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2004 Vintage Report Card

Northern Hemisphere wine regions fared well overall

Posted: January 3, 2005

Another harvest is over, and the wines are resting in winery cellars. While it's too early to thoroughly assess quality, Wine Spectator's editors have provided a snapshot of the conditions and expectations in key regions, and have given a preliminary grade for each of them.

France

REGION: Bordeaux
GRADE: B
A hot and sunny September saved what could have been a disastrous harvest for Bordeaux, allowing some of the top estates to pick very good to excellent quality grapes. "This is a year that will be marked by two key factors," said winemaking consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt, who oversees such famous estates as La Mondotte and Canon-La Gaffelière. "You had to keep your grape yields down and you had to pick late. Those who didn't couldn't have made serious wines."

The top names in Bordeaux certainly had the wherewithal and financial resources to make good wines in 2004, but the majority of wineries in the region were struggling financially before the harvest and were not expected to be able to make the necessary sacrifices to improve quality. "It's going to be very hard to find quality wines for our blends," said one well-known wine merchant with a global brand. "Most growers just couldn't afford to reduce their yields and make good wines."

--James Suckling

REGION: Burgundy
GRADE: A- (white wines)/B+ (red wines)
Growers in Burgundy were not very optimistic at the end of August, but September and October saved the day for the region's Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. After a large flowering in June, cold, rainy weather during July and August retarded maturity of the grapes. Then, as if by magic, the weather changed to beautiful clear, warm, sunny days. Ripeness advanced quickly, and weather conditions remained favorable throughout the harvest.

The crop was large, and green harvesting was necessary. Powdery mildew was a problem during the growing season, "but with the proper treatments and rigor in the vines one could keep it under control," said Beaune négociant Alex Gambal. Hail was also a problem (though less so for whites), with a big storm on Aug. 23 that particularly affected Volnay and Pommard, but also parts of the Côte de Nuits up to Gevrey-Chambertin.

When both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were harvested, "The sugar levels were high, but physiological ripeness was not ideal," said Pascal Marchand, estates manager for Domaine de la Vougeraie, adding that sorting was crucial this year. Still, he said, "I think the wines are very precise, and the terroirs are well-defined."

--Bruce Sanderson

REGION: Champagne
GRADE: A
This year's bumper crop, which producers estimated was twice the normal size, set an all-time record. Due to high yields and the number of acres planted, "2004 is the largest harvest in Champagne history," said Daniel Lorson, spokesman for the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, the region's regulatory body.

However, producers do not expect quality to suffer. "Not only [is] the maturity there, but also the acidity is high, which is a great necessity for us in Champagne," said Bruno Paillard of Champagne Bruno Paillard, adding that he believes that 2004 is vintage quality.

The Champagne region suffered no major spring frosts, and the cool summer was followed by warm, sunny weather in September that produced healthy, ripe grapes. "We have nice, satisfactory sugar and alcohol levels," said Philippe Court, director general of Taittinger.

Moët & Chandon's enology director, Phillippe Coulon, expects the quality of Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier to be good to outstanding, but he and Court said the Pinot Noir berries ripened unevenly within the bunches, requiring strict sorting.

--Jacob Gaffney and Bruce Sanderson

REGION: Rhône Valley
GRADE: A-
Though the 2004 growing season experienced a warm stretch from May through July, it was not nearly as hot and dry as the 2003 vintage. After a rainy winter that rehydrated the region's badly parched soils, budbreak was up to two weeks late. Sugar levels rose quickly during the warm months, but a rainy August helped slow the ripening. The vintage was made by ideal warm, sunny weather in September, which allowed for additional hang time.

Producers who waited until the end of September to pick, such as Michel Chapoutier in the northern Rhône, brought in grapes whose flavors had finally caught up to their sugars. "The key to 2004 was to wait for ripeness," said Mark Fincham of Domaine du Pégaü in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. "There was plenty of sugar and most people were tempted to start harvesting in early September."

Because of the longer, more moderate season, acidities in 2004 are higher than in recent warm vintages such as 2003 and 2000. Consequently, most growers are comparing the vintage to more classic-styled years, such as 1999.

--James Molesworth

United States

REGION: California/Napa Valley
GRADE: A-
Short and sweet summarizes the 2004 vintage in both Napa and Sonoma counties--the harvest was early, the crop was small and the grapes ripened well. Winemakers were optimistic about quality, saying that most of the major grape varieties came in without a hitch. About the only complaint vintners had was that the crop size was 20 percent to 50 percent below normal, according to many reports.

In Napa Valley, vintners said the young reds were intense, deep colored and very concentrated; they were also alcoholic. A hot spell at harvest proved tricky, said Craig Williams of Joseph Phelps Vineyards. "September was incredibly warm and dry," he said; many vineyards had varying degrees of "shriveling or concentration," which held crop loads at Phelps to two tons per acre for most varieties. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc look great, Williams said, and the 2004 reds, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, remind him of 2002. "They're very compelling, very seamless, with great color," making them a notch better than 2003, he said.

