Showing posts with label vintage. Show all posts
Showing posts with label vintage. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Vintage, Non-Vintage, and Solera

When I first got interested in wine, one of the terms I learned was “vintage.” I realized quickly that a vintage wine was nothing like a vintage car. For one, almost every still (vs. sparkling) wine you see in a regular grocery store is a vintage wine. Not true about cars in a regular car dealership.

Vintage Car by Cayton Heath on Unsplash

Vintage refers to the year grapes were harvested to make a wine. Let’s delve into why vintage matters and also explore two other terms: non-vintage and solera.


Most traditional wine regions are located between the latitudes of 30° to 50°, both north and south of the equator. The climate is generally classified as temperate, with sub-categories of continental, maritime, and Mediterranean. These vineyards go through a one-year cycle from bud break, flowering, fruit set, veraison or ripening, and finally harvest before returning to winter dormancy. Because grapes are only harvested once a year, identifying wine by its vintage makes sense. It gives you an idea of the age of the wine. Some wines are meant to be enjoyed young, and others require cellaring.

Harvest by Andrea Cairone on Unsplash

Each wine vintage reflects a culmination of factors during the growing season. The weather pattern for a particular year may affect the flavor, acidity, and sugar of the grapes. Unseasonably hot or cold weather may cause grapes to ripen prematurely without developing full flavors, or not ripen at all. A dry or rainy harvest season may concentrate or dilute the grape juice. Other numerous factors include an untimely windstorm or proximity to forest fires; all of which affect the quality of the finished wine.

The bottom line is that grapes are an agricultural product. As such, they are grown at the mercy of their environment. While modern science and technology has allowed wineries to do vineyard damage control due to force majeure, good wine still starts with good grapes. When the stars are aligned in the vineyards to produce high quality grapes in a particular year, that year is then considered a good vintage.


Non-vintage wines are made with grapes that are not harvested in the same year. The most common non-vintage wine is house-style Champagne, often indicated by “NV” on the label. Champagne houses generally make two types of sparklers - vintage and non-vintage. Vintage Champagnes are only made if the growing condition for that year produces outstanding grapes. Over 90% of the Champagnes produced are non-vintage.

Moët & Chandon NV Champagne

NV Champagnes usually consist of a blend of 50-80% base vintage with reserves from other vintages. They are often less expensive than their vintage counterparts and provide a consistent style that you may expect from a particular house. It is important to note that NV Champagnes do not taste identical from year to year. House style simply refers to consistent characteristics such as yeastiness vs. fruit forwardness or crisper vs. rounder mouthfeel.

Grapes are harvested up to 3 times a year in Bali

More recently, a different flavor of non-vintage has emerged from non-conventional wine regions, such as Tahiti and Indonesia. In these tropical wine regions, vineyards do not experience winter dormancy, and harvests can take place two to three times a year. This new phenomenon challenges the traditional concept of “vintage.” You will find that the wine labels from these regions do not indicate a vintage.


Solera is a method of aging wines or spirits that originated with aging sherry over multiple vintages. To institute a solera system, you start with the oldest vintage at the bottommost row of barrels, known as the solera (see diagram below). The row of barrels above the solera is called the first criadera, and it contains the next oldest vintage. The next row up is called second criadera, and it contains the third oldest vintage, and so forth. The topmost row of barrels are always filled with the newest vintage.

Solera Method by Denkhenk via Wikimedia Commons
As a fraction of the wine in the solera is extracted to be bottled, the headspace left will be replenished by a fraction of the wine from the first criadera. The new headspace in the first criadera will also be replenished by a fraction of the wine from the second criadera and so forth. Over time, the solera method results in consistent aroma, taste, and quality in the final bottles.

Paul Prieur et Fils Sancerre Rosé Perpétuel

Solera is one of the ways used to produce NV Champagnes. More recently, I came across an NV Sancerre rosé that was made using the solera method. Sancerre is mostly known for its white wine made from Sauvignon Blanc. I also have had Sancerre Rouge that is made with Pinot Noir. Blanc or Rouge, I had only had vintage Sancerre until then. This Paul Prieur et Fils Rosé Perpétuel was a triple first for me (Sancerre rosé, non-vintage, made using solera method), and it was delicious.

Final Thoughts: Vintage wine makes up most of the still wine volume. Non-vintage wine makes up most of the sparkling wine volume, and some of these are made in the solera method. I wonder if the ratios will change in the coming years - perhaps due to climate change or maybe a new generation of more experimental winemakers. Here’s to toasting to a future of surprises.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Three Vintages, Four Grapes, Five Wines

As this most unusual year comes to a close, I decided to revisit some of my wines in the spirit of not-so Auld Lang Syne: three vintages, four grapes, five wines. If nothing else, tasting and learning from the past helps prepare you for the next vintage. So here's what I've learned.

