Vineyards in the U.S. and Europe are just flowering, but there's juice fermenting in the tanks down south, in the Southern Hemisphere, that is. The 2010-2011 growing season was cool and cloudy in South America. An early frost lowered yields in Argentina, and wet weather made February a nerve-wracking month. On the other side of the Andes, Chilean winemakers just hoped the grapes could hang on the vine long enough to ripen.
Here's a sneak peek at the upcoming vintage. Check out Wednesday's report on Australia and New Zealand and check back Friday for reports from South Africa.
An early, severe frost in Mendoza, Argentina's leading wine region, set the tone for a challenging 2011 vintage for winemakers, who also had to battle periods of high winds, hail, drought and heavy rain. Cool temperatures throughout the season delayed maturation, but an Indian summer ripened grapes before harvest. Winemakers are expecting elegantly styled wines, with higher acidity levels than usual.
"Alcohol levels are between 0.1 and 0.2 percent higher than normal," said Luis Reginato, vineyard director for Bodega Catena Zapata. "The reason is the extra dry March and April that we had. What is remarkable is the high acidity in 2011 compared with normal vintages."
Santiago Achával, president of Achával-Ferrer, said the early frost, which hit the second week of November, was the worst of its kind since 1992 and caused vines to lose flowers and experience poor fruit set. Damage was intermittent, with Western Mendoza and Uco Valley to the south being hit the hardest.
According to Laura Catena, president of Catena Zapata, the frost spared Catena’s La Pirámide vineyard in Agrelo, while the Angélica Sur vineyard located in the Uco Valley lost the fruit in 288 of its 360 acres. José Manuel Ortega, owner of Bodegas y Viñedos of O. Fournier in the Uco Valley, said he lost crop in 60 percent of his 312 acres of vineyards.
After the frost, cool, dry weather persisted through February, with droughtlike conditions exacerbated by a dry winter in 2010, which meant limited snowmelt for irrigation. Rain finally arrived at the end of February but then it continued into the first week of March. Some winemakers were predicting a washout. Luckily the weather finally turned for the better, with plenty of sunny days lasting through April.
Picking grapes in Mendoza for Bodega Norton.
“Actually, throughout Mendoza this could be a banner year. Yields were naturally lowered by the November frost," said Achával, who says his vineyards required less green harvesting than normal.
In the northern Salta province, Bodega Colomé winemaker Randle Johnson said there was warm weather from November to January, but, “in February the heavens opened and there was hardly a sunny day. A lot of rain from one end of the valley to the other.” Johnson said Bodega Colomé received 12 to 14 inches of rain, nearly triple the typical amount.
Hail also hit one high-elevation vineyard, damaging both leaves and fruit. Salta also enjoyed an Indian summer, but wineries needed to carefully sort harvested grapes to maintain quality.
In the southern Patagonia region, Piero Incisa della Rocchetta, who makes the country’s top-rated Pinot Noir bottlings at his Bodega Chacra estate, reported mild summer conditions followed by warmer weather leading into harvest. “Overall for Pinot a great vintage," he said of his healthy crop. “Our ripeness was good, with no pests or other problems in the vineyard. Our pH levels are high and alcohol quite low, but still higher than the previous vintage.”
After a long, slow harvest that stretched well into May, Chilean vintners are growing increasingly optimistic about their 2011 wines. A small crop ripened steadily and evenly during a markedly cool growing season in most of Chile’s major wine regions.
“We had a cold and long spring, summer started late and toward the end of the summer we had some rain, but nothing that I was concerned about,” said Sven Bruchfeld, owner and winemaker at the boutique Agricola La Viña, located in the western end of the Colchagua Valley. The cool weather led to a poor fruit set. “Yields were down 22 percent.”
Pedro Parra, of Clos des Fous said it was a cloudy year, but grapes in good areas were able to gradually ripen. "The late ripening varieties on bad terroirs will suffer," he said. "I am happier with the fruit from the coastal areas and those closer to the Andes [as opposed to the middle of the valleys]."
Fresh-picked grapes await their ride back to Concha Y Toro's winery.
With the cooler temperatures during the season, many producers reported lower alcohols as well. "We're seeing Sauvignon Blanc ripe at 11 or 11.5 [potential degrees of alcohol] as opposed to 12 or 12.5,” said Adolfo Hurtado, winemaker at Viña Cono Sur, a top Pinot Noir producer located in the Casablanca Valley. “The ripeness is there, so we're confident in the quality. We like the aromas and the freshness we're seeing in the wines."
Despite the cooler season, grapes came in healthy and clean, thanks to the lower yields, which produced grapes with good concentration, color and fresh acidity. “The 2011 harvest has been a little strange, but not so different than 2010,” says Aurelio Montes, founder and head winemaker at Viña Montes, one of the country’s top producers. “In general, pHs are lower and alcohol levels are in better balance.”
“With the freshness, obviously 2011 will be an elegant year,” said Patrick Valette, winemaker at Viña Neyen de Apalta.
But 2011’s small crop is likely to have some economic effect on the industry. Following the earthquake in February 2010 that destroