What are the Best Years for Wine? [Exceptional Vintages]
In this guide to good years for wine, I'll run through both popular wine varietals and wine regions and uncover the best vintages in recent memory.
A Quick Introduction to Wine Vintages
Vintage wine refers to wine made from grapes that were all harvested in a specific year. The year of harvest is prominently displayed on the bottle's label and is known as the vintage year.
Vintage wines capture the essence of that particular year’s climate and growing conditions, which can significantly influence the taste and quality of the wine.
For instance, a year with an ideal balance of sunshine, rain, and temperature may produce grapes with perfect ripeness and acidity, leading to an exceptional vintage.
Not all wines are vintage wines. Some wines are non-vintage, meaning they are made from a blend of grapes harvested in different years. This is common in sparkling wines and Champagnes, where consistency is often more desirable than the unique characteristics of a single year.
In regions with variable weather conditions, the vintage year can be a critical indicator of quality. A good vintage year is often associated with optimal weather conditions that allowed the grapes to ripen perfectly.
Conversely, a poor vintage year might indicate that the weather was not ideal, and the wine may not reach the same heights of excellence.
For collectors and connoisseurs, vintage wines hold special appeal. They often age the wine for many years, allowing it to develop complex flavors and aromas.
Over time, well-stored vintage wine can increase in value, especially if it’s from a year that is considered exceptional.
As you're probably well aware good vintages are grape specific and also region specific so I've done my best to format this guide in a logical way.
Best Years for Cabernet Sauvignon
It makes sense to start with Cabernet Sauvignon, which is grown across the world and is the base of many an age-worthy wine.
Californian Cabernet Sauvignon
Here are some of the best vintages for Californian wines, particularly focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon:
- 2019: A wet spring resulted in less overt tannic structure, with small, concentrated berries delivering dense yet pure fruit flavors. The harvest went all the way into into October due to moderate August and September temperatures. These wines are well structured and defined but ripe too. Score: 97 (Hold)
- 2018: Score: 99 (Hold)
- 2017: Score: 92 (Drink)
- 2016: Score: 98 (Hold)
- 2015: Score: 94 (Drink)
- 2014: Score: 95 (Drink)
- 2013: Score: 97 (Drink)
- 2012: Score: 96 (Drink)
- 2011: Score: 86 (Drink)
- 2010: Score: 96 (Drink)
The scores are based on the Wine Spectator's rating system: 95-100, classic; 90-94, outstanding; 85-89, very good; 80-84, good; 75-79, mediocre; 50-74, not recommended.
The "Drink" or "Hold" recommendation indicates whether the wines of the vintage are ready to drink now or if they would benefit from more time in the cellar.
Notable older vintages include the years 1987, 1986, 1985, 1984, 1978, 1974, 1970, 1968, 1958, 1951, 1941, and 1936.
Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
The best years for Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley, California, according to Wine Spectator's vintage chart, are as follows:
- 2018: Scored 99, described as having a wet winter with sufficient water through the dry, warm, even-keeled season. The wines are rich and dark, detailed, restrained in style, and very terroir-driven.
- 2016: Scored 98, described as near-perfect with a steady and mild July and August. The wines are developing quietly and are expected to be of stellar quality.
- 2013: Scored 97, described as a dream vintage with a dry, long sunny summer. The wines are opulent and complex.
- 2012: Scored 96, characterized by wines that are ripe and lush yet well-defined.
- 2007: Scored 97, known for wines that are rich and dark, but detailed and very terroir-driven.
- 1997: Scored 99, one of the classic vintages with wines that are still highly regarded.
These scores are based on a 100-point scale and are indicative of the quality of the wines produced in that year. A score between 95-100 is considered classic, 90-94 is outstanding, 85-89 is very good, and so on.
For more recent vintages:
- 2019: Scored 97, described as having a wet spring resulting in less overt tannic structure, with small, concentrated berries delivering dense yet pure fruit flavors. The wines are ripe and lush yet well-defined.
It's important to note that these scores and descriptions are specific to Napa Valley, California, and may vary for Cabernet Sauvignon produced in other regions.
Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon
In Bordeaux, France, Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the primary grapes used in Bordeaux wine. Here are some of the best years for Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux, according to Decanter:
- 2016: Described as an excellent vintage with a long growing season, resulting in wines with great complexity and aging potential.
- 2015: Known for its ripe and rich wines, with good structure and balance.
- 2010: A standout vintage with high acidity and tannin levels, producing wines with great aging potential.
- 2009: Characterized by ripe, opulent wines with high alcohol levels.
- 2005: A highly regarded vintage with wines that are balanced and structured, with great aging potential.
- 2000: A classic vintage with wines that are rich and full-bodied.
- 1990: Known for its ripe, rich, and opulent wines.
- 1982: A legendary vintage that put Bordeaux back on the map, with wines that are rich and opulent.
South African Cabernet Sauvignon
In South Africa, Stellenbosch is one of the most prominent regions for Cabernet Sauvignon.
Stellenbosch has a Mediterranean climate, which is ideal for growing Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines from this region are known for their deep color, rich fruit flavors, and well-structured tannins.
Best Vintages: 2005, 2006, 2009, 2011, 2011, 2015, 2017, 2018 (source)
Best Years for Pinot Noir
Here are the best vintages for Pinot Noir across the wine regions most noted for producing the wine.
