Every year, vintners learn a crucial lesson—no two vintages are the same. In 2008, areas across Western Europe suffered a cool, wet spring, triggering vigorous vine growth and the potential for mildew. Some areas were able to recover with a warm, sunny fall. Others had less luck. Though it's too early to assess overall wine quality, Wine Spectator's editors have analyzed the season's conditions in key regions and given each a preliminary grade. The picture will be clearer once they've had the chance to taste the wines from barrel or bottle.
Austria experienced a very long growing season, one the national wine marketing board is calling a "year of contrasts." Humidity levels were high following a wet spring, which made for challenging conditions in the vineyards. "It will be a split vintage because we had high disease pressure due to mildew," said Berthold Salomon of Salomon-Undhof, which makes top-tier Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners in the Kremstal district. "If you weren't careful with spraying, you got [damaged] by disease."
Cool weather in August and September stretched the season. The harvest at Salomon started Oct. 1 and was not complete until Nov. 7, a long harvest similar to what most of Austria experienced. "The harvest started slowly because we didn't have the ripeness in all our vineyards, and it rained [in the summer]," said Salomon. "I got depressed. But then it turned better and we got the warm foehn wind [a warm, downslope wind]."
Conditions were just as challenging in Lower Austria, which includes the nation's top winemaking district, the Wachau. Timing of the harvest was key. While many vintners picked early because of fears of continued cool, wet weather, those who waited were rewarded by a warm October.
"Many growers wanted to be on the safe side and harvest early because of the health of the grapes," said Susanne Staggl, press spokesperson for the marketing board. "The humidity brought larger harvest quantities despite any damages that were incurred. Extensive parts of Lower Austria had to battle a special problem in September—fog, which would last until noon or even later, together with pleasant temperatures of around 72° F. This triggered botrytis, often overnight, making quick reactions necessary." Botrytis is a rot responsible for concentrated flavors in some of the world's greatest sweet wines, but can result in exaggerated and overripe notes in dry table wines.
In the Burgenland, home to most of Austria's best estates for reds and sweet wines, conditions were warmer, and the humidity was high. "Zweigelt seems to have suffered least, thanks to a significant summer crop-thinning, but Blaufrankisch proved more tricky, and the crop here is small," said Kurt Feiler of Feiler-Artinger in Rust, speaking of two of Austria's leading red grapes. All the humidity helped promote the spread of botrytis in the Neusiedlersee region, home to Austria's great sweet wines. Quantities are expected to be large for these luscious sweeties in 2008.
The 2008 harvest in Germany looks like a trimmer, leaner version of 2007, or perhaps more along the lines of 2004, a vintage with plenty of sleek, vibrant wines, but not as many lush, opulent ones. The grapes ripened nicely this year, but only reached spätlese level or slightly above. Winemakers made very few dessert wines, a consequence of the low incidence of botrytis or dehydration late in the season needed to concentrate the sugar levels in the grapes. Thus, there should be good quantities of estate Rieslings, kabinette and spätlesen.
Warm weather in the spring jumpstarted the vines and the flowering was a few weeks earlier than average, though not as early as in 2007. Summer was typical, with no extremes of temperature or storms, but perhaps less sun than usual. The major regions received 50 percent more rain than in 2007, but equal to the 10-year average.
Pressure from fungal diseases in the vineyards was minimal. "Oidium in late spring and early summer had to be treated but did not have any bad impact on the ripening of the grapes when treated carefully and properly," said Katharina Prüm, winemaker at Joh. Jos. Prüm in the Mosel. Isolated hail damaged vineyards in the Pfalz in May and the Rheingau in June, resulting in a reduction of the crop.
The harvest began around the middle of September in the Pfalz and about three weeks later in the Mosel and Rheingau. Periodic rainfall delayed picking, but there were enough dry periods to harvest healthy grapes. The cool weather in September inhibited botrytis. Though it paid to wait for ideal ripeness, the sugar levels in the grapes did not increase much beyond spätlese level.
