The importance of the “vintage factor” in winemaking

Alexia Luca de Tena (winemaker Bodegas Viña Nora) – The vintage of a wine refers to the year of harvest of the grapes from which the wine was made. The climate throughout the vegetative cycle of the vine varies from one year to another being a determining factor in the quality obtained during the months in which the grapes ripen, so the wine can be very different from one vintage to another although the elaboration of the wine is similar. We are talking about the “Vintage Factor in a Wine”.

In addition to the influence of other factors such as the geographical location of the vineyard, the soil, the variety and the hand of man, the vintage factor plays a fundamental role in the definition of a wine.

Note that not all springs have good weather and not all summers are equally hot. This causes the vineyard to have more or less water available and more or less light and temperature from sprouting until the grapes ripen. This definitely influences the parameters that the grape will have when you harvest it, which causes the wine to have certain characteristics specific to the year of production.

Although I don’t like to generalize to talk about anything that has to do with wine, since I consider that a wine is the result of a lot of small particularities, I am going to explain to you what we are talking about starting from some concepts defined in a general way.

  • First generality:

If we talk about climate according to the geographical location where the vineyard is located we can talk about three types of climates: Oceanic or Atlantic climate, Continental climate and Mediterranean climate. The characteristics of each of them are summarized below:

  1. Atlantic climate: low temperature without large fluctuations and medium-high rainfall.
  2. Mediterranean climate: high temperature without large fluctuations and medium-low rainfall.
  3. Continental Climate: temperature with large fluctuations (a lot of difference between summer-winter and during the day and night) and medium rainfall.
  • Second generality:

When the grapes reach veraison the plant begins to synthesize sugar in the fruit and thus reach the point of ripeness. The winemaker will decide when to harvest the grapes when they reach “good” maturity, which will depend on weather conditions. Grape maturity is determined by the sugar contained in the pulp (alcoholic maturity) and the amount of polyphenols and aromatic precursors that have been synthesized in the skin and pips (phenolic maturity), which are responsible for the color, flavor and aromas in a wine as well as its structure. Ideally, grapes should be harvested with a balance between the two stages of ripening.

  • Third generality:

During the ripening period, the higher the temperature, the faster and greater the synthesis of sugars and the faster and greater the decrease in acidity. Other factors such as the thermal difference between day and night influence the point of phenolic maturity reached in the grape and of course the amount of daylight hours and water available to the plant will influence the parameters reached.

  • Fourth generality:

Those geographical areas where temperatures are higher the sugar synthesis is faster and higher and the decrease in acidity more pronounced while those where temperatures are milder tend to be wines with higher acidity and less alcoholic. In addition to temperature, in terms of climate, light and rainfall will define the maturity achieved.

In addition to the climate of the geographical area where the vineyard is located, it should be taken into account that there may be years in which we reach ripening earlier or the opposite of the previous year, depending on the weather during that year. A particularity of the characteristics of a wine is the climate throughout the year in which it was harvested, the vintage.

In Rías Baixas the climate is Atlantic. In the Condado do Tea subzone where we are located and where we have most of our vineyards, there is a continental influence because we are on the right bank of the Miño River about 80 km from the Atlantic Ocean towards the interior of Galicia. In this subzone we can suffer frosts in spring and temperatures during the day in summer are usually higher than in the rest of the Denomination of Origin and lower at night. In general terms, this means that the Albariño grown in this subzone reaches a good phenolic maturity when alcoholic maturity is reached in most of the harvests. In recent years the dry summers have been a great challenge to work the viticulture and prevent the plant from blocking and to achieve this balance between maturities.

Thus we can say that the particular climatology of the vintage influences the characteristics that will be obtained in the grapes grown:

  • Cool vintages: with a lot of rain in spring, mild temperatures in summer and abundant water, the grape does not reach maturity, neither alcoholic nor phenolic. The grape will then have the vocation to produce young and immediate wines, without the capacity to produce wines with a high alcoholic and phenolic content.
  • Hot vintages: summers where daytime temperatures reach 40 degrees for many days ripening is very fast and alcoholic maturity arrives without reaching phenolic maturity. The wines are usually easy to drink early, with lower acidity than usual, but they tend to have less aging capacity as they are usually lacking in muscle to withstand aging.
  • Balanced or historical vintages: when it rains little in spring and temperatures are between 20-25ºC and it rains occasionally in summer and the temperature during ripening is maintained at around 27-32ºC, the ripening process occurs gradually and slowly, reaching a balance between alcoholic and phenolic maturity. In this case we obtain a good alcohol-acidity balance, good structure and a complex aromatic expression.

In our area we must add that we have a factor that will determine the quality of each harvest: “the sanitary state of the grapes”. We are in an area where rainfall is above 1000 mm per year in almost all harvests. Depending on how the rainfall is distributed throughout the vintage, it will directly affect fungal diseases in the vineyard. Diseases that directly attack the grape bunch, such as downy mildew and powdery mildew, will reduce the volume to be harvested, but it is Botrytis cinerea, which causes gray rot and, if present in our vineyard, will directly determine the quality of our wines, which will be detrimental the greater the affectation of this fungus.