vin · tage (vĭn׳tĭj)
Knowing this word—vintage—is not crucial for enjoying wine. As one of my dear friends says, “You know this.” And after being reminded of the perils of food and drink love thanks once again to Huffpost, “5 Snobby Videos That Prove Coffee Culture Has Gone Too Far,” I questioned whether I should go on with this article.
Fortunately, I recently experienced the most common reason for caring about vintage: The old, cheap, dusty bottle of wine tucked away in the wine shop.
You see these things and the pleasure center of your brain lights up with this, “Viola! I found the treasure!”-brand of response. The image of the dusty bottle is a potent one as it triggers a cascade of complicated connotations. You see a dusty jar of mayonnaise? Not so much.
Conclusion: Most wine is meant to be consumed within one year of bottling.
I bought it anyway. Actually, I bought two of them. Dust be damned! I thought.
In an age when preservatives are keeping our food and drink impervious to aging (read Melanie Warner’s new book, “Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over The American Meal” for more on this creepy reality), wine amazes and has amazed us for years as being one of the few things we put in our bodies that not only stays good but can actually get better as the days go by. Wikipedia comprehensively outlines everything to do with bottle aging, including lists of what types of grapes age well, etc. If you really want to nerd out, the eGullet forum on the subject covers more of the chemistry behind the why and how a bottle of wine can age. There’s even discussion that spills over into the aging of other nectars in a bottle. For instance:
Spirits (Scotch, vodka, etc) cannot “age.” They can oxidize, but they can’t age in the bottle the same way wine can.
Chemistry, psychology and history aside, uncertainty around the word “vintage” is not a big shocker given the myriad definitions in the dictionary:
1. The yield of wine or grapes from a specific vineyard or district during one season. 2. Wine, usu. of high quality, identified as to year and vineyard or district of origin. 3. The year or place in which a particular wine is bottled. 4.a. The harvesting of a grape crop. b. The early stages of winemaking.
You almost need a flow chart! Each definition seems to be a regurgitation of the next! It’s this clumsy, sloppy treatment of the word that gets us into trouble.
It also impresses upon us how important a year is to wine. The tiniest detail is notated by the likes of Merriam Webster and Oxford. Just like location dictates the names of many Old World wines (e.g. Sangiovese grown in Chianti is called Chianti; grown anywhere else, it’s (or should be) Sangiovese), the year a wine was bottled gets folded into something much more complicated.
The most dramatic experience I’ve had with vintage has to do with what was heralded as “The Vintage of the Century,” 1997 in Italy.
Just read this headline from the New York Times: “Wine Talk; Italy’s 1997 Vintage: Poised for Greatness.” Better yet, read the first line: “THE trouble is you want to believe.” Believe in what? you might be asking yourself. This, then, is what can make wine so much fun. What is all the fuss about?
Working in an Italian restaurant around the time that the more expensive wines were being released (four or so years later), we were all a bit beside ourselves. Even the more “value priced” or cheap wines held a sway they normally were not associated with. Anything Italian and bearing the 1997 mark was gold.
For the curious and skeptical (aka me), I began to research this word, vintage. I came across vineyard notes detailing in the extreme each and every morning and night during 1997. I discovered all the strange things grape growers can do to impact the juice. From seeding the dirt with rocks that will reflect away the heat of the sun onto the underbelly of the canopies as well as keeping the roots cool during the day and warm at night to irrigation to what might be the most romantic and magical movie moment involving grape growing, the “Saving the vineyard” scene in “A Walk in the Clouds” when they discover a frost starting to form in the wee hours and clamor to place flame blowing heaters amid the rows while gently fanning the heat with these billowy wing-like contraptions—even still, it reminds me of angels amid the grapes.
Such sentimental ideas about grape growing really should translate to this idea that growing grapes is so very difficult. When a year comes along in which the grower, seething with OCD-like tendencies that have everything to do with how much to baby or not baby the grapes while licking a finger to gauge the speed and temperature of the breeze (for instance), finds that not much is to be done, well, they get a little excited. They talk. They burst forth with ebullient jubilation. A fuss is made.
This year, then, this vintage, means even more than what the dictionary portends, and this doesn’t always mean that it will be good. On my most recent wine jaunt when I noticed a couple of these sad, dusty bottles, I had to haggle over price. The bottles weren’t labeled. A cashier thought they might be about $10 a bottle. A manager, attracted by the chatter, swooped in and hesitated at the quote, thinking that they were much more. After a pregnant pause and sigh, he acquiesced. “We already quoted you the price, so it’s your lucky night!” I did feel lucky. Each bottle proved to be quite nice. Smooth, velvety, simple. They didn’t blow my skirt up or anything, but they weren’t bad either. When I saw their online prices at around $10, I laughed and regretted the search. I also thought of 1997 and realized, once again, the power of that date, that number, that vintage.