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.