Vintage charts summarize the quality and character of the wines from a particular region in a specific year. While general in nature, they can help you make good decisions when faced with unfamiliar wines or help you determine when wines you've already bought will be drinking at their best.
Wine Spectator's editors rate new vintages and provide updates on older vintages based on blind tastings and analysis of hundreds of wines from each region.
Each vintage rating consists of three components:
Score: Indicates the general quality of the wines on our 100-point scale. A score range, rather than a single score, indicates preliminary analysis based on unfinished barrel samples or a limited sampling before most of the wines have been released.
Drink recommendation: Suggests when most wines from the vintage will be at their best.
Description: Sums up the growing season and the wines' characteristics.
Wine Spectator editors establish vintage ratings based on a combination of data:
Weather data (such as average temperature, rainfall, severe storms or frost) can help create an overall picture of a vintage, its character and quality. Cool, rainy years often produce light, early-maturing wines. In contrast, extremely hot, dry years can yield unbalanced wines that don't benefit from aging.
Interviews with growers and winemakers help to complete the picture. For example, if they report a larger-than-average crop, that can explain why the wines show signs of dilution in our blind tastings. Experienced vintners can compare the current harvest with past vintages, a valuable way to assess quality and provide perspective. Their opinions are based on weather conditions, the quality and maturity of the grapes at harvest and their evaluations of the young wines.
But all this information can be used only as supporting evidence. What counts is how good the wines are in the bottle.
Above all, we evaluate vintage quality based on how the wines show in our blind tastings. It takes time and hard work to accumulate enough tasting notes to make an accurate generalization about vintage quality. In most cases, we taste hundreds of wines before rating a vintage; at a minimum, for small subregions, we sample dozens of wines.
For some wine types, blind tastings may take place over a period of years, so it takes longer to reach a final evaluation of the vintage. For example, red Bordeaux may first be tasted while the young wines are in barrel. Then, when the wines are released in bottle two years later, we blind taste them again. Other wines, such as California Cabernet, may be released over a three-year period, depending on how long their winery ages them.
We then analyze our tastings, looking at the number of classic (95 to 100 points) and outstanding (90 to 94 points) ratings and the average score of all wines tasted from the given vintage. The number of low-scoring wines is equally informative.
Finally, we rate the vintage. There are no formulas that generate these vintage ratings. In the end, our ratings reflect not simply a statistical equation, but our editors' judgments based on long experience of overall quality and style.
Not all regions or wine types call for a vintage chart. We've created charts for regions that meet three basic criteria:
Many classic European regions are represented because of their traditions of producing top-quality wines that can evolve over decades. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont and Tuscany are examples. In contrast, many emerging regions haven't yet established a track record for aging, making it premature to predict how a vintage will fare over time.
Some wine types, especially many of the world's whites, are best enjoyed within a year or two of bottling. Red wines have the benefit of tannic structures to assist longevity. However, white wines from certain regions can develop into advantageously old age; examples include white Burgundy, German Riesling (especially the sweeter styles) and great vintages of sweet Loire wines.
Some wine regions are so large that a single vintage rating could be more misleading than revealing. Others are so small that they don't produce enough wines to allow a solid assessment.
We also focus on regions or areas where the wines carry specific, delimited appellations. A Chardonnay from Carneros will reflect more truly the localized character of the vintage than a Chardonnay carrying the broader California appellation, which may be sourced from several regions around the state.
Most regions' charts reflect the vintages of wines still available in retail shops or at auction. For some regions, we go back farther, depending on the age-worthiness of the best wines. Vintage Port undergoes possibly the longest, slowest maturation process in the bottle, needing 15 to 20 years to fully integrate and soften its massive tannins.