Written by: Tim Edison

Updated: October 29, 2022

What Year Wine is Best? An Overview of Vintage Years

What Year Wine is Best?  An Overview of Vintage Years

What year wine is best? A question many novices ask themselves. In this article, I aim to guide you to the wine’s best periods with an overview of vintage years. But before diving in the matter, let’s understand what vintage means.

What Is Vintage Wine?

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. 

Actually, the true meaning of the word “vintage” is quite simple.  A wine’s vintage simply tells the year in which the grapes that were used to make the wine were picked. 

Virtually every bottle of wine will show the vintage year right 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. 

This decision is completely up to the producer.  In the case of Port, it must be aged in oak barrels for two years before it can be evaluated as to its quality.  If the quality is deemed to be extraordinary, then a vintage will be declared.  In the case of Champagne, the growing conditions have to be nearly perfect for producing grapes of a sufficiently high enough quality to label Champagne as a Vintage.

This may only occur a few times a decade.  So the bottom line is this – most wines are labeled with a vintage year, and this shows the year that the grapes that were used in that particular wine’s production were picked.  So, if you choose a 2015 Napa Valley Chardonnay, and it is currently 2018, you are selecting a Chardonnay that was produced with grapes that were picked three years ago.

What Is The Difference Between One Vintage And Another?

You may ask the question, “Why should any particular vintage be different from another?” 

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 does 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 Syrah/Shiraz producers in South Australia have been particularly successful in producing wines made from this grape.  On the flip side, Sauvignon Blanc tends to respond very well to a somewhat cooler and damper micro-climate, 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. 

Great winemakers can thus 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 wine is only as good as the particular winemaker that produces it.

Sometimes even the best of the best winemakers can be tried and tested by the elements.  Long-term changes in a region’s micro-climate can test 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.

In the example of what Australia endured during the 1990’s, you can see 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.”  Sure, it may be an excellent vintage for Australian Shiraz, but it may be a lackluster 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 that 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. It seems like a daunting test.

What Year Wine Is Best?

Now that you may perhaps have a better understanding of what the term vintage means, this article will attempt to explore which vintages are best.

As we have learned, though, we cannot make a blanket statement that 2010 is a particularly great vintage year.

It may have been for Chardonnay produced in California, but not so much for Cabernet Sauvignon produced in France.  

So we will look at the most popular wine varieties in the world, and then explore which vintages are the best for each of those wines.  We will start with the most widely grown in the world.

Best Cabernet Sauvignon Years

Cabernet Sauvignon is produced over an area that expands more than 840,000 acres across the globe.  Again, when we look at the best years for Cabernet Sauvignon, we have to look at the region of the globe as well. 

The Napa Valley region of California in the United States produces some of the very best Cabernet Sauvignon in the world. 

For this particular wine from this particular region, some of the best years include 1994, 1997, 2001, 2005, and 2007.  2007, in particular, was considered to be nearly perfect for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Several wine experts referred to this vintage with words such as “splendid” and “extraordinary.” 

This may be due to the fact that the 2007 growing season was ideal, largely free of extreme heat and other threats, which allowed producers to harvest the grapes at what they judged to be the ideal point of ripeness.  Cabernets produced in Napa Valley in 2007 proved to have a greater freshness and lively acidity. 

In comparison, Cabernet Sauvignon produced in the Coonawarra Region of Australia had its best years in 1998, 2001, 2005, and 2012.  

2012 was considered to be a monumental year in the Coonawarra Region, as textbook growing conditions led to a long harvest allowing vintners to achieve near perfection.  

1998 was also characterized by strong growing conditions that allowed for a generous harvest and a near perfect ripeness.  

As you can see, the same type of wine, produced in a different region of the world can have different “best vintage” years.

Best Merlot Years

Next up on our list is Merlot, which is produced on over 657.000 acres across the globe.  The problem with Merlot is that it can be green and herbaceous if the climate is not hot enough, but can also turn very simple and boring if it gets too hot. 

If given the right circumstances, it can be one of the world’s greatest wines.  So which years are best for the Merlot?  

For this discussion, we will look at Merlots of the Bordeaux region of France.  The 2015 vintage of Bordeaux wines is an incredible vintage, especially for the Merlot, which is considered to be the highlight of the vintage. 

These wines are characterized by ripe, rich, fleshy, opulent flavors that some have described as purely decadent. 

The vintage of 2009 was also an outstanding year for the Bordeaux Region, for which the wines have been described as ripe, sexy and lush.  Perhaps the best vintage of the recent decades is the 2005 vintage. 

This year is known for being stunning from top to bottom in all price ranges. Much like the best vintages of the Napa Valley Cabernets, you can see that the remarkable vintages occur on average every four or five years.

Best Chardonnay Years

silicon valley

Third on our list is Chardonnay, which is produced on over 518,000 acres across the globe. We will bounce back to California in the United States to examine some of the best vintages of Chardonnay from recent decades, specifically the Sonoma Region. 

Some of the best vintages from this region include 2007, 2002, 1997 and 1996. Of these four impressive vintage years, 2002 and 1997 stand out in particular.  2002 was considered a near-perfect year in Sonoma, with sensational, fleshy, and opulent wines. 

