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2006 Vintage Report Card: Part 3

A preliminary look at quality in the wine regions of Europe

Posted: December 14, 2006

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.

Germany
Italy - Overall
Piedmont
Tuscany
Portugal
Spain

Germany

Grade: B+

Germany has been one of the benefactors of a general warming trend over the past few years, particularly the most northerly regions of Mosel, Rheingau and Nahe. This has allowed a string of quality harvests from 1988 through 2006 (with two exceptions, 1991 and 2000). During that period, however, the harvests have been earlier and quicker, with producers trying to pick around rains and outbreaks of vine diseases. 2006 was no exception, and though volume is down significantly, initial reports suggest that the quality is high.

The spring flowering came early. Then June was warm and July hot, accelerating ripening, but August brought cold and wet weather, which slowed maturity and kept acidity levels high.

Botrytis spread quickly after a spell of early October rain that was followed by warm weather, but at Robert Weil in the Rheingau, vice-estate director Jochen Becker-Köhn said the Riesling for QbA and kabinett was harvested before the rain. After a few days of dry weather, the picking team sorted out any rotten and damaged berries before harvesting grapes for spätlese through tröckenbeerenauslese (TBA).

Nik Weis, proprietor at St.-Urbans Hof in the Mosel, said his team picked berrenauslese (BA) and TBA before spätlese, a result of the rapidly rising sugar levels due to botrytis and shriveling. "We harvested about the same quantity as in 2005," he recalled. "That's still 20 percent less than in 2004. One may have been able to prevent a reduction in yield by earlier picking, but then the wines are by far not as full-bodied, dense and flavorful."

In the Pfalz, Bassermann-Jordan sales director Gunther Hauck was pleased with the quality of the auslese, BA and TBA. However, hail in Forst damaged as much as 80 percent of the crop in their top sites. Other top estates suffered similar damage.

With quantities down and demand for Riesling growing, prices are likely to rise. A few growers have already warned of setting allocations for their dry-style wines. "On the open market, prices for grapes and juice skyrocketed after the shortness of the crop became apparent," said Johannes Selbach of Selbach-Oster in the Mosel. "The supply situation in Germany has never been this tight before."

—Bruce Sanderson

Italy - Overall

Grade: B+

The summer of 2006 in Italy was characterized by anomalous and changeable weather conditions, but most regions--from the top to the toe of Italy--are reporting good end results.

It was unusually hot in June and parts of July, with drought conditions that threatened to stress the vines. But an equally uncharacteristically mild and wet August followed. Then the first half of September saw the start of an Indian summer that lasted through October and well into November. The only interruption was a rainy spell toward the end of September, which helped nourish late-ripening varieties such as Tuscany's Sangiovese and Piedmont's Nebbiolo.

Reports from the northeast region of Alto Adige, best known for its whites, are very optimistic. "We had to move fast during September," said Martin Foradori, owner of the J. Hofstätter winery, "because the grapes ripened very quickly. It's a good vintage for us," he added. "The wines will be balanced, with intense fruit."

In Veneto, the home of Amarone reds and Soave whites, the harvest took place in fair weather. According to Nadia Zenato, owner of top Amarone producer Zenato, the weather, so far, has also been perfect for appassimento, the process in which the grapes are dried until at least the end of the year. "We already know it's a good vintage," said Zenato, "Our hope is that it will turn out to be a great vintage."

The harvest in Sicily, where the climate diverges from the rest of Italy, was underway in the middle of August, with temperatures of up to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. "The grapes were very rich in sugar," said enologist Franco Giacosa, who oversaw the harvest at Zonin's Sicilian estate, Feudo Principi di Butera, "but otherwise it was a regular ripening."

—Jo Cooke and James Suckling

Region: Tuscany
Grade: A

The weather in Tuscany tracked that of most of Italy: very hot in June and July, mild and damp in August, then hot again through September and October, with intermittent periods of rain. Yet despite the capricious weather conditions, winemakers throughout Tuscany are lauding the quality of the 2006 vintage.

"This is one of the finest vintages I can remember," said enologist Carlo Ferrini, who consults for top producers throughout Tuscany and beyond. "The quality level is high all over, and has taken us a bit by surprise."

The fair end-of-season weather, with high temperatures and clear skies, caused the earlier-ripening Merlot grapes to reach full maturity about a week earlier than usual, said Luca Sanjust, family owner of Petrolo, which produces Galatrona. "We have a high level of alcohol, but it's balanced by good acidity, keeping the wine fresh," he said.

The rainy spells in the second half of September, however, influenced the timing of the Sangiovese and Cabernet harvests. Barbara Widmer, owner and winemaker at the Brancaia estate in Chianti Classico, chose to pick the Sangiovese grapes early to avoid the possibility of mold spoiling the crop. "The grapes were healthy when picked," she said. "I'm not so sure that we will have the complexity of the 2004 vintage, but the wines are well-balanced, with good, mature fruit."

Reports from the Tuscan coastal regions echo those from producers in the interior.

"The results are looking good," said Leonardo Raspini, director of Tenuta d'Ornellaia. "And the wines are more concentrated and structured than in 2005, with balanced and intense aromas. At this point, I think the wines are more complex than in 2004"

Brunello producer Giancarlo Pacenti, owner of Siro Pacenti, said that the clement weather late in the season allowed him to take his time, waiting for each parcel of Sangiovese vines to mature before picking. "The colors are excellent," he said. "The skins were very thick, which made extraction a bit difficult. But we can say that 2006 is a quality vintage."

