Another harvest is over, and the newest wines are aging in winery cellars. Although 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 given each of them a preliminary grade.
Erratic and sometimes extreme conditions marked the 2006 vintage in Austria, which featured a hot spell in July followed by a cool, rainy August, and then near-ideal conditions during the harvest period. But the end result should be wines of high quality.
"The incredible harvest weather from the end of August until the end of October was crucial to making 2006 an excellent vintage," explained Nikolaus Moser, owner of Weingut Sepp Moser, with vineyards in the Kremstal and Neusiedlersee winegrowing regions.
Kamptal vintner Paul Jurtschitsch agreed. "Nobody in the Jurtschitsch family can remember such a harvest period of fine weather [lasting] till late November without any interruptions," he said. The result, according to Jurtschitsch, are wines high in ripeness yet featuring crisp acidity.
This is particularly the case with the white wine Grüner Veltliner, which is "more full-bodied than in average years" according to Kamptal vintner Fred Loimer.
Ripeness was a feature of '06. "White wines as well as reds and sweets are marked by high ripeness, lots of expression, nice concentration and a good remaining bit of acidity to keep their liveliness," Moser said.
Similarly, Peter Malberg of Graf Hardegg in Weinviertel reports that he had 30 percent lower yields from his vineyards compared to 2005, allowing for a high level of ripeness. Some of his white wines registered more than 14 percent alcohol yet featured high acidity.
At press time in early December, sweet-white specialist Alois Kracher said the beneficial botrytis rot that concentrates sugars appeared very late, with picking for TBA grapes beginning in mid-November. "Harvest will go on until Christmas," Kracher said.
Across the board, winemakers in Alsace describe a challenging harvest due to a growing season full of extremes. Of note is the early conclusion to the year's harvest, in mid-October, when producers would usually just be starting their picking. Jean Meyer of Domaine Josmeyer called the year "... a vinegrower and winemaker vintage," where stringent vineyard management and careful vinification skills were needed to produce wines of high quality.
The year began well, with a spring that was rainy and cool then sunny and warm, producing a good-quality yet rapid flowering. July was one of the hottest and driest on record, and many winemakers feared a repeat of 2003's drought conditions. Things looked even worse after a cool and damp August, but many winemakers regained their optimism as two weeks of beautiful weather set in at the start of September.
Unfortunately, rainfall on Sept. 17--light in some parts of the region but torrential in most--marked the start of a spell lasting until Oct. 4. "Due to the dry months of June and July, the berries were very small and tight. August rains provoked an increase in size, causing pressure on the skins," said Olivier Humbrecht, winemaker at Domaine Zind-Humbrecht. This pressure, along with rainfall and warm weather during the second half of September, caused many grapes to crack and botrytis to spread quickly.
"I've made wine for 27 years and I've never seen the rot spread more quickly," said Maurice Barthelmé, winemaker at Domaine Albert Mann. Domaines Schlumberger winemaker Séverine Beydon-Schlumberger concurred, explaining that in order to counteract the vigorous growth of botrytis, crews had to harvest quickly and with great care. Some plots were left entirely and pickers practiced what she called "draconian selection" of grapes in the vineyard.
Still, many winemakers seem hopeful. Proper selections in the vineyard and attention to the grapes' high acidity and varying physiological maturities resulted in successful fermentations. But consumers should expect to see less wine in 2006 and inconsistent quality from producers that did not make all of the right decisions. Fans of Alsace's late harvest and dessert wines will probably fare best, as warm, fair weather set in after Oct. 4, when the rains cleared.
The 2006 vintage in Bordeaux should bring a bit of everything. The year will result in excellent wines as well as very poor ones.
The bountiful vintage was one of the most difficult and varied imaginable, with everything from boiling weather in July to torrential downpours in September as well as rot in the vineyard during the harvest. Only producers who worked well in their vineyards and made severe selections of their best grapes will make very good to excellent wines.
"We could have had as good of grapes as in 2005," said Kees Leeuwen, vineyard manager of Château Cheval-Blanc. "But there was rot. It was too warm and humid from the rain in September. We just missed a very, very good vintage."
