When to Verify the Vintage in a Restaurant

Wine inventories move faster than menus get reprinted. So the wine that is listed on the wine list is more often than realized not the same vintage that is actually being poured by the restaurant. I am in complete agreement with the majority of wine writers who say that in most cases vintage is not important.  The fact is that 90% of wine made today is produced to be consumed within one year of release. Additionally, there are so many factors that impact the quality of the wine that ends up in a consumer’s glass (producer, transportation, storage, serving), that even knowing one vintage is better than another doesn’t guarantee a better wine. That’s why I rarely concern myself with verifying that the vintage on the menu is the same as the vintage actually in my glass. In most cases, selecting a varietal I like by a producer that creates wines of consistent quality at a good value is more important than vintage.

There are, however, three exceptions to this rule of vintage. In these rare cases, it pays to ask the server to verify that the wine actually being served is the same that is listed on the menu. Again, because of all the factors that go into what ends up in your glass, verifying the vintage doesn’t guarantee a great glass of wine, but, absent other information about the wine, it can improve the odds of getting a better wine for your money.

Exception #1: Big Reds

A “structured” wine is a wine that is meant to be aged. When ordering a wine that is highly structured (the relationship between tannins, acid and alcohol) it makes sense to pay more close attention to the vintage. Others may disagree, but I won’t order a wine that is primarily Cabernet and Merlot (including most Bordeaux blends), Nebbiolo or other high tannic red if it the vintage is only one or two years before the current year. There isn’t any magic in this formula (some experts suggest cellaring good Cabs at least 5 years) I’ve just found that right now (2013) a Napa Cab from 2012 or 2011 is still not ready (still has “tight” tannins) and could use some more time in the bottle. So, if I see a 2010 Cabernet on the menu, I will ask if they are actually serving the 2010 to ensure the distributor hasn’t moved them to the 2011 or 2012 before the restaurant has had the chance to update the menu.

Exception #2: Stellar Years

For each vintage of an  AVA (designated wine growing region) there are years where the weather cooperates more than others.  If the vintage listed on the menu is known to be an exceptional year for that AVA, I would be inclined to verify that the wine being served is what is listed. For example, 2010 was an outstanding year for Southern Rhone wines. Absent other information, if the menu shows a 2010 Côtes du Rhône, it would be worth verifying that bottle being served is truly a 2010. Likewise, 2001, 2005 and 2007 were regarded as the best recent vintages for Napa Cabs. If the menu lists a 2007 Napa Cab, it would be worth the time to verity the bottle being served is really the 2007. One more time, how each vineyard crafts its wine is independent of the quality of the vintage, so the vintage alone doesn’t guarantee a great wine. But, absent other information, knowing which vintages are better than others can improve your odds of getting a better wine from a producer of known consistent quality. Wine Enthusiast Magazine has a fantastic chart with vintage scores by AVA in a pdf that you can download.

Exception #3: A Spectacular Vintage from the Producer

This case doesn’t happen quite as often, but the fact is that just as we all have good days and bad days, because of all the decisions and actions that go into making an individual wine, some quality producers can end up with a vintage that doesn’t measure up to other years or a vintage that is far above the others. If you know that the producer hit it out of the park on a given year, then by all means verify that the vintage listed on the wine list is indeed the year that will be getting in your glass.

One Comment Add yours

  1. alex says:

    I read your article and I already did an quick answer on twitter. I think you are wrong on pretty much all the aspect you describe.
    First of all, you should explain on what postulate you will argue.
    Wine is a drink made with grapes, and only with grapes. Then you have different type of wines : industrial, sustainable, organic, bio-dynamic, etc…
    Your article talk more about the first categorie : industrial.

    If we are talking about Bogle, Woodridge, Gallo, Canivor, Apothic, etc… yes all those wines are standard, taste the same all the times, without any good acidity structure, tannins structure, etc…

    Now if we are talking about Port, Chateauneuf-du-pape, Chianti, Burgundy, Burguland, etc… you must talk and take care of the vintages.
    Because most of those appellations, countries make wines before US even exist. In those countries irrigation is forbidden, and they have to follow the mother nature.
    The vintage is a picture of the weather during the year. If you don’t make any difference between 3 or 4 vintages on the same wines, probably the wine is industrial and I will classify it like “beer” or “gatorade”. Just a beverage.

    Concerning the producer, transportation, storage, at now the technologies are here and provide good solutions to maintains the wines in good conditions.
    The problem is the service. Most of the american restaurants do not take care of the wines. They store the red on the bar, at the room temperature, which is too much high. And the whites in the fridge, not a cooler. Too much cold.
    Finally, going to a BYOB is the best solution. Your wines will be at the right temperature.

    About your 3 exceptions :
    Big Red : Pinot Noir is not a big red, but aged very well. Blaufrankisch is not a big red, but aged also very well. So your consideration of the big red are pretty much limited.

    Stellar Years : those stellar years are from wine writers. I remember in July 2009, a wine writer wrote on his magazine that the vintage will be awesome. It was in Burgundy, almost 50 days before harvesting. Even the local producers will never say that.
    And now, many people understand that 2009 was a great vintage for up to now. But if you want to drink good wines, where the acidity is still up, you will go for 2008. 2009 is not so famous at the end.
    Same for the vintage 2001 in Bordeaux. Many people describe the vintage has bad, and now it shows very well.
    So, read a bit and talk with the producers who are in their vineyards and they know what is going on.

    Spectacular vintage from a producer : it’s related to the previous exception. A good vintage = everybody is producing good. “bad” vintage, only the best producers will do good.

    At the end of the day, you must take care of the vintage if you want to understand what you drink. Most of the people choose a wine from a winery for some reason, why do not chose also in function of the vintage?
    And choosing a wine by varietals it’s so limited approach. Meaning you don’t even think where the vines are grown, how (organic, sustainable ,etc…)
    I met so many people who told me they don’t like Merlot, and the statistics in the USA prove that Merlot is the first grape drunk.
    And if I show a glass of Petrus, everybody will love it, even the people who do not like Merlot.
    This a Robert Parker education, good guy, but this is wrong. Drink a region, and try to understand why Merlot and Cabernet are good from Bordeaux, from Italie, and why those grapes are not present in Burgundy.

    This article promote standard wines, and lead the people in the wrong direction. This is my though, and that come from my experience in the wine industry.

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