What is a Vintage Red?

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Question from Lindsay: What is a vintage red?

Reply: Hi, Lindsay. Thanks for writing! I love this kind of question because I know that half of the wine-drinking population probably has the same one.

“A Vintage Wine”: You hear that phrase in the movies, but it’s never been entirely clear to me what is meant. You assume it must be good, right? The speaker might mean that it’s a very good vintage of a fine brand or type. Or, like vintage clothing, it may refer to a fine, older vintage. Maybe both. No wonder everyone’s confused.

In the real world, there are different ways to interpret your question, so let’s start with the most common thing you see when you shop for wine, and that’s the vintage date.

Vintage Date: The vintage date on the label doesn’t mean it’s a good vintage, it’s simply identifying what year the grapes were grown and harvested (harvest is only once a year so it’s a big deal). The wine’s structure and flavor reflects the weather patterns during the growing season, for better or for worse. A warm year produces ripe, fruity flavors and soft acidity (less tartness). A cool growing season makes for a tarter wine that may not be as fruity. The fruitiness is often replaced by herbal, vegetative and/or mineral-like flavors and aromas. So, any wine – a white, red or rosé can have a vintage date. The only way for you to know if it’s a good vintage is to do a search or ask your retailer.

Port or Porto: Your specific question  – vintage red – made me think of port wine. That’s because most port wine (in most cases this is a sweet red that’s around 18-22% alcohol) doesn’t have a vintage date. In Portugal, the home of port (in the USA it’s called Porto), a vintage is declared by the local regulatory agency for the best years. This might happen 3 or 4 four times a decade and the vintage port is considered to be the finest by most people. Vintage Porto is the stuff you put away for your child’s 21st birthday!  More on port here

Champagne: Even though red Champagne or sparkling wine isn’t very common it’s still worth a look because the vast majority of Champagne (the real stuff, from the Champagne region of France) doesn’t have a vintage date. As they do with port in Portugal, the Champagne producers blend different vintages together for a consistent house style. A few times a decade, when the weather has been really great, they’ll declare a vintage, and that vintage-dated Champers will put a bigger dent in your credit card than the non-vintage stuff. More on sparkling wine here

There are probably other examples. What have I left out, y’all?

Hope that helps, Lindsay!

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