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We recently bought a white wine from California and were surprised that it didn’t list a vintage on the label. Did the winery make a mistake printing the labels?
Having recently celebrated a birthday, I have it on the authority of well-meaning friends that age is just a number: “You’re only as old as you feel.” The same cannot be said for bottles of wine.
Most wines are marketed with a vintage date. The year on the label lets us know when the majority of the grapes were grown and, consequently, the age of the wine in the bottle. I say majority because winemaking laws in many countries allow for a small percentage, usually less than 15 per cent, of wine from a different harvest to blended into a vintage-dated wine as a safeguard.
Some wineries may never consider this option, while others might only take advantage in extreme circumstances, say, should their grape crop be reduced by frost or hail. Production levels can then be bulked up with similar wine from a different harvest.
Some detail-oriented winemakers around the world like the opportunity to use a small addition of younger, fresher wine to enhance the freshness and complexity of one of their reserve red wines just before bottling. It may boost the wine’s fragrance or appeal without compromising the overall character.
In any case, a wine’s vintage date may be seen an indication of quality, as is the case for the exceptional 2015 Brunellos coming to market right now. For most wine lovers, the date’s best use is as an inducement whether to drink or not.
It’s your indication of how long something has been resting in your cellar or languishing in a retail warehouse. Maybe you’d prefer a more recent bottle of Marlborough sauvignon blanc than one made in 2011?
The California wine you’re mentioning is what’s known as a non-vintage blend. I prefer to classify them as multi-vintage, as they contain a mixture of wines from different harvests. Multi-vintage blends are commonplace in the world of sparkling wine, where winemakers blend across different vintages, drawing from reserve wines to ensure a consistent house style from year to year. Websites and wine articles often identify these so-called non-vintage releases by the initials “NV.”
Some bargain wines made in California, the south of France and other warm regions that are capable of mass production are also sold without a vintage year. Depending on when they are bottled, they might include wine from the current and last year’s vintage.
The California brand Barefoot is a good example. Part of the E. & J. Gallo family of wine brands since 2005, Barefoot produces more than 30 different still and sparkling wines in a range of styles. None of these products carry a vintage date.
I often use Barefoot merlot in wine appreciation classes because it truly represents the fruity character and smooth tannins common to the grape variety. When I would pass the bottle around to students, back in the carefree, pre-coronavirus world of wine education, and ask if anything stood out about the label, it was rare anyone spotted the missing vintage.
As wine packaging continues to evolve beyond traditional 750 ml glass bottles, there’s another reason you might be seeing wines on sale without a vintage date. In some regions, wines sold in cans, bag-in-box containers or cartons aren’t allowed to declare a vintage, as the format isn’t sanctioned by the local rules and regulations. In other instances, the winery needed to order such a large volume of supplies they opted not to print their cartons or labels with a specific vintage to maximize their investment.
Bargain bottles of still wine that come to market without a declared vintage are made for the instant gratification times we live in. They’re ready to drink, without any pretence of being worthy of gracefully maturing in a cellar for a later date. If a vintage date on a bottle can provide some guidance of when and if to drink, the lack of one ultimately leaves it to you to decide: Now or never?