"2008 is the year for great kabinett and spätlese wines made from fully ripe [not overripe] grapes with expressive aromatics and ripe yet crisp acidity," said Johannes Selbach, whose family owns the Selbach-Oster estate in the Mosel. "The '08s are wholesome, with beautifully delineated flavors, and they are compact, not over the top. For me personally it is a classic Mosel vintage." While some producers reported average yields, others, like Johannishof in the Rheingau and Dr. Pauly-Bergweiler in the Mosel cited 30 percent less volume.
Christoph Graf, partner and sales director at Reichsrat von Buhl in the Pfalz, said that they achieved the ripeness necessary for intensely sweet dessert wines. "We picked all the categories we have. Trockenbeerenauslese is Rieslaner. For the first time, we have a great beerenauslese from the Kirchenstück, and eiswein in Pechstein is still hanging." Other estates in the German regions are also hoping for eiswein this year.
Producers throughout the Italian peninsula are predicting good quality wine from the 2008 harvest, though many may be breathing a sigh of relief that the harvest is over.
The growing season started badly in most regions, particularly in the north, with persistent rains and a cool spring. It all led to an early growth spurt for vines, which later in the year meant uneven coloring of the grapes at the beginning of ripening.
Heavy humidity invited disease and rot into vineyards in many regions, forcing producers to employ heavy spraying, at a time when the price of gasoline was running high. The wet conditions prevented some producers from even accessing their vineyards to calculate how much spraying was necessary.
In most regions, the weather evened out during the crucial months of July and August as temperatures rose. But there were a few hailstorms that inflicted some extensive damage, particularly in parts of Veneto and Tuscany, where the area south of Montalcino was hit hard in mid-August (see complete Tuscany report below).
Finally, rain in mid-September meant that producers had to harvest their later-ripening varieties with one eye on the weather forecast. "[The early-ripening varieties] were picked before the September rains and were in good condition," said Riccardo Cotarella, one of Italy's top consulting enologists, who collaborates with wineries up and down the country. "But, if producers were not careful, the later-ripening varieties risked arriving at the winery bloated with water."
For that reason, Cotarella believes 2008 white wines throughout Italy will be very good, though the later-ripening white varieties native to the Campania region—Fiano, Greco di Tufo and Falanghina—may not have fared as well.
In Alto Adige, the prospects of a good vintage were very low until mid-August, with persistent rain making it hard to even access the region's steep vineyards to combat disease and rot. But according to Alois Lageder, one of the area's top white producers, the weather improved at the end of summer, and though temperatures remained relatively cool, both white and red grapes matured well.
"Our whites are very clean, well-balanced, with good acidity and minerality," said Lageder. "Their racier character is similar to 2002 and 2005. We certainly didn't expect to get such good quality this year, after such a bad start."
Speaking from the other end of the country, Alberto Tasca, family owner of Tasca d'Almerita, one of the best-known estates in Sicily, echoed Lageder's predictions. In Sicily, unlike most of the rest of Italy, both spring and early summer were very dry.
"We welcomed the rain later on in the season," said Tasca. "It helped the grapes to achieve an even ripeness. Our whites are less aromatic than last year, but are elegant, with a distinct mineral character. Our reds did well too, with the exception of Merlot, which suffered a little from the earlier drought conditions."
Amarone producers in the Veneto region are predicting excellent results this year. They are currently carefully monitoring the humidity levels in their drying rooms, where the grapes destined for Amarone are semi-dried for three months before being crushed in the New Year.
"The vines produced a lot of bunches this year," said Sergio Castellani, owner of the family estate Michele Castellani. "You had to do a lot of thinning out to achieve even ripening. But if all goes well in the drying room, we should be looking at a very good vintage for Amarone, similar to 2005."
After a rainy spring, drought conditions hit many parts of Tuscany during the summer months. Rain was scarce and vines were close to being stressed.
"We were not very optimistic during the summer," said Carlo Ferrini, one of the region's top consulting enologists. "The grapes were well ahead because of the dry conditions. But rainfall in September put the ripening process back on track. The end of the season saved the vintage, though we weren't sure of the quality until the wines were safely in."
Ferrini said that Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon, which ripen later in the season, did well in most areas of Tuscany, including Chianti Classico and Montalcino. Earlier-ripening Merlot, he said, suffered more from the summer drought, especially the younger vines, whose roots are not developed enough to tap water resources deeper in the soil.
