So, I’m not going to write a blog confessing all of my faults (only because you’d be reading for days), but I will tell you my weakness when it comes to talking about wine.

Vintages ya’ll.

They are the death of me.

For those who may be confused, vintages refer to the year the grapes were harvested to be made into the vino.  And for wine that is made to be aged or consumed during a certain time, vintages are a very big deal.

Numbers were never my thing.  In fact, if it weren’t for my Algebra II teacher, Oneida Price, I would be math-illiterate.  However, I have had to work hard at getting my years straight to talk intelligently about wine at the table with my vintage-saavy guests.

I used to bog myself down with memorization.  German Riesling from 1976 is super, super yummy.  The Northern Rhone reds were awesome in 1999.  Champagne had a great reign in 1985.  Rioja ruled the roost in 1981.  Yada, yada, yada.  Blah, blah, blah.  Where’s the fun in that?

It wasn’t until one of my favorite wine peeps on the west coast (she knows who she is) taught me an awesome way to get my vintages straight without boring myself into a wine coma.

Her advice…take the year you’re trying to learn and relate it to something significant that happened in your life.  Her example was 1986, the year she lost her virginity (put the phone down, Aunt Cynthia, we’ll talk about this later).

The year 1986 was fabulous in Sauternes, a region in Bordeaux known for its lusciously sweet wines made from botrytized Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle.  The year 1986 was a sweet time for her, and that’s how she remembered it was a great year for this particular region.

About once a month, I take a bottle from our cellar that has age on it.  I open the wine to enjoy first, contemplate second and deconstruct third.

This past week, when my family and I went to visit Pop Pop in upstate New York, I packed a bottle of Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 from Napa.

Opening this gorgeous bottle of 1997 on Wednesday night and tasting this fourteen-year-old California Cabernet took me on a trip of vintages, starting with the year the grapes were harvested and ending in the year we consumed it.

In 1997, I turned 21 years old.  My knowledge of wine at the time was limited to say the least.  The only thing I can say for sure is that I knew the color of White Zinfandel was pink and not white.

When I tasted my first sip of the Montelena, I thought about that year in terms of my life.  I thought about being a junior in Chapel Hill, living in Shiboomi Apartments on Airport Road, studying in Greece for history credits, working at Stack’s Steakhouse in Tarboro during the summer, going into my senior year, bartending at Hector’s Down Under.

It was a great year for me with lots going on and lots of mind changing.

Just like the Montelena.

The Montelena came on strong just like my junior year, lots of exciting, rich fruit yet easing into a smokiness (like working in the kitchen) and then ending with leather and reductive notes (similar to the bar stools at Hector’s).

As the wine continued to develop, more flavors and memories came to mind.  The moss in our backyard, sharpened pencils in my daughter’s backpack, the spice rack in our 1970’s kitchen.

My sommelier mentor in California is right.  When you remember vintages because of how they affected your life, it’s a lot easier to do as well as a lot more fun.

Of course, it is also quite beautiful to take the year of the grapes, remember that year in your life and then appreciate where you and the wine are now.

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  • I’ve sometimes debated with myself the best way to approach this (although I suppose I could combine both of these approaches).

    Let’s say I am at a bar or restaurant and fall in love with “Bottle A”. Should I invest in different vintages of Bottle A so I can experience all the nuances over the years of its Bottle A-ness?

    Or should I choose a year that’s significant in my life (graduation, first job, first kiss, etc.), and attempt to taste as many different wines from that year that I can afford?

  • I’m a total novice, so forgive my question.
    I’ve been told that our sense of smell is where our memories are connected most clearly.
    I’m wondering if different vintages have different aroma.
    How would the Montelena 97 relate to a 07 by smell? Same / different / similar?
    I have no idea.

  • Sandra Livesay

    Inez–Have I told you lately what a beautiful writer you are? Thanks for the words!

  • Dearest Ed,
    Please forgive me for not responding earlier, sometimes I forget. Wine changes everyday in the way it smells and tastes. Of course, these changes are more noticeable over the years rather than over a few days or a couple of months. I like to equate wine to people. For instance, when I was 10 years old, I was loud, obnoxious and full of myself. When I was 20, I still maintained many of these characteristics, but they were a little more subdued and not so in-your-face. The same thing happens with wine, it becomes more developed and mature, if you will. In the case of Chateau Montelena, the 07 will be more fruit driven with blackcurrants and dark plums. As it ages, in the case of the 1994, there were more aromas/flavors of decayed leaves, moss, cedar box and smoke. It became more tertiary in flavor versus fruit-forward.
    I hope this helps in some way, but we can talk about it more soon in person.

  • Dear Douglas,
    It’s hard to answer that in black-and-white terms because I do a little of both. Sometimes I love a wine so much, I want to buy it in each year being made, regardless of how great or how bad the vintage rates. My opinion is great winemakers make great wine in every vintage because they take the necessary steps to do so. I also love to buy wines from significant vintages, but when I do that, I make sure I am a great fan of the wine as well.
    As in all things wine, there are never any absolutes.