What’s in a “vintage”?

verriere-374-01“Vintage” is a word we use commonly, but do you know what the word actually means for wine? Vintage refers to the harvest period when the grapes are ripe and can be picked – typically this happens in September and October in the northern hemisphere (France, Spain etc), and February and March in the southern hemisphere (Australia, Argentina etc). As we head into the Australian and New Zealand vintage period (a frantic time for winemakers!) we’ll bring you updates from around those regions – it’s a great way to get a feel for how the wines of different years will start their life. As a rule, white grapes (for white wine) are picked first, which locks in those lovely fresh, crisp flavours. A few weeks later and it will be the turn of the red grapes (for red wine) to be picked. This gives the red grapes longer in the warm summer and autumn days to ripen fully and develop rich and generous characters that are so important in the finished wine. The time of harvest also varies from one region to another across the country – generally the hottest regions will be picked first, as the grapes ripen more quickly, while the cooler regions will take a few weeks more to get to the perfect ripeness.

Once the wine has been made from the grapes picked during that vintage/harvest, the wine can be labelled with the year – so for grapes picked in March 2015 in Australia, the wines can be labelled ‘2015’. It doesn’t matter when the wine was blended, bottled or shipped to the store – if a year is shown on the label it only relates to when the grapes were actually harvested. Some wines, especially sparkling wines from Champagne, might be labelled ‘non-vintage’ or ‘NV’ – this is because they are made up of wines from a number of different years, rather than a single year. Why? Traditionally regions like Champagne can experience quite different weather and conditions each harvest, which results in wines with different flavours and characters each year. So to produce a consistent wine each year (in a ‘house style’), the winemakers have become very skilled at blending wines from across different harvests to even out these annual differences.

At Merchants however we are a collective of small, independent and artisanal winemakers from Australia and New Zealand. As such, the wines we sell sometimes show some slight variation in style from one year (or vintage) to the next, and we think this is a unique part of their story. Great wines talk about the soil and the climate they are grown in, as well as the skill of the families making the wines. Its also worth noting that during the year we will sell out of certain wines – some of our wines are (lovingly) made in tiny quantities, so its worth putting a few of your favourites in the cellar when they are available. Both these things are what we love about artisan winemaking – its easy to become used to big brand wines being available all year round and tasting the same every vintage, but we celebrate the different story behind each vintage and are excited every year as the new wines are released.

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Taste like a Wine Judge!

wine judge

There are many great articles and blogs available on the subject of tasting wines (check out www.winefolly.com/review/how-to-taste-wine-develop-palate/ as a good example). Most of them will give a logical, practical guide to tasting wines like professional wine judges or winemakers, and that’s fine. More important, though, is to understand why tasting wines in what can seem quite a formal way is a worthwhile investment of your time and energy.

Wine is still a very mysterious venture for many people. Yet in reality when you break it down to a few simple steps, its actually quite simple – its fermented grape juice! Part of its appeal is that wines are produced in many different countries and are integral to different cultures in different ways, but it’s easy to be blinded by what seems to be very different (and often baffling) wine labels and descriptive terms. At the end of the day, however, it’s what is in the glass in front of you that matters, and even more critically if you enjoy it or not. And that is why having a simple but logical method of tasting wines is so useful. It’s a personal experience, and it’s about understanding your preferences – what you like and what you don’t like – and a simple tasting system is the easiest way to do this time after time. As an example, below are two sets of tasting notes of a Margaret River Chardonnay using a simple approach – one by an interested wine drinker, one by a professional wine judge.

The interested wine drinker….

Colour: The wine is clear – no floaty bits, nice light yellow colour. Looks fresh.

Nose: Smells a bit like fruit salad, some smokiness like a bonfire, a bit lemony

Palate: A bit of the fruit salad taste – lots of fruity taste to start but nice and zingy after that. Lip smacking stuff, didn’t leave my mouth feeling claggy or too dry.

Other notes: really liked it as it was zingy and very easy drinking, refreshing on a hot day. Would definitely buy again – good for taking to a barbecue or party.

The wine judge…

Colour: Pale straw, hints of lime hue

Nose: Citrus, melon, waxy, clean and lifted, subtle oak

Palate: Tropical, medium weight and length, nice sugar/acid balance, well integrated oak

Other notes: Drink now to 3 years, good example of a Margaret River Chardonnay.

The key thing to look at is that although the language appears to be very different, using a simple format works well for both purposes. The layout is clear and simple, and both the wine drinker and the judge can look back at their notes, remember the wine and then make an informed choice about the wine in the future.

The impact of wine tastings can be surprisingly far-reaching. Much of the success of the modern Australian wine industry as a global force is down to tastings held in London during the 1980’s – which features in the documentary “Chateau Chunder – A Wine Revolution”. (To celebrate Australia Day a special screening of the film, along with a Q&A session with an award-winning Australian winemaker is being held at Merchants Wine Store, 443 Joo Chiat Road on Tuesday 26th January – click here for details)

If you are interested in learning more about wine, join us at one of our regular winemaker tastings at Merchants Duxton, Pasarbella and Joo Chiat – they are a great opportunity to taste new wines in a relaxed environment with the person who actually crafted the wine right in front of you! Contact info@merchantsofsingapore.com.sg to be added to our mailing list to keep updated.