In Bolgheri, on Tuscany's coast, there was only a third as much rain during the spring compared to the interior areas, followed by a hot dry summer that lingered through the first 10 days of September.
"We were very worried about the effect of the drought on the vines," said Leonardo Raspini, technical director of Tenuta dell'Ornellaia, one of Bolgheri's best-known estates. "But, for the rest of September, we had mild days and cool nights, with good ventilation and some rainfall, which was a great help to our Cabernet."
Raspini said that the estate's Merlot crop (Ornellaia makes one of Tuscany's best Merlots, Masseto, and a Cabernet-based blend, Ornellaia) was very good, and the wine showed very clean, aromatic character. "We are less sure about the quality of our Cabernet," he said. "It's structured, with soft tannins, but less fresh than in the 2006 vintage. We have to wait and see."
The most dramatic incident in Montalcino, home of Brunello, was a major hailstorm in mid-August that ripped through an extensive area of vineyards to the south of the town.
"We lost 45 percent of our production this year," said Giancarlo Pacenti, who, like many Brunello producers, owns vineyards both north and south of the town of Montalcino. "But I'm happy with what we have in the winery. The wines are not hugely structured, but are fine and well-balanced, with good acidity, typical of Brunello produced from the vineyards in the northern part of Montalcino."
A lot of rain fell on the Piedmont region during the spring and summer months, yet thanks to a long period of dry weather at the end of the season, producers are excited about their crop of Nebbiolo, the staple grape of Barolo and Barbaresco. They have some doubts, however, on the quality of their earlier-ripening red varieties, Barbera and Dolcetto, and the white variety Moscato.
According to Luca Currado, family owner and winemaker at Vietti, rain fell on 40 out of 90 days in May, June and July. "At that stage, no one was predicting a good outcome for the vintage," said Currado, whose grapes come from both the Langhe area and the Asti area of Piedmont." Vines were overly vigorous, he explained, and were two weeks behind schedule. Disease and rot were also invading the vineyards, due to the humid conditions.
But the weather eventually changed, and the region enjoyed fine, mostly dry weather from August right through to the end of the Nebbiolo harvest. "The Nebbiolo grapes took full advantage of the whole period of fine weather, with warm days and cool nights, to ripen fully and evenly," said Currado. "Whereas we had to pick the Dolcetto and Barbera before they could get the same benefit. Our 2008 Barberas won't have the same full, rich character of previous vintages, but they are clean and elegant."
Vietti said that the Nebbiolo harvest on his estate finished on Oct. 28, about 20 days later than in 2007. "Fermentations were long—nearly four weeks—and our Barolos are elegant, rather than robust, with good acidity and round, soft tannins."
According to Roberto Voerzio, whose Barolos come from his vineyard holdings surrounding the hilltop town of La Morra, hail was not a major player in the Langhe region overall in 2008. "We had some hail in our La Serra and Fossati vineyards," he said. "But the damage was negligible."
Voerzio said that careful attention to yields was all-important in 2008. "There was too much growth in the spring all around," he said, "but especially in the Barbera vineyards. If you didn't cut back, the Barbera had little chance of ripening properly."
Atypical climatic conditions dominated the Douro Valley, Portugal's most important table-wine region, in 2008. A wet spring, with more than twice the average monthly rainfall in April and an almost equally damp May, meant that the flowering came late and the fruit set was of smaller volume than normal. Many vintners sprayed their vineyards with fungicides to prevent the spread of mildew.
Usually, Douro grapes have no trouble ripening in the intense heat of the Portuguese summer, but this year hot weather was rare. "August was windy, but brought none of the hot easterly winds that come off the Spanish plains and bring days of burning temperatures," said Paul Symington of Symington Family Estates, the Douro's single biggest vineyard owner. "The wind blew consistently from the west, up the valley from the Atlantic, 60 miles away."
That meant cooler then normal conditions. "Our vines were late ripening their fruit and it became clear that a delayed harvest was in the cards," said Symington. Picking began on Sept. 2, but the harvest was interrupted by heavy rain on Sept. 21. The sun returned two days later, with warm temperatures continuing through mid-October, which allowed the extended harvest necessary after the cool summer.
