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Dear Dr. Vinny,
Why don’t some wines have vintage dates on their labels?
—Johnny M., Trenton, N.J
This is one of my most frequently asked questions, but it’s been a while since I’ve answered it. Thanks for giving me a chance to dust off my brain and take a new stab at it.
A wine’s vintage—the year that’s printed on the bottle—refers to the year that the grapes were harvested. Once the grapes are picked, the winemaking process begins, but it is typically months if not years before the wine is finished, bottled, and sold. That’s why most of the wines you see on wine shelves are from a few years ago. “Vintage” is also a way to refer to the grape “harvest” in many parts of the world.
Most fine wines are vintage wines, and that’s a reflection of how important vintages are. After all, vintages vary: A growing season can be cold, hot, wet, or dry, and winemakers have the challenge of expressing a vineyard, region, style or grape despite all the curveballs that Mother Nature can throw at them. It’s also one of the things that makes wine so fascinating—that it’s a bit of a time capsule for that year.
Some wines do not carry a vintage date, and they are known as “non-vintage,” or “NV” for short. The most popular categories of wines frequently made without a vintage are sparkling wines like Champagne and fortified wines like Port, Sherry or Madeira. Unlike vintage wines, non-vintage wines are focused on expressing consistency of style. No matter what year you are buying your favorite NV bubbly, the idea that you’ll get a consistent product can be very appealing. Blending from different vintages gives a winemaker the flexibility to do just that.
A non-vintage wine isn’t necessarily lesser than one with a vintage date—blending across years is an accepted practice, particularly in the world of bubblies and Ports. But there’s definitely more excitement among vintages that are “declared.”
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