While vineyards in the U.S. and Europe are just flowering, there's juice fermenting in the tanks down south, in the Southern Hemisphere, that is. Both Argentina and Chile enjoyed cool growing seasons. Argentinean winemakers are pleased with lower alcohol levels and ripe tannins, which they believe have produced an elegant vintage. Chilean winemakers started harvest shortly after a devastating earthquake, but pulled through to produce a good vintage, even if quantities are down.
Here's a first peak at the upcoming vintage. Check back for reports from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Sometimes late is better. Despite some reduced yields and delayed harvests, Argentina's vintners are ecstatic about their 2010 vintage, with some calling it the best since 2002. An early November frost reduced yields in some areas of Mendoza, the country's most important growing area. After that the region was treated to a very dry season marked by a heat spike in the middle of January that triggered shut downs in many vines. Ripening resumed after a two-week delay, leading to a late but exceptional harvest.
"The result was the fruit was very healthy along with an interesting slow sugar accumulation in the last part of the season before harvest," said Alberto Antonini, winemaker and partner at Altos Las Hormigas and consulting winemaker for several wineries such as Finca & Bodega Carlos Pulenta and Bodega Melipal. "Normally we deal with the opposite: fast sugar growth ahead of flavor development. But in 2010 we struggled to get the sugar at normal Brix levels with even more flavor maturation."
Most producers reported alcohol levels of 14 percent or less, relatively low for the region, despite having fine, supple structures and lush fruit flavors.
"Sugars just stayed the same for two weeks, but the phenolic ripeness kept going, so there are no green flavors at all, but alcohols of only 13 or 13.5 [percent] for us," said Santiago Achával, of elite producer Achával-Ferrer.
"Overall yields are down 20 to 25 percent," said Laura Catena of Bodega Catena Zapata and Luca. "But it is hard to complain about the yields when you taste the concentration and richness of the wines in barrel."
In Mendoza's southern Uco Valley, growers reported alcohol levels of 0.5 to 1 percent below normal, combined with fresh acidity and ripe, silky textures. "Tempranillo ripened extremely late and Syrah shows exceptional balance and extreme concentration," said José Spisso, head winemaker for Bodegas y Viñedos O. Fournier.
Further south, in the wind-swept Patagonia region, spring brought several frosts, though none were particularly severe. The growing season was windy and cool, further resulting in reduced yields.
"Veraison was two weeks late but the bunches matured at an even pace," said Hans Vinding-Diers of Bodega Noemía de Patagonia, Patagonia's top Malbec producer. "Then autumn kicked in with warm days, so we got superb polyphenols and fresh acidities, but low alcohols. The year worked for all varieties, if you waited in order to get fully ripe fruit."
Chile's 2010 harvest will likely be overshadowed by the massive earthquake that struck on Feb. 27, causing extensive damage to the historical heart of the country's wine industry in the Curicó and Maule valleys.
While wineries lost wine, tanks and barrels in the quake, the harvest itself came in several weeks late and yields were down 20 percent or more (depending on location). That helped producers grapple with logistics at a time when the industry's infrastructure was under duress (the quake struck during what normally would have been the early part of harvest).
Following a cold, wet winter and a cool spring, budbreak and veraison were delayed significantly, up to three weeks in some places. And with cool temperatures running through March and April, late-ripening red varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère struggled to catch up in some areas. Growers were waiting into May (the equivalent of November in the northern hemisphere) to finish picking, but were optimistic thanks to dry weather.
Chile's more recently developed, cooler viticultural areas such as Casablanca, Leyda, San Antonio and Limarí were well-suited to handle the 2010 growing season, as early-ripening cool-climate varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah excelled.
"Summer didn't start until December and, while we've had the usual number of days between flowering and veraison, everything has been delayed because there hasn't been enough heat," said Adolfo Hurtado, winemaker for Viña Cono Sur, which specializes in cool-climate varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. "I'm really happy with the whites and Pinot Noir. It's going to be a different kind of year, but interesting."
Pickers harvest grapes for Cono Sur in the Colchagua Valley.
"It's a great year for us," said Agustin Huneeus Jr. of Casablanca Valley's Veramonte. "Great acidity and superfresh, elegant wines, with good fruit."
In contrast, producers in the country's prime Cabernet and Carmenère spots, the Maipo and Rapel valleys, were harder pressed due to the cooler temperatures. Nonetheless, optimism was still the order of the day. "Red wines [will be] different than other years," said Aurelio Montes of Viña Montes. "Extremely good color and tannins, lower pH and higher acidity adds to less alcohol content. The wines will be in some way leaner, more elegant and well-prepared for bottle aging."
With the late-ripening varieties playing catch-up late into the season, site selection and yields will be critical to achieving quality and balance in the wines.
"For those who didn't overcrop and had healthy vineyards into April and May, this is an outstanding vintage," said Sven Bruchfeld of Agricola La Viña. "But those with lots of tonnage [are going to] have unripe grapes."
"The fact that we had low yields really helped in this cool vintage," said Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle, owner of Casa Lapostolle, located in the Colchagua Valley. "We harvested two weeks later [than usual] but they were ripe."
The smaller 2010 crop could lead to some pressure on prices, however, as many wineries need to make up shortfalls from the harvest as well as inventories lost during the earthquake.
"It's an awkward market now because people are buying wine with insurance money, so it's like they're buying wine for free. With the crop down and people trying to replace stocks lost in the quake, there's definitely some pressure on supply," said one winery owner who asked not to be identified.