an intensely hot summer and many regions were affected by drought, but luck seemed to be mostly on the growers’ side as the majority pulled through, delivering often stunning wines.
2016GoodThe 2016 vintage was mostly excellent. It was an El Niño year, which heavily influences weather systems, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere. Europe tends to be less affected. And in Europe, France enjoyed a wonderful year.
2017Mostly BadThe 2017 vintage is perhaps most notable for having both devastating touches of frost and wildfires. In France, there were clear winners and losers with many regions ravaged by severe April frosts. Although Bordeaux failed to produce a legendary vintage, some very good wines were made.
2018GoodCalifornia’s region’s major varieties fared well in 2018, despite the ongoing challenges of hand-picking old vines. Quality across the board was good, and fresh wines with nice acidity and good balance were produced.
2019GoodNew World wines were superb in 2019.
2020Good2020 was a wonderful year for wine even though Covid-19 kept many out of restaurants.
2021GoodMost of 2021 wines are not great for aging, but if drunk young, were delicious.
What Year Was Good for Wine?

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Conclusion

Virtually every bottle of wine will show the vintage year on the label.  There are exceptions to this, as fortified and sparkling wines, such as Champagne, tend to be non-vintage.  This is because these types of wine are often created from a blend of different vintages, in order to create a consistent product from year to year. 

There are instances, however, if there is an outstanding year that a producer will create a Vintage Champagne or a Vintage Port. 

As we learned above, great winemakers can create a good wine from poor grapes; but an average winemaker will only make an average wine, even if there is a harvest of perfect grapes.

This goes to show that the quality of a particular vintage of a wine is only as good as the particular winemaker that produces it.

Sometimes even the best of the best winemakers can be tested by the elements.  Long-term changes in a region’s micro-climate can trip up even the best wine producers. 

For example, the El Nino weather cycle, whose effect is particularly strong in Australia, often causes unpredictable weather patterns, with severe complications for the area’s wine producers. 

A specific example of this occurred back in 1993 when heavy rains led to a disastrous vintage of light-bodied wines. Then, just two years later in 1995, drought conditions led to extremely low yields, though the few grapes that were produced were of high quality.

Just three years later in 1998, Australia, then out of the El Nino grasp, enjoyed a long and warm summer that allowed for the production of a truly exceptional vintage.

And finally, in today’s tech-driven wine cellars the winemaker has plenty of fancy tools available to combat and compensate for less than stellar weather cycles in the worse vintage years. 

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