--James Laube

REGION: California/Sonoma County
GRADE: B+
Sonoma mirrored Napa with the crop size and the early harvest, but vintners reported somewhat milder temperatures, which generally encouraged earlier, gradual maturation. Winemakers said crush was all but wrapped up by the first week in October--two to three weeks ahead of normal.

An early, short harvest with low yields generally means the wines will be concentrated and intense, yet balanced, winemakers said. However, it can also mean that tannins can be an issue. "There seem to be a lot of big tannins in red wines across the board this year," Chateau Souverain winemaker Ed Killian said.

Cabernet was spotty, with some excellent wines and some not so good, Killian said, but most other varieties fared well. "Overall, I think it will be an extremely good Chardonnay year. The Merlots are as good as they've ever been, certainly in Alexander Valley," he said, adding that Zinfandels were on par with the Merlots. "I think Sauvignon Blanc is distinctly better than in 2003, which was kind of a flop. 2004 looks like there's a lot of flavorful Sauvignon Blancs."

--Tim Fish

REGION: California/Central Coast
GRADE: B+
This region, which stretches from Monterey to Santa Barbara, also had an early, hot and short harvest. Starting in August and the beginning of September, a torrid heat spell, which in some areas lasted five days, sent temperatures higher than 100 degrees F.

With its thin skin and tendency to ripen early, Pinot Noir was the most likely to suffer. Many vintners in Santa Barbara, the Santa Rita Hills and the Santa Lucia Highlands raced to pick before berries raisined and sugars soared. The better Pinots--those unmarked by over-ripeness--will be concentrated, with substantial alcohol. Yields were high, about three tons an acre, nearly double the recent average at many estates.

Chardonnay and Syrah are hardier varieties, so they fared better in the heat. Chardonnay yields were low to average, and vintners reported clean fermentations after picking healthy grapes with good flavors. Syrah crops in Paso Robles were tiny, with small berries and clusters. Grapes that lasted through the heat spell produced intense, concentrated wines, with bright flavors and lively acidity that encourage optimism.

--Daniel Sogg

REGION: Oregon
GRADE: B+
It was a year of extremes for Oregon growers. Late winter and early spring were exceptionally cool and dry, which kept the crop size down, then heat waves arrived in July and August. In Willamette Valley, grape sugar levels were peaking in late summer and harvest looked imminent, but then it was postponed by cool, wet weather that arrived in late August and again in mid-September. About three inches of rain fell overall, although southern Oregon received less. Harvest proceeded in fits and starts, and winemakers report that grapes weathered the storms remarkably well.

"It turned out to be a godsend because we were able to delay harvest to get better acids and fruit flavors," said Argyle winemaker Rollin Soles, who describes the 2004 wines as crisp and pretty in a classic Oregon style. Yields are down 10 percent to 60 percent in Willamette Valley, where the Pinot Noirs show bright black raspberry fruit and Chardonnays offer pear and mineral qualities.

--Tim Fish

REGION: Washington
GRADE: B
"It was really a wild year," said Doug Gore, who oversees winemaking for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. The year began with bitterly cold temperatures in January, which reduced the crop size by 10 percent or more. Particularly hard hit was the Walla Walla region, where some growers were left with little or no crop. The summer was hot and arid, and by mid-August, many winemakers were concerned that flavors were not keeping up with the soaring sugar levels. Just as harvest was getting underway, cool temperatures and a modest amount of rain arrived, slowing crush for about two weeks and giving the grapes more hang time.

Because of the uneven growing season, it's difficult to make an early assessment of quality. Flavors could be compromised. But winemakers report that Syrahs and Merlots are generally well-balanced and have dark colors, while the Chardonnays show good acid and flavors. "The Rieslings," Gore said, "are dynamos."

--Tim Fish

Italy

REGION: Tuscany
GRADE: A
Wine producers from the Maremma to Chianti Rufina had huge smiles on their faces following the 2004 harvest. The grape crop was late in most areas in Tuscany, but a warm and sunny September produced good to exceptional grapes for most serious estates. Some winemakers are already making comparisons to the classic 1997 vintage.

High yields are the only concern about the vintage, since vineyards kicked into full-blown production following the ultra-hot, dry weather in 2003 that reduced that year's crop. Some producers cut back at least 60 percent of the grapes hanging on their vines in July and August to ensure that the vines put all of their energy into a solid crop.

"I have never seen Sangiovese with such quality, with perhaps the exception of 1997," said Roberto Guerrini, a few weeks after the harvest at his Brunello estate of Eredi Fuligni. "The young wines already have amazingly dark colors, bright perfumes and rich tannins and fruit. I am extremely optimistic."

