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2012 Southern Hemisphere Harvest Report: South America

A first look at vintage quality in Argentina and Chile, with eyewitness reports from growers and winemakers

Posted: June 19, 2012

It's summertime in the U.S. and Europe and grapevines are still flowering, but there's wine aging in barrels down south, in the Southern Hemisphere, that is. The 2011-2012 growing season was challenging in Argentina, with Mendoza's growers enjoying a hot summer, but a cool, cloudy March that delayed ripening. On the other side of the Andes, Chile experienced a warm, dry year that posed challenges for red grapes that ripened too quickly.

Here's a sneak peek at the upcoming vintage. Check back Wednesday for reports from South Africa and on Thursday for Australia and New Zealand.

Argentina

In Mendoza, the heart of Argentina's wine industry, winemakers dealt with another challenging growing season. It began with frost and strong Zonda winds, which reduced yields for most varieties, save the late-flowering Cabernet Sauvignon. Hot weather followed in December and persisted through February, as winemakers prepared for an early harvest. But the weather had a few more surprises in mind.

“By the end of February, it looked like we were in front of the harvest, similar to 2009, 2007 and 2006,” said Santiago Achával of Achával-Ferrer. But the weather began to change by the second week of March. Cool, cloudy conditions arrived, beginning one of the coolest Marches on record. As a result, grape maturation slowed and harvest was delayed to two weeks later than normal for many winemakers. “So what started out like 2009 is now finishing like 2011,” a cool vintage, said Achéval, “[This is the] first time in my limited experience.”

Alta Vista owner Patrick d’Aulan, who called 2012 a "winemaker's vintage," said his high-altitude, old-vine vineyards were able to sustain the longer hang time. But he added that he and winemaker Philippe Rolet will have to be cautious with extraction of color and tannins. “I am feeling that the style of the wines will be more elegant and balanced, with less concentration,” said d’Aulan. “It’s like 2010 in style—a late vintage, with low acidity.”

Farther north, in Salta, Bodega Colomé winemaker Randle Johnson reported a second straight growing season hindered by hail, heavy rain and cloudy weather that lasted into March. April, however, brought warm, sunny conditions that gave grapes a chance for full maturation. But meticulous vineyard management and sorting were required to make good wine.

To the south, Patagonia typically has stable weather patterns, but this year it also experienced challenging growing conditions. Bodega Noemía de Patagonia owner and winemaker Hans Vinding-Diers said the season began with a warm spring followed by hot days and hot nights that lasted into January. Harvest, he said, arrived 10 days early, accompanied by a rare rain. “It rained in our area almost every week during harvest,” said Vinding-Diers. “It hardly ever rains here!” But he said quality is very good given the circumstances.

—Nathan Wesley

Chile

From north to south, Chile dealt with hot, dry growing conditions that, according to Viña Almaviva winemaker Michel Friou, could be attributed to “the final part of the La Niña climatic pattern." Some winemakers reported experiencing the warmest temperatures on record, but most were well prepared for harvest, which began two to four weeks earlier than normal.

“[The] main challenge was to make the picking decision at the right time and manage the vineyard to protect the fruit [no leaf plucking] and with more irrigation to avoid water stress,” said Viña Errázuriz chief winemaker Francisco Baettig.

Aside from an early, inconsequential frost in Casablanca Valley, growers had few complications to deal with. And despite the atypical heat, many noted the resulting absence of molds or insects. Most reported a healthy crop.

Aurelio Montes of Viña Montes said it was a good vintage for white varieties, which he said show fresh, typical character, with lower alcohol levels than normal. Matetic winemaker Julio Bastias agreed, reporting that his Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays balance acidity with rich, tropical notes.

According to Montes, however, the red varieties will test a winemaker’s skills because the berries are smaller and sweeter than normal, “with high potential alcohol and just minimum phenolic ripeness.”

“We will have to be very careful in extraction of tannins,” said Montes, who advises few pump overs during skin contact. “If you go over the limit, you’ll have harsh and dry tannins.”

Many winemakers, though, reserve their highest expectations for reds from the country’s cooler microclimates, where lower temperatures, especially at night, allowed for longer hang times and better phenolic development. “With Syrah, we had excellent conditions,” said Bastias, who sources the grape from the cool, coastal San Antonio appellation and expects to make complex and elegant wines this year.

—N.W.

Photograph Courtesy Bodega Renacer

Sorting Malbec at the winery. (Photo Courtesy Bodega Renacer)

Eduardo Araujo
Florianopolis, Brazil —  June 20, 2012 6:31pm ET
Just to add something.

2012 in Brazil was very very good.

In the southern tip of the country, at the Campanha region, bordering Uruguai, we had, arguably, the best vintage ever.
In the Vale dos Vinhedos Wine Country, Brazil's only D.O., we had an excellent vintage as well, comparing to other great ones.

All of the best and iconic wines are being produced and we will be able to taste Brazilian evolution in a couple of years.

Cheers!!!

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