According to Ferrini, the fact that there was no severe spring frost in 2006, unlike the excellent 1997 and 2001 vintages, is significant. "We have the concentration of fruit and overall quality as in 1997 and 2001," he said. "Plus we have quantity--and that's important."

—Jo Cooke and James Suckling

Region: Piedmont
Grade: B

Winemakers in the key areas of Piedmont, primarily Barolo and Barbaresco, wore looks of relief on their faces when asked about the 2006 vintage. Most believe they have very good to outstanding wines, despite a challenging growing season of weather conditions varying from boiling hot temperatures to downpours.

"It's much better than we thought," said well-regarded Barolo producer Luciano Sandrone. "We are very worried for a while. We didn't think the results would be that good."

The difficulty with 2006 really began in early July when temperatures went through the roof, resembling the summer of 2003. The weather completely changed in August and went cool and damp, before September brought intermittent showers and sunshine. To compound the problems, some vineyards were overcropped and suffered from drought.

"It was definitely a grower's year," said Chiara Bochis, of Pira (Chiara Boschis), a top producer of Barolo from the Cannubi appellation. "You had to tend to your vineyards in just the right way to get the most out of them."

The top names in Piedmont had the resources to cut back crops and fine-tune their vineyards, but this is not the case for a large percentage of small growers in the region. Some producers were forced to cut corners in their vineyards this year, and made less than exciting wines.

"It can be 1996"--a great year--"or it can be something else," said Roberto Voerzio, one of the best Barolo growers. "We will see. It's early days. But it was very up and down."

—Jo Cooke and James Suckling

Portugal

Grade: B-

Portuguese vineyards suffered through summer rain, scorching heat, hail and even the remnants of a hurricane this growing season, prompting many vintners to advise that the quality of grapes for both table wine and Port production would be only in the good range at best.

Yet after nearly two years of extreme drought, vintners were at least pleased to see soil moistures and water tables replenished by copious winter rains. During the growing season, high winds and then extreme heat in May cut the fruit set. Very hot weather in June was punctuated by a fierce hailstorm that hit on June 14 near Pinhão, further reducing the crop size in this prime Douro Valley district. Hot weather in July was followed by rain in the middle of August, with heat again prevalent through early September. Humid weather followed in the later part of September, spurred by moisture from dying hurricane Gordon. Overall, the roller-coaster weather conditions reduced yields, especially in the Douro, and in the south-central Alentejo region.

"We had rain in July and August, but the vines were under so much stress [from heat] that they used the water for the leaves, not the fruit," said Mario Neves of Caves Aliança, which has vineyards and wineries throughout Portugal. Besides the Douro, Dao and Bairrada were also affected by rain. "Overall, it's a good year, but not fantastic," Neves added. One region that benefited from the rain was Vinho Verde, which makes light-bodied white wines.

—Kim Marcus

Spain

Grade: B

Healthy grapes and well-proportioned yields created a good to very good vintage this year in Spain. In Rioja, regulatory council president Víctor Pascual said that rules restricting yields, first introduced there in 2001, are responsible for another consecutive good year for the Tempranillo harvest in the region. Since then, he added, many other wine regions have adopted similar regulations, with equal success. Though some regions that didn't cut back their crops also fared well.

The Rioja harvest began the first week of September and concluded the last week of October. It was a dry summer, but the vines remained well-hydrated due to excessive groundwater in the soil, left over from winter. Pascual said this favorable climate, combined with a good vegetative cycle and vintner know-how, will result in big Crianzas available in two years' time.

Reports from nearby Navarra are similarly positive, although late September rains delayed harvest. And after the dry year, high levels of sugar may have some winemakers struggling to make higher quality wines.

Priorat vintners declared it a year similar to 2005 in terms of quality. Those who green harvested had lower yields than normal, and predict wines that will be "very round, with structure," according to Adrià Pérez, winemaker at Cims de Porrera. "The tannins are mature, and [the wine] isn't aggressive," he said. Due to rains in mid-August and mid-September, alcohol levels will be lower than usual and the wines less concentrated, but some winemakers say that it's just what the vines needed.

"We think that it's one of the best harvests in Catalonia in recent times," said Mireia Torres, technical director of Torres. Heavy rainfall in mid-August and mid-September offset the dry July, and her grapes are absent of any disease.

Along the Duero river, some viticulturists complained that global warming is pushing the harvest dates back too far, as heat spikes cause the vines to become dormant. In some vineyards in the Arribes del Duero, on the border with Portugal, Tempranillo picking didn't begin in earnest until the final week of October.

Unlike the Arribes, flowering in the Ribera del Duero was accelerated. Grape maturation came fast and unbalanced, especially with Merlot, but rains in mid-September normalized ripening, and relaxed winemakers. Toro, also located along the Duero, saw an increase in yields, by almost 25 percent. Vineyard managers were pleased, especially with Tempranillo and Garnacha. The white wines Malvasia and Verdejo are expected to have well-balanced acidity.

In Rías Baixas, where white variety Albariño makes up the lion's share, yields increased by up to 40 percent from 2005. Nevertheless, early samples obtained from winemakers, the government said in its yearly report, were "very good aromatically, given to a good acidic grade."

—Jacob Gaffney

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