--James Suckling

REGION: Piedmont
GRADE: A-
Most producers in Italy's northeastern wine region began picking their Nebbiolos in early October, and they were more than satisfied with the results. "People who managed their vineyards well made very, very good wines," said Enrico Scavino, the owner and winemaker of Paolo Scavino, one of Barolo's top labels. He already thinks the quality of his wines is close to such outstanding years as 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997 and 1996.

Like other parts of Europe, vineyards in Piedmont had a large crop of grapes this summer following the hot, dry 2003 vintage. The vines overcompensated this year for the shortages of the year before. A visit to Piedmont vineyards in late September showed many vines with masses of grapes, many at different stages of maturation. However, those producers who thinned their crops during the summer harvested very good to outstanding grapes with good maturation. "We are very happy with the 2004 harvest," said Luciano Sandrone, another great name in Barolo. "Thank goodness for the excellent weather in September."

--James Suckling

Rest of the World

REGION: Austria
GRADE: A (sweet wines)/B (dry wines)
Sweet wine producers in the Burgenland region were elated with the vintage, due to the abundance of botrytis, which is key to producing the country's luscious beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese wines. "This harvest was like a gift from the Godfather!" said Alois Kracher.

Dry white wine districts, such as the Wachau, had a tougher go of it in 2004. The flowering was later than usual, and cool temperatures dominated much of the year. June and July saw plenty of rainfall, but a sunny, warm August helped jump-start the ripening of the grapes. This was slowed by more rain in September and a damp, foggy October. Even with green harvesting and arduous care, many Riesling vineyards struggled to reach full ripeness. Grüner Veltliner reaped the benefits of dry, warm mid-November winds--and even botrytis--to yield good natural sugar levels and should produce fine, full-bodied late-harvest Smaragd wines.

Cool temperatures also marked the red wine regions, such as Mittelburgenland and the Neusiedlersee, but a mild, generally sunny October improved ripeness levels. There was no shortage of botrytis in these areas, giving red sweet wines their time to shine.

--Darrel Joseph

REGION: Germany
GRADE: A-
Germany experienced a typical harvest for Riesling in 2004. Quality looks very good at this stage, with crisp acidities, fruity aromas and true kabinetts and spätlesen. Quantities are close to average for most estates.

Temperatures in June, July and August were warmer than average, but not as hot as in 2003. The Rheingau, Mosel and Nahe regions received much-needed rain during the summer, but Philipp Wittmann of Weingut Wittmann in the Rheinhessen reported it was drier inland. The flowering period extended longer than usual, and several growers noted the need to green harvest to reduce the crop size.

Expect elegant, classically styled Rieslings from 2004, which producers are comparing to several earlier outstanding vintages, such as 2002, 2001, 1990 and 1988. But don't expect to see much of Germany's greatest sweet wines. Botrytis came late, around Oct. 25 at Gunderloch in the Rheinhessen, and at many estates, there wasn't much of the noble rot, making it a struggle to harvest beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese wines.

--Bruce Sanderson

REGION: Portugal/Port
GRADE: B+
Port producers who gambled on a late harvest appeared to have made very good to exceptional wines in 2004, following an extremely variable growing season. The weather was sunny and warm for most of September and early October, correcting the effects of a wet, cool August and enabling many vineyard owners to pick their grapes at near-perfect maturity.

"The 2004 harvest could have been a total wipe-out, with some early rain causing dilution, and some rot starting to appear," said Rupert Symington, a director of the Symington family Port group, which includes such well-known names as Graham, Warre and Dow. "Luckily it dried and warmed up completely, and we made some really good wines."

"It was an extraordinary year, with low yields and very high concentrations of sugar," said Christian Seely, who oversees Quinta do Noval and the newly acquired Quinta da Romaneira. "Fermentations were slow and not always easy, but there were some lagares of seriously high quality and with a distinctive character of the year. We'll see how they evolve, but certainly there were some exceptional wines."

Still, the biggest talk from the Douro Valley concerns the 2003 vintage, even though an official declaration won't come until spring. Many producers are already saying 2003 could top the legendary 1994 or even 1963 vintages.

--James Suckling

REGION: Spain
GRADE: B
A mild winter, followed by a rainy spring and a dry, cool summer led to later-than-normal harvests in most areas. In Rioja, the governing body reported that the crop was a bit smaller than in 2003, but overall quality was higher. Still one producer said that 2004 was a "very complicated year," and the quality of the Tempranillos could be uneven. Some vineyards, especially in Rioja Baja, received torrential summer rains, which were followed by a dry spell.

Winemakers in Ribera del Duero were more optimistic, expecting to produce powerful, structured wines with deep color and harmonious acidity. Yields varied, up or down, in different vineyards. In Penedés, a dry September helped ripen local varieties, such as Macabeo, Monastrell and Xarello, to a very good level. Other varieties, such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, were reported to be exceptional. Priorat vintners reported that old vines produced better-than-average grapes, which should yield strong, concentrated wines. But the younger vines did not ripen as well, which is likely to lead to wines that are lighter in structure and color.

--Jacob Gaffney

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