Harvest. For winemakers, no other word is loaded with so much potential and anticipation. After a long growing season of endless work in the vineyards, harvest means pencils down, time's up. And no matter how hard you have labored all year, at the end of the day, nature usually has the last word.
In the last of five 2012 vintage reports, vignerons in key European wine regions are reporting low yields. In Germany, wet weather created constant work in the vineyards. In Austria, Spain and Portugal, drought was the main factor, reducing the crop and challenging growers to nurture ripe, balanced fruit. Quality looks good, quantity not so much. As for final quality in the bottle—it's too early to know. But here's a sneak peek.
The good news: Warm summer weather and dry conditions during harvest
The bad news: A frost in the third week of May cut yields by up to a third in key regions.
Picking started: Second week of September
Promising grapes: Riesling
Challenging grapes: Grüner Veltliner
Analysis: In Austria's leading wine regions, 2012 delivered a small, high-quality crop, with grapes showing moderate acidity. Besides the late-spring frost, an extended drought cut yields as well, but nearly ideal growing conditions and dry harvest weather yielded excellent-quality fruit. “This year‘s wines are outstanding with their aroma and density,” said Willi Klinger, general manager of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board. “The quantity losses affected mainly the Grüner Veltliner."
Kamptal vintner Fred Loimer called it an exciting year. “Very similar to 2010 but with a much better quality, especially at the basic levels,” he said. “The health of the grapes and analysis of the juice was just perfect. Spontaneous fermentation brought no problems and the wines are clean [tasting] and in a very good balance."
Nik Weis, vintner at Germany's St.-Urbans-Hof, checks on his barrels filled with fermenting wine.
The good news: Warm and dry harvest weather allowed for long hang time for ripening grapes.
The bad news: The rest of the year brought challenging weather conditions, with cooler-than-normal temperatures and high humidity.
Picking started: Mid-October in the Mosel
Promising grapes: Riesling
Analysis: It was a tough vintage for German vintners, with cool, rainy weather, reduced yields and disease pressure. The cold weather in May resulted in abnormal fruit set, or milllerandage. This was followed by a period of rainy weather that resulted in mildew. But a hot August halted its spread, and September featured warm, dry weather that extended into October
Nik Weis of St.-Urbans-Hof spoke directly of 2012’s challenges. “The vegetation period of 2012 required a lot of attention, care and hard work in the vineyards," he said. "The unsteady and partially extreme weather conditions created an inconsistent structure of the bunches and made it necessary to take another step before picking. We did what we actually do every year but this time more intensely—we picked out those bunches and sometimes single berries that were dried out because of sunburn, or that had suffered from mildew.” For German wine fans, seeking out fastidious producers will be crucial when the 2012s hit the market.
The steep Piesporter Goldtröpfchen vineyard in Germany's Mosel river valley (Photo by Jon Wyand)
The good news: Very low yields in the Douro river valley mean concentrated wines.
The bad news: Extreme climatic conditions, including an extended drought and a damaging hailstorm in the Pinhao Valley, cut yields by 40 percent in some leading quintas.
Picking started: Mid-September in the Douro
Promising grapes: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Barroca, Tinta Roriz
Analysis: Vintners in Portugal's most famous region, the Douro river valley, are pleased with the quality of the fruit that they harvested, though yields were extremely low. “The Douro grapes this year were in lovely condition, with small berries giving excellent color and flavors and the musts looked really first-rate,” said Paul Symington of Symington Family Estates, the largest vineyard landowner in the Douro. "Early tastings confirm considerable acidity and freshness in the samples."
A lengthy drought across the region, already famous for hot, dry conditions, meant that some parcels produced excellent, concentrated grapes, while others produced almost no fruit. "Not all vineyards produced great wines, as the drought caused some stress to the more exposed vines and to the drier parcels, but overall this year was a remarkable example of how our Douro vines can cope with drought, as long as it is not too hot," said Symington.
Workers navigate the terraces of Quinta dos Canais in Portugal's Douro region.
The good news: Hot, dry conditions across the country mean little disease pressure and concentrated grapes.
The bad news: There aren't many grapes. The drought produced the smallest harvest in decades. Without care, wines may be low in acidity.
Picking started: Early August in La Mancha and Andalusia; late August in Northern areas like Rioja and Ribera del Duero
Promising grapes: Grapes in the cooler northwest fared better—Bierzo, Albariño and Godello
Challenging grapes: Tempranillo, which needs good acidity, needed extra care in the vineyards.
Analysis: The past year has been a test of faith for many winemakers in Spain, as a drought that started in 2011 dragged on throughout 2012. The hot weather brought an early harvest and small yields—in Rioja, they began picking whites in late August and were finished with reds by Oct. 20. Final numbers are not in yet, but agricultural officials believe it could be the smallest grape harvest since 1945, with yields down by more than 40 percent across Spain. In a country whose economy has suffered since the global recession began, the small harvest is painful news for small growers and those who sell their wines on the bulk market.
Across various wine regions, quality depended on the skill of growers and in some cases, plain luck. Given the small yields, grapes that did ripen were concentrated, and disease pressure was not a factor. But some growers report low acidity levels. Conditions were best in the northwestern areas of Bierzo and Galicia, which tend to be cooler and more humid. But even in coastal Rias Baixas, home of many top Albariños, growers report yields are down by 20 percent. There will be outstanding Spanish wines in 2012, but not large amounts.
Stomping Mencía grapes at Raul Perez's winery in Spain is physical work.