- Burgundy, France: The best vintages for Pinot Noir in Burgundy are 2015, 2014, 2012, 2009, 2005, 2002, 1999, 1996, 1995, and 1990 (source).
- Oregon, USA: The best vintages for Pinot Noir in Oregon are 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021 (source).
- California, USA: The best years for Californian Pinot Noir are considered to be 2004, 2005, 2007, 2014, 2016, 2018, 2019, 2021 (source).
- New Zealand: The best vintages for Pinot Noir in New Zealand are considered to be any year between 2010 to 2021.
Best Years for Malbec
Here are the best vintages for Malbec from various regions:
- 2019: A very good year with a rating of 94. The weather was slightly cooler than normal, yielding wines with concentrated flavors. The crop was a bit smaller than in 2018, but the young wines showed remarkable intensity.
- 2018: Another good year with a rating of 93. Nearly ideal growing conditions delivered well-structured wines that featured fine-grained tannins and ripe fruit flavors.
- 2017: A challenging year due to drought, but still produced good wines with a rating of 92. Lower temperatures during the ripening period helped to maintain freshness and balance in the wines.
2011 and 2013 were also exceptional vintages in the Mendoza region.
- 2010: A great year for Malbec in France, particularly in the Cahors region. The weather conditions were ideal, leading to a vintage that is considered one of the best in recent years.
- 2005: Another excellent vintage. The weather was warm and dry, which is ideal for Malbec, leading to a vintage with great structure and complexity.
South African Malbec
- 2019: A challenging year due to late spring frosts and a warm, dry summer. However, those who picked before overripening set in made wines with good concentration and freshness.
- 2018: A good year with a rating of 92. Drought was again a concern, but dry conditions and cool nights helped concentrate flavors and maintain freshness.
- 2017: Another drought year, but lower temperatures during the ripening period helped to maintain freshness and balance in the wines. The wines from this vintage are expressive and concentrated.
Best Years for Merlot
Based on the information gathered, here are the best vintages for Merlot from various regions:
- Bordeaux, France: The best vintages for Merlot in Bordeaux are 2018, 2016, 2015, 2010, 2009, 2005, 2000, 1998, 1990, 1989, 1986, 1985 and 1982. The quality of these vintages is attributed to favorable weather conditions and excellent winemaking practices. The wines from these years are known for their balance, structure, and depth of flavor.
- California, USA: The best years for Merlot in California are 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2009, 2006. These vintages produced wines with plush flavors, firm structure, and medium-grained tannins.
- Tuscany, Italy: The best vintages for Merlot in Tuscany are 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, and 2001. These vintages are known for their complexity, depth of flavor, and aging potential.
Best Vintages for Champagne
Champagne, being a sparkling wine, is often produced as a non-vintage blend, meaning that it is made from grapes harvested in different years. This is done to maintain a consistent house style.
However, in exceptional years, producers make vintage Champagne, which is made from grapes harvested in a single year. Here are some of the best years for vintage Champagne:
- 2008: This vintage is widely regarded as one of the best in recent history. The weather was cool, which led to a long growing season. This allowed the grapes to develop complex flavors while retaining their acidity, which is crucial for Champagne.
- 2002: This year was marked by a warm summer which resulted in a good ripening of the grapes. The Champagnes from this vintage are known for their richness and complexity.
- 1996: This vintage is known for its high acidity and concentration. The weather was variable, but a warm and dry August and September allowed for good ripening.
- 1990: This was a warm year, and the Champagnes from this vintage are known for their opulence and fruitiness.
- 1988: This vintage produced wines with great balance and elegance. The weather was generally cool, but a warm end to the growing season ensured ripeness.
- 1985: This year was marked by a warm and dry summer, leading to a small harvest of high-quality grapes.
Other exceptional Champagne vintages are: 2004, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016.
Best Years for French Wines
Over the last 25 years, there have been several exceptional vintages for French wines across various regions. Here are some of the standout years:
- 2000: This was one of the best wine years for Bordeaux, particularly for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The weather was favorable, with a warm summer and well-timed rains. The wines are known for their balance and depth.
- 2005: This year was outstanding for both Bordeaux and Burgundy. In Bordeaux, the wines are structured and have great aging potential. In Burgundy, both reds (Pinot Noir) and whites (Chardonnay) benefited from a warm summer and a long, dry autumn, resulting in wines with great complexity and balance.
- 2009: Bordeaux had another exceptional year in 2009. The weather was near-perfect, with a hot, dry summer and ideal conditions during harvest. The wines are rich, with ripe fruit flavors and soft tannins.
- 2010: Bordeaux and Rhône Valley both had excellent vintages in 2010. Bordeaux wines from this year are known for their structure and concentration, while Rhône wines, particularly Syrah, are rich and powerful.
- 2015: This was an excellent year for Burgundy, particularly for red wines made from Pinot Noir. The growing season was warm and dry, resulting in ripe, concentrated grapes.
- 2016: The Rhône Valley had an exceptional vintage in 2016, particularly in the southern Rhône for Grenache-based wines. The weather was warm but not too hot, and the wines are known for their balance and elegance.
- 2018: This year was excellent for Champagne, with a warm, sunny growing season resulting in ripe, healthy grapes. The wines are expected to have great aging potential.
- 2019: Bordeaux had another great vintage in 2019, with a hot, dry summer resulting in concentrated, powerful wines.