No matter what Mother Nature delivers to Europe's wine producers this year, 2005 is going to be a hard act to follow. Nevertheless, the 2006 vintage is already upon us.
Although European growers haven't experienced quite the roller-coaster ride their counterparts in California have this year, they did get a bit of a scare in July, when Europe was hit with a heat wave reminiscent of 2003. But the month of August was generally cooler, and led to a much more favorable fall.
It's still a week or two before harvest kicks into high gear across Europe, but vintners from the major regions have shared their impressions of the season so far.
Picking is already underway at some Bordeaux estates, mostly for whites (and some reds), and producers there could be on to another excellent vintage if the weather holds out through September. But the weather has been inconsistent thus far in the growing season.
Until early August, the weather had been very hot and very sunny--almost too hot, according to some producers. Then cool, overcast and sometimes rainy weather set in for two weeks. More clear and hot weather followed, sending the vines into overdrive for fast and furious ripening.
"We're crossing our fingers," said Frédéric Engerer, president of Château Latour. "The Merlot is already 14.5 [percent] potential alcohol and the Cabernet is 12.5. We have lots of color and tannins. It can't be as balanced as 2005, but it can be very, very good."
A big crop is expected in the region, although top estates have cut back the grape bunches as well as the leaf canopies of the vines to assure optimum ripeness of the fruit still hanging. However, small producers with little financial means to reduce their crops may struggle to make high quality wines if their heavy crops aren't able to ripen fully by season's end.
Gildas d'Ollone, general manager of Château Pichon-Longueville-Lalande in Pauillac, said that the Merlot berries are larger than normal, but the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are very small with thick skins. "With the thick skins we could make dark-colored wines," he said, adding that the key now is to wait for the tannins and pips in the grapes to be perfectly ripe.
"You never know at this stage," he added. "But if [the weather] stays like this, it could be very good."
It's been a roller-coaster ride for Burgundy's vintners in 2006. The Bureau Interprofessionel du Vins de Bourgogne, the organization that chooses harvest dates for the various appellations within Burgundy, has had its work cut out for it this year. The Mâconnais started harvesting about Sept. 7, and Antoine Vincent of Château Fuissé said he expected to be harvesting on Sept. 19, similar to 2005. However, "in Chablis, we will start our harvest before the Côte d'Or, which has never happened before," said Christian Moreau, owner of Christian Moreau Père & Fils.
A long, cold winter was followed by a cold and rainy spring. It finally warmed up in June, allowing the vines to flower uniformly. But then July saw a heat wave that looked like 2003 all over again, and August was colder than usual, with plenty of rain. Moreau reported 30 inches of rain in Chablis during the month of August. There was some localized hail in Chablis and some oidium and mildew pressure in the Côte d'Or. Oddly, the Chablis region has been warmer lately than Mâcon, to the south.
Still, some producers claim to have escaped the difficulties of August relatively unscathed. Dominique Lafon, whose Domaine des Comtes Lafon is in Meursault, said that "the grapes were surprisingly advanced anyway, and veraison [when the grapes change color from green to purple] ended on the 20th of August." The poor weather broke at the end of the month, and north winds ushered in a long stretch of warm, sunny days that have helped ripening.
At the moment, vintners are reporting that they expect a fairly big crop for the reds (due to the rain) and an average crop for the whites, a result of smaller berries from the fruit set. Because of the difference in crop sizes, the Chardonnay is currently more advanced in maturity than the Pinot Noir, so Lafon noted that some sites will be picked fairly early, while others will have to wait. And their quality hinges on the warm, sunny weather holding steady.
France's Rhône Valley, despite its wide range of grape varieties and terroirs, has had a strong run of vintages, with Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the south faring especially well over the past few years. 2006 seems to be no exception, with both the north and south looking strong heading into harvest this month.
While the Northern Rhône is on track to have a slightly stronger year than it did in 2004, when a rainy August produced lighter-bodied reds, vintners aren't too quick to declare this year as any better or worse. "We have had a crazy summer in June and July, with temperatures up to 106 degrees and very dry weather," said Philippe Guigal, director of E. Guigal. "We were expecting another 2003 vintage, but August has been very cloudy and very cold."
Crozes-Hermitage producer Alain Graillot said of August, "The ripening process slowed down but did not stop, and thanks to our cold nights, we have today good amounts of sugar and reasonable levels of acidity." He added that he expects to start picking around the middle of September.
Meanwhile, the Southern Rhône seems to be moving swimmingly toward harvest. "This year seems to be the year of miracles," said Cristophe Delorme, winemaker at Domaine de la Mordorée in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. "July was too hot, but then August very cool ... the first juices are very aromatic, [and] the acidity is low, but correct. The clusters are very small and concentrated."
Isabel Ferrando, owner and winemaker for Domaine Ferrando and Domaine St.-Préfert, echoed that sentiment. "For the moment we are comparing the overall climatic conditions of 2006 with those that we had in 2001," she said. "The conditions are right for a great vintage (and I would add, 'Knock wood')."
Similarly, Delorme was hesitant to make a full declaration of the quality to come. "A great vintage is possible," he said. "Are we going to get lucky?"
Italian producers are starting the harvest season with cautiously optimistic smiles on their faces. Italy is currently basking in sunny, dry weather that settled in at the end of August, and reports indicate that it should prevail for a few weeks yet.
But they're also smiles of relief. Drought conditions prevailed during June and July, with a series of heat waves potentially stressing the vines. August was an odd mixture (storms one day, sun the next), bringing abundant rain and some hail, especially in the northern regions.
"The weather during the last 20 days has made all of the pieces of the jigsaw fit together," said Riccardo Cotarella, consulting enologist for Nottola in Montepulciano and Montevetrano in the Neapolitan hills, among others. "The August rains were needed after the drought conditions of the preceding two months. Now the grapes are finishing the ripening process in very good conditions."
The harvest of early-ripening varieties, such as Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Dolcetto, is underway in several regions. Sicilian producers have been picking since the middle of August, when temperatures hit 105 degrees. But later-ripening varieties, such as Tuscany's Sangiovese, Piedmont's Nebbiolo and Campania's Aglianico won't be picked until the beginning of October, so there are still a few nail-biting weeks to go.
"The Nebbiolo is looking great right now," said Piedmont producer Domenico Clerico. "If this good weather holds until the harvest, 2006 could be a very special vintage."
Giacomo Neri, owner of Casanova di Neri in Tuscany, is equally optimistic, with his Sangiovese vineyards to the south of Montalcino set to be harvested in mid-September, he said. But vintners on the Tuscan coast, in the Maremma and Bolgheri regions, are already well into their harvest.
At Tenuta San Guido, home to legendary super Tuscan Sassicaia, the Merlot and Cabernet Franc have already been picked, and the Cabernet Sauvignon is due to be harvested next week.
"So far so good," said estate manager Sebastiano Rosa.
So from now to the end of harvest, Italian vintners are all doing pretty much the same thing. "We're crossing our fingers," said Neri.
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