1997 was very similar, as it was considered a monumental year with very ripe, opulent and complex flavors being the distinguishing characteristic of this vintage.

Best Sauvignon Blanc Years

Sauvignon Blanc is produced on almost 300,000 acres and is the most famous of the wines produced in New Zealand.  It’s the unmistakable aromas of passion fruit that make Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand so distinct.  It is the country’s most planted grape variety, which says much about New Zealander's appreciation for the wine. 

Regions of New Zealand that produce the most Sauvignon Blanc include Marlborough, Nelson and Hawke’s Bay. In recent years, the best vintages for Sauvignon Blanc include 2015, 2013, and 2010.  Perhaps the most popular region in the world for the making of Sauvignon Blanc is the Loire Valley Region of France. 

Unlike other countries, French wines drop the varietal name (Sauvignon Blanc) and adopt the name of the village on the wine label. 

For example, if you want to buy a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire, you will need to look for a label that reads Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume, Cheverny, or Touraine. These wines are considered to be some of the premier Sauvignon Blancs in the world as they are famous for their more herbaceous, lime and grassy flavors. Of the wines mentioned here, Sancerre is the most famous, being a citrus driven wine. 

There have been a few remarkable vintages of Sancerre in the past couple of decades, with 2016, 2009 and 2002 being the best.  2016 was a challenging year for growers as a severe spring frost cut the crop by almost 50%. 

This was followed by a very rainy late spring, which was then followed by drought conditions through the time of harvest.  What saved the year was the fact that temperatures were near perfect. 

2009 gave winemakers in the Loire a very warm and consistent growing season that benefited all grapes and sub regions.

2002’s growing season started with above normal heat, which led to a smaller crop, but this was followed by an ideal September which produced this superb vintage of pure and balanced Sauvignon Blancs. 

So as you notice here, if someone mentions that 2009 was a great vintage for Sauvignon Blancs, you would need to make sure that you were talking about a wine from the Loire Region and not one from New Zealand.

Best Pinot Noir Years

Temecula Valley

Pinot Noir is another popular wine that is grown on over 285,000 acres.  Pinot Noir is a grape that is much more delicate than other grape varieties.  It is known for its pale color in the glass and zesty acidity. 

These grapes have black skin and grow in tightly wound bunches, making it struggle to gather sunlight in the valleys that it grows the best.  The Pinot Noir prefers areas with a long spring and fall, and it is these seasons that can also often bring hazards such as rotting and freezing. 

Thus, it can be said that growing and producing wine from Pinot Noir often takes extra effort.  Regional differences in Pinot Noir are more noticeable than regional differences in any other grape variety.  In France, Pinot Noir is characterized by rustic, earthy and acidic qualities.  If you taste a Pinot Noir from Sonoma California, it will be lush with rich black cherries and be higher in alcohol. 

German Pinot Noirs are noted for flavors of plum, earth, and fruit.  Likewise, Pinot Noirs from different regions around the world will all have different vintages that are better than others.  If we explore Sonoma California, we will see that the best years for Pinot Noirs include 2010, 2009, 2007 and 2004.  2009, in particular, was a nearly perfect vintage, which shows with a plentiful harvest of ripe, polished wines that lent themselves to deeply flavored Pinot Noirs. 

2007 was another excellent year due to a perfectly warm growing season, leading to ripe and complex wines. In looking at French Pinot Noirs, the vintages considered the best include 2014, 2010, 2008 and 1996.  2010, in particular, is exemplified by a very clean and pure grape that still exudes ripe fruit flavors that are perfectly balanced, without being too rich or powerful.

Best Champagne Years

As was mentioned previously in this article, Champagne is not often labeled with a vintage, except in those exceptional years in which the grapes are nearly perfect.  We have seen a fair share of great vintages for Champagne over the last couple of decades, however. 

These include 2012, 2009, 2008, 2006, 2004 and 2002.  2012 was characterized by a brilliant August and a dry September that produced a small but superb harvest, especially for Pinot Noir.  Some top winemakers say that 2012 was as great as 1952. 

2012 vintage Champagne will be a must buy in 2020.  2009 was a warm, generous year which produced grapes that were in perfect health. 

The best of the 2009 vintage was picked later in the harvest and as such, were much more complex.  If 2012 is considered the best vintage so far of this decade, the 2008 vintage has to be the second best.  2008 was a cooler year, which allowed for a powerful fruit flavor to be in complete balance with the nearly perfect acidity. 

2006 was a great year for harvest, as there were plentiful grapes nearly perfect in freshness. 

2004 was a year that produced a record crop and was highly successful because of the number of healthy grapes.  This was an especially fine vintage for blanc de Blancs. 

Finally, 2002 was the first great vintage of the century, due to a warm season that never became too hot.  The best of 2002 includes Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.  The best of this vintage were produced later in the year, as the grapes achieved perfect ripeness.

So when somebody asks the question, “What year wine is best,” you can answer with complete certainty, “it depends.”

About the Author Tim Edison

Tim started Wine Turtle way back in 2015.
These days he contributes to Wine Turtle (and other renowned wine publications) while continuing his wine education.
Tim's wine of the month is the Coates & Seely Reserve Brut NV (from Hampshire, England).

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