Revisiting past vintages

2016 Abscession (Syrah, Chandler Reach Vineyards, Yakima AVA)

This is my first vintage and my last bottle. My winemaking teacher, Steve Foisie, called this the proof-of-concept vintage. He coached us through the chemistry of red wine making; from crushing grapes to alcoholic and malolactic fermentations, and then wrapping it all up with stabilization and bottling. Nothing fancy.

    First Crush

    Technical Specs

    • 100 lbs of Syrah harvested in mid September 2016
    • Upon completing alcoholic and malolactic fermentations, matured in glass carboy with no oak
    • 1.5 cases bottled in mid February 2017
    • Residual sugar: 0.35%, pH = 3.78, TA = 0.73

    Tasting Notes

    • Color: Medium ruby
    • Aroma: Surprisingly fresh with strawberry and cherry
    • Palate: Dry, nice balance of fruit and herb, with a hint of eucalyptus, while retaining good structure
    • Body: Medium plus
    • Acidity: Medium
    • Tannins: Medium plus
    • Finish: Long with a hint of eucalyptus

    My Lesson: Sanitize, sanitize, sanitize!

    The first vintage was the most nerve wrecking. My main goal was to prevent the wine from turning into vinegar. This meant rigorous cleaning and decontaminating of everything in close proximity to the wine. Good sanitation practice allows the yeast to properly complete fermentation, and the wine to mature and stabilize. Four years later, I am pleased and somewhat surprised that the Abscession has retained a nice structure despite a higher-than-desired pH and zero oak contact. The wine remains fresh although it has lost some of its fruit forwardness.

    2017 Midnight Crush (Cabernet Sauvignon, Artz Vineyards, Red Mountain AVA)

    This is my second vintage, and my first time using oak. I am not a fan of oaky wine, but I wanted to take the edge off the tannic Cab Sauvignon grapes with micro-oxygenation from the barrel. To limit wood contact and oak flavor extraction, 20 of the 25 gallons of wine were racked in and out of the 8-gallon barrel. I was also excited about the more concentrated flavors as the porous barrel allowed for a mild evaporation.

      Round-robin racking in and out of barrel

      Technical Specs

      • 400 lbs of Cab Sauvignon harvested in mid October 2017
      • 80% in new French oak for two months, 20% unoaked
      • 10.5 cases bottled in early April 2018
      • Residual sugar: 0.34%, pH = 3.62, TA = 0.79
      Tasting Notes

      • Color: Medium ruby
      • Aroma: Cherry Jolly Rancher
      • Palate: Dry, cherry with a bit of tobacco, nice structure
      • Body: Medium plus
      • Acidity: Medium
      • Tannins: Medium plus, smooth
      • Finish: Lingering with cocoa notes

      My Lesson: Respect the oak!

      Oak in wine is like salt in food. If you can taste it, you probably have too much of it. Because I was using a small new French oak barrel, I was careful with wood contact to avoid creating an oak bomb. Once the desired taste profile was achieved, the oaked wine was racked out of the barrel, and a new batch of unoaked wine was racked in. The outcome was a lovely structured wine, balancing fruit with nuanced notes of tobacco and cocoa. The judges at the Washington State Fair agreed and gave it a second place in the Cab Sauvignon category last year!

      2018 Political Series (Merlot, Les Collines Vineyard, Walla Walla AVA, and Cabernet Franc, Chandler Reach Vineyards, Yakima AVA)

      For this third vintage, I attempted two new varieties - Merlot and Cab Franc. As far as winemaking math goes, one plus one equals three. Yes, we ended up with three distinct wines after blending and tasting. I procured another small new French oak barrel for this vintage. Like before, we ran 20 gallons of wine in and out of the 8-gallon barrel in a round robin fashion to manage wood contact.

      Technical Specs
      • 200 lbs Merlot harvested in mid September 2018
      • 100 lbs Cab Franc harvested: Early October 2018
      • Bottled all three wines in early June 2019
      • Overall blend residual sugar: 0.23%, pH = 3.89, TA = 0.62

        Blending and tasting

      Kamala Walla Walla (100% Merlot free run)

      The free run Merlot tasted so good that it was the first to go into the barrel. It was kept there for two months to complete malolactic fermentation and started aging. The wine was then aged and stabilized for another six months in glass carboys. Three cases were produced.
        Tasting Notes
        • Color: Medium ruby
        • Aroma:  Cherry and red fruit
        • Palate: Cherry Jolly Rancher with herbal undertones
        • Body: Medium plus to full body
        • Acidity: Medium plus to high, lively
        • Tannins: Medium plus and smooth
        • Finish: Lingering and rounded

        AOC (60% Cabernet Franc/40% Merlot)

        Next into the barrel was a blend of 60% Cab Franc and 40% Merlot. There might have been a bit of malolactic fermentation left, but it was mostly maturing in oak for two months. The wine was then aged and stabilized for another three months in glass carboys. Three cases were produced.

