Wine is like a child: it takes time to develop, and you can't predict absolutely how it will turn out. The wine's vintage, however, is a strong indication of common strengths and aging potential. Although knowledge of great vintages is not as important as knowledge of merely good ones -- we can rarely afford a '61 bordeaux, say, but can find bargains today among the '79s -- the wine drinker will at some point want to become acquainted with the best.

The "vintage of the decade" is announced often in Bordeaux, the "vintage of the century" a bit less often. Yet there are vintages of the century, picked with some consent among wine enthusiasts with enough age of their own, or enough money, to have tasted these treasures. The 20th century is generally credited with four great vintages -- 190, 1928, 1945 and 1961.

The 1900 harvest was heralded at the time as a bellwether for the century. Michael Broadbent later wrote in The Vintage Wine Book, that it was "a superabundant crop of very fine wines . . . " He tasted a 1900 Lafite when it was 79 and pronounced it "magnificent," the fruit having held up to the years.

The 1899 was also a magnificent vintage, just short of greatness, which added to the enthusiasm for the 1900. The same sort of fortuitous twinning of success took place in '28 and '29. The former is usually considered the better year, with a big crop and wines highly praised at the time. A popular wine writer, Maxwell Campbell, described the '28s as "well balanced and well bred, full to the taste and at the same time, supple . . . " He didn't call them great, but they also later proved tannic enough to last. The '29s were equally impressive in quantity and complexity, with greater finesse than the '28s, but less aging potential.

The 1945 crop was one of the smallest of the century because of a late spring frost. This natural pruning produced incredible concentration of flavor and heavy tannins. "These are majestic wines," David Peppercorn later wrote in Bordeaux. The St.-Emilions and Pomerols were particularly forward. Of the M,edoc wines, Peppercorn said, "it is only since these wines passed the 20-year mark that one began to drink them without a feeling of committing infanticide." Only then could wine drinkers say for sure how good they were.

The vintage of the century is generally considered to be 1961, in part because more people have tasted the '61s than the century's other contenders. The '61 season also produced a small crop of tremendous depth and complexity; the wines were initially more subtle than previous great vintages because of improved winemaking techniques. Alexis Lichine, wine writer and wine maker, now gives '61 the only perfect rating of 20 on his vintage cart. "Undoubtedly the greatest post-war vintage," Broadbent writes of the '61s, " . . . deep, rich, concentrated, long-lasting . . . Unlike 1945, more flesh and fat and likely not to dry out as severely as some of even the most renowned of that vintage. But only time will tell."

Indeed. "Great" vintages are often proclaimed too soon, usually by overly enthusiastic winemakers, wine traders and wine writers. "Great," in wine parlance, is a relative term. Recent vintages that have had brushes with greatness are '66 (elegant and fading), '70 (concentrated and tannic) and '75 (complex and very hard yet). The latest candidate for greatness is '82. It is undoubtedly a fine vintage, but its ranking in the decade -- and certainly in the century -- will have to wait.

-- James Conaway