"The gods were on our side with the '08 vintage," said Sophia Bergqvist, whose family owns Quinta de la Rosa in the Cima Corgo, the heartland for top Douro reds. "Because of the very cool summer, the grapes at the beginning of September were not looking very ripe." The warm weather of late September and early October allowed maturation to complete. La Rosa finished its harvest Oct. 12. Bergqvist summed up '08 as a "good but not great" vintage.
In the Dão and Barraida regions just south of the Douro the harvest was extended as well, following a longer than normal growing season. Carlos Lucas of the Dão Sul wine group expects well-balanced wines with good natural acidity. Alentejo, in south central Portugal, where summer conditions are usually torrid, may benefit the most in terms of quality given the cool and long growing season, thus avoiding the sometimes baked flavors that can characterize its wines.
Harvest came late to many parts of Spain, with picking starting as late as mid-October. The Torres family, which purchases grapes from all over the country, reported large amounts of spring rainfall, offset by a gently hot summer. But the rain meant mildew was widespread. White wines made from grapes that escaped disease should have good acidity and great aromatic intensity, while reds should be bright and ripe.
Peter Sisseck of Dominio De Pingus in Ribera del Duero reported that organic vines appear to have fended off the mildew comparatively better than conventionally grown vineyards and said that a September frost "devastated" new vineyard developments planted on the valley floor, leaving hillside plantings better off. "2008 wasn't a great year, but there will be some great wines," he said.
Alvaro Palacios, who works in Priorat, Rioja and Bierzo, noted that in Priorat the rot particularly affected Garnacha and Cariñena. Another Priorat vintner agreed that rot was a big factor. According to Carles Pastrana, co-owner of Costers del Siurana, the dry winter left the vines dehydrated. When heavy rains fell during the warm spring, the plants "grew very fast and with vigor," he said. "Unfortunately, this special climatic situation means that all kind of fungi appeared like, mildew, oidium, etc. Maturation was very irregular and chaotic, even in the same vineyards." Pastrana said Costers del Siurana employed an extensive selection process in order to make sure no fungus-infected grapes made it into the winery.
In Rioja, vines generally remained in good health, with vintners expecting wines with balanced alcohol and sugar levels. In the Rioja Baja subregion, harvest started during the first week of October. In Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa, harvest was delayed a further week.
Summer temperatures in Ribera del Duero were quite cool, leading to a slow, balanced ripening of the fruit, which Sisseck believes led to a better harvest compared to Rioja and Priorat. Pablo Álvarez, owner of Vega Sicilia, said the colder-than-average year caused temporary problems. "During the month of July the vegetative cycle recovered but not completely," he said. "On the 26th and 27th of September, the temperature went down between [29° F and 26° F]. The frost affected mainly the low vineyards where we lost approximately [44 tons] of grapes."
Álvarez said vineyards at high altitudes or with anti-frost fans would not be affected. "I think we will have very good wines, probably not as excellent as 2000 or 2004 but very good."
Closer to the Atlantic Ocean, producers in Bierzo reported ongoing success producing wines from red Mencía grapes and white wines made from the Godello variety. Despite irregular weather conditions throughout the year, 89 percent of grapes entering the bodegas will be cleared for winemaking, the local regulator said. Touching the Atlantic, just above Portugal, Rías Baixas reports ripe, acidic and balanced white wines made from Albariño. Palacios adds that sugar levels are OK for wines being produced near the Atlantic, but the acidity is high and he expects fresh, elegant and intense wines.
In Aragon, the region wedged between the Duero and Catalonia, home to four separate appellations—Calatayud, Campo de Borga, Cariñena and Somontano—spring rains fell during the flowering period, resulting in 10 to 40 percent lower yields than in 2007 and negatively affecting the overall quality of the region's popular Garnacha-based reds.
Looking back, Sisseck noted that the cooler weather cycles from 2006 to 2008 mark a big change from the much hotter 2003 to 2005 harvests, leading to a change in style from powerful reds to more elegant wines.