        Tasting Notes

          • Color: Garnet
          • Aroma: Strawberry and floral-scented
          • Palate: Strawberry, floral with cocoa undertones
          • Body: Medium plus to full
          • Acidity: Medium plus to high
          • Tannins: Medium plus
          • Finish: Long with a cherry finish

          Labeling wine bottles

          RBG (70% Merlot/30% Cabernet Franc)

          Last but not least, a blend of 70% Merlot and 30% Cab Franc was racked into the barrel for 3 months of aging and stabilization. Two cases were produced.

          Tasting Notes

            • Color: Garnet
            • Aroma: Cherry and floral-scented
            • Palate: Dry, cherry with cocoa undertones
            • Body: Medium plus to full, well rounded
            • Acidity: Medium plus to high
            • Tannins: Medium and smooth
            • Finish: Lingering with a tart finish

            My Lesson: Plan but flex!

            You heard parents say that raising two children is more than twice the work of raising one. The same is true for making two grape varieties. While not the sexiest part of winemaking, planning the logistics around two fermentation timelines is essential. In return, you get so much more as well. I started out thinking I was going to make a Merlot/Cab Franc blend. I ended up with three wines - a single varietal and two blends! So while I had my plan, I learned to keep an open mind and flex where the palate took me. And I was rewarded for that.

            So let not auld acquaintance be forgot. But take a glass of kindness and drink to the next vintage!

            Saturday, November 30, 2019

            'Tis the Season to Drink Bubbly!

             I only drink champagne on two occasions. When I am in love, and when I am not. 
            - Coco Chanel

            Nothing puts me in the holiday spirit more than the whisper when the Champagne cork is gently twisted off. Or for those who prefer a touch of drama, the slash of the saber across the bottle neck.

            During the holiday season, you can also expect Champagne tasting at many local wine shops, drumming up the sale of the celebratory libation. So I'd like to take this moment to share with you a few fun facts about Champagne.

            NV Louis Roederer
            #1 Will the Real Champagne Grapes Please Stand Up?

            You have seen them in the grocery store. Those tiny sweet seedless berries of Champagne grapes. Alas! Those are not the grapes used to make Champagne. They are not even *gasp* French.

            So what grapes are used to make Champagne?

            About 98% of the grapes that go into Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. The other 2% allowed are Pinot Blanc, Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Gris (a.k.a. Fromenteau), Pinot de Juillet, and Pinot Rosé. Even though both white and black grapes are used to make Champagne, most bubblies are white wine, and about 12% are pink.

            Sometimes you will see Blanc de Blanc (white from white) or Blanc de Noir (white from black) listed on the label. Despite the names, both are white Champers. Blanc de Blancs are made with only white grapes, typically 100% Chardonnay. Blanc de Noirs are made with only black grapes, primarily Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier, but with minimum skin contact. Blanc de Noirs are not to be confused with rosé Champagnes.

            #2 NV, MV, or Vintage?

            Most Champagnes you see are labelled NV (non-vintage). This means the Champagne is blended from grapes of different vintages or different years of harvest. NV is sometimes marketed as MV (multi-vintage), which more accurately describes the blend. Most NV Champagnes follow a house style, ensuring consistency in taste and quality. NV or MV wine can be released for sale fifteen months after harvest, which provides early cashflow for the Champagne houses or growers.

            Dom Pérignon tour in Eperney
            Vintage Champagne, on the other hand, is made from grapes that are harvested in the same year. On the label, you will see the year of the vintage. Vintage Champagnes are rare as they rely on a single year of good harvest. Additionally, the wine needs to be aged three years in the bottle prior to release. This is a luxury that small producers cannot afford. 

            Dom Pérignon and Cristal are two famous vintage Champagnes. The last Dom Perignon vintage was released in 2009, and the last Cristal vintage 2012.

            #3 Does Size Matter?

            Yes, if cellaring wine is important to you. Larger-format bottles are usually made of thicker glass and provide better protection from light exposure and temperature variation. Moreover, the higher wine-to-oxygen ratio helps the wine age more slowly and gracefully. The rule of thumb is to drink smaller formats young and cellar bigger formats.

            Moët & Chandon bottle sizes
            While no one really knows the origin of why larger-format bottles are named after biblical characters, it is always fun to see if you get the names right. To complicate matters, some of the same names are used to refer to different sizes when describing still wine.

            Piccolo/quarter bottle = 187.5 ml
            Demi/half bottle = 375 ml 
            Bottle = 750 ml 
            Magnum = 1.5 liters (2 bottles)
            Jeroboam = 3 liters (4 bottles)*
            Rehoboam = 4.5 liters (6 bottles)*
            Methuselah = 6 liters (8 bottles) 
            Salamanazar = 9 liters (12 bottles) 
            Balthazar = 12 lite4s (16 bottles) 
            Nebuchadnezzar = 15 liters (20 bottles)
            Solomon = 18 liters (24 bottles)

            * For still wine, 3-liter is called Double Magnum, and 4.5-liter is called Jeroboam.

            Now that you know a few more things about Champagne, go in confidence to that sparkling wine tasting. Perhaps you want to get yourself a Jeroboam of that NV Blanc de Blanc for the holiday party. 

            'Tis the season to drink bubbly!