Still, Cheval-Blanc and many other top estates harvested very good grapes, making careful selections. All Pomerol estates visited during harvest had crews selecting bunches both in their vineyards and in their wineries, using mechanical sorting tables.
One of the big pluses for 2006 was an extremely hot July, so ripening was far ahead of schedule when the bad weather set in for most of August. Many growers were extremely worried by the end of the month, but clear weather came in the first week of September before heavy showers and warm weather in the second week. The weather turned bright and sunny again, with only the occasional shower until the end of October.
"We're used to [rain] in Bordeaux, but the grapes coming in were of surprisingly good quality," said Bruno Borie, owner of Ducru-Beaucaillou. "We haven't finished the blends yet, but some casks are very rich. In general, in 2006, the better the exposure of the vines, the better the wine will be," meaning crews had to remove leaves around the bunches to increase airflow in the canopy. "You had to look after the bunches and leave them well-exposed to ward off botrytis. It was an expensive vintage."
Just how expensive remains to be seen. The dollar at the moment is at a near record low against the Euro. So château owners are already talking about how difficult 2006 will be to sell as futures, especially to Americans and following the record prices for many of the 2005s.
Nevertheless, the Bordeaux wine trade remains bullish on 2006. "It's a wait-and-see year," said Christian Seeley, managing director of Pichon-Baron and Petite Village. "I like the vintage, but I'm not ready yet to say what the quality level is. But there's a quiet confidence about 2006."
It was a year of extremes for growers and winemakers in Burgundy.
After a cold, snowy winter and cool spring, the flowering advanced quickly with the onset of warm weather. July was extremely hot, with the grapes maturing ahead of schedule, with no disease pressure but an unusually cold and wet August brought mildew and rot, primarily for Pinot Noir.
But if August gave growers concern, September brought a huge sigh of relief. The weather cleared and the month was warm and relatively dry. Pressure from rot was relieved partially with dry winds from the north, but attentive growers applied sprays or removed leaves to promote air circulation and exposure to the sun. At the beginning of the harvest, Bouchard Père & Fils winemaker Philippe Prost reported, "For good winegrowers, rot is not a problem, except perhaps in very young vines."
Etienne de Montille, who runs De Montille and Château de Puligny-Montrachet, explained that there were two keys to the 2006 harvest. "Because of the heterogeneous flowering, the ripening was uneven. It was very important to pick from parcel to parcel [to attain the best maturity]. Second, it was necessary to sort." This was particularly true in the northern part of the Côte de Nuits, where Gevrey-Chambertin was hit with a hailstorm at the end of July.
The Pinot Noir skins remained thick, despite the wet August, possibly due to the heat in July. This resulted in less juice than normal, and combined with the pruning and strict sorting that the best estates performed, the yields could be 20 percent lower than in 2005.
The region's Chardonnay matured more rapidly and there were few problems with rot. The yields are slightly lower than the Pinot Noir, but more generous than in 2005. Thus, it looks like a very good to outstanding vintage for the whites.
Ironically, to the north in Chablis, both the flowering and harvest took place earlier than the Côte d'Or. Christian Moreau of Domaine Christian Moreau & Fils said that the quality of the fruit was fine, with no rot, average yields and excellent ripeness and acidity. "The vintage may be richer than 2004. It's hard to say yet, but very mineral, very Chablis," he added.
Guillaume d'Angerville of Domaine Marquis d'Angerville in Volnay, feels the 2006 reds may be like 2004, but cautions that it's too early to say. "I think we will produce a very interesting vintage, with a focus on delicacy and precision of the aromas," he stated. "The whites look like they will be superb."
Producers in Champagne speak with enthusiasm about the 2006 vintage, largely due to a growing season full of contrasting but well-timed weather changes and excellent conditions during harvest. Although most producers are hesitant to declare that a vintage Champagne will be made from 2006, all are pleased with the quality they have seen thus far.
The weather in April and May was mild, with an unusual amount of rain, but sunny weather and higher-than-average temperatures during June promoted excellent flowering. A few thunderstorms at the start of July resulted in isolated hail damage in certain parts of Champagne, but otherwise the month was one of the hottest and driest on record, helping the grapes ripen quickly. The weather took a dramatic turn in August, with three rainy and humid weeks worrying growers.
"At the very end of August most of the early summer promise [in the vineyards] was about to disappear," said Olivier Krug of Champagne Krug, "when both the sun and heat came back for three weeks, leading to a marvelous crop."
Frédéric Panaiotos, enologist at Veuve Clicquot, said that this "nearly perfect" weather during harvest "resulted in an excellent ripening process." The grapes attained optimal physiological maturity and developed a good balance between ripeness and acidity. Chardonnay in particular did very well, although both Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier were picked with minimal botrytis, which was sorted out.
After initial tastings of the 2006 base wines, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, technical director at Louis Roederer, said, "Early tastings are highly promising, showing clean aromas, rich fruit and a finesse and balance rarely seen at this early stage."
Overall, consumers can expect that the 2006 vintage will be an important component in high quality non-vintage wines for the next several years. "Even if I find it too early to say whether it will be a vintage year or not for Krug," said Krug, "I can already say that 2006 will be a very pleasant year to blend. It is indeed a year of character."
Loire vintners were tested in the 2006 vintage, as heavy rains during the later part of the growing season resulted in the spread of rot through the middle of the valley, where Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc are dominant.
"After August 15, it started raining a lot, and for a long period," said Philippe Germain of Vignobles Germain-Saincrit, which produces red, white and sweet wines from Anjou. "We had to make numerous and severe tries [passes through the vineyard to select healthy grapes]."
Most growers who made strict selections of their fruit reported crop reductions of 20 percent to 30 percent.
The rains led to a fast spread of grey rot (which is different from botrytis, the beneficial noble rot), so there will be little of the late-harvest Chenin Blanc wines for which the areas around Anjou and Vouvray are famous. "2006 is a difficult vintage," said Noel Pinguet, winemaker at S.A. Huët in Vouvray. "The semitropical climatic conditions have led to a lot of grey mold. However, thanks to very severe tries we will be able to vinify all the range--dry, semi-dry and sweet wines--but in very reduced quantities (50 percent less than usual)."
Grapes for dry reds (Cabernet Franc) and whites (Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc) were harvested in better condition as they were picked earlier, but will likely be much lighter and crisper than the excellent 2005s.
The term "winemaker's vintage" was invoked by nearly all the vignerons interviewed, a sure sign that extra efforts such as canopy management and grape sorting were needed in the vineyards and at the winery to ensure healthy fruit. Producers who went to extra effort and expense will have lower volumes, but higher quality wine.
"It has not been easy. But it is in the difficult vintages when you see the differences between the various way people work their vineyards," said Philippe Delesvaux, one of the Loire's top producers of sweet wines. "It was necessary to sort, sort and then sort again."
Vignerons in the eastern end of the valley, where Sauvignon Blanc leads the way, were more optimistic.
"Both Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are looking very balanced, a little bit higher in acidity and a little bit less rich than the '05," says Pascal Jolivet, whose eponymous domaine is a leader in the two appellations.
Unlike the rest of France's major wine regions, Rhône vintners are very enthusiastic about the prospects for the 2006 vintage, both in the north and south of the valley. Despite a cool August, it remained dry. So when light rains fell in early September, the vines replenished themselves without bloating the hanging fruit.
"The vintage is very good," says Jean-Louis Chave, winemaker at Domaine Jean-Louis Chave in Hermitage. "We got lucky."
Growers around Côte-Rôtie in the far north of the valley were especially happy, as yields returned to normal after the low-yielding 2003 and 2005 seasons, and the wines showed terrific color and length as they moved into their malolactic fermentations in November. "If you look at the numbers, this is what they taught me in school to be a perfect vintage," said Pierre-Jean Villa, winemaker and co-owner at Les Vins de Vienne. "The analysis of tannins, acidity, everything is perfect ... on paper. We'll have to wait and see, though."
In the south, Châteauneuf-du-Pape vignerons are counting their blessings, as the region continued its strong run of vintages since 1998 (save for 2002). Yields remained low due to dry conditions, though they were slightly higher than in the trio of drought-affected vintages from 2003 through 2005.
"We had a lot of grapes, but the juice was very concentrated," said Daniel Brunier, winemaker and co-owner at Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe.
As in the north, the wines showed dark colors and ripe acidity as they headed into their malolactic fermentations in November.