Timing is everything 

Wine connoisseurs know that vintage matters

The year I was born, 1969, every region in the world made sucky wine. This meant the weather didn't cooperate in over 20 wine regions across the globe. I thought it would be cool to own a bottle from my birth year -- back in the Dark Ages -- but, alas, I couldn't fulfill my wish. In the year 2006, most people don't even think about the vintage year listed on the label since most of the time, it doesn't matter. But there are times it does.

A vintage-dated wine is made from grapes of which at least 95 percent were harvested in that year. A wine's taste, complexity and quality can vary one vintage to the next, mainly influenced by weather, especially in areas with varying climates and severe watering restrictions -- like France. For instance, their 2003 vintage, when all of Europe succumbed to 100-plus degree heat during the summer, produced completely uncharacteristic wines. They were higher in alcohol, with in-your-face ripe fruit -- a far cry from their normal austerity. So that's why it behooves you to pay attention to the vintage in French wines.

France has watering restrictions for two reasons: It keeps production down and quality up. Lack of water stresses a vine so it produces less fruit with stronger, more concentrated flavor and, thus, higher quality. Higher quality means more cash for the vineyard owner, and, as a result, more tax revenue for France. Spain and Italy have also practiced irrigation limitations over the years, although they're not as draconian.

But does that mean you need to keep a vintage chart in your wallet for $10 everyday purchases? Not exactly.

In warm, sunny regions like California and Australia, where the weather is fairly consistent and there are few government restrictions on vineyard management, vintage dates don't matter so much. Due to the lack of weather extremes during harvest, wineries can produce more consistent product year after year. Unless some kind of natural disaster occurred during a particular harvest -- hail storms, fire or floods -- the wine in the bottle is probably pretty close to last year's version. Of course, there are better years -- like the 1997 vintage in California -- but all in all, we're safe.

But there are times when knowledge of the good vintages will come in handy. Let's say you want to celebrate with a bottle of Bordeaux or Burgundy. Before you go popping a Franklin or more on this special bottle, it's good to know if the wine will pay you back.

Thankfully, there are some "no brainer" regions when it comes to choosing good vintages. In France's Champagne region and Portugal's Oporto region (where Port originates), a vintage is only declared in outstanding years. If the wines for a particular year don't meet high standards, they use them in non-vintage blends instead. So, vintage Champagne from France or a vintage Port from Portugal are safe investments.

Here are some recent French vintages that "people who know" have gushed over:

• Bordeaux: 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004

• Burgundy: 2000, 2002, 2003

• Rhône Valley: 2001, 2003, 2004

To find out more about vintage years, including which years these wines should be consumed for maximum pleasure, check out www.vintage-charts.com. But none of this stuff is an exact science -- a talented winemaker can make good wine even in bad years, and vice versa.

To test all this out, see if you can find a "vertical" of the same wine -- a series of vintages from the same maker. Compare them. Even if you can't taste the difference, at least you'll have an excuse to drink three bottles at once.

Recommended Wines

Chateau St. Jean 2005 Geuwurztraminer Sonoma County This is a grape that everyone loves but finds hard to pronounce (Guh-VERTS-tra-MEE-ner). This rendition is wildly floral, with fragrant peaches, ripe mango and sweet honey. Sw = 4. $15. 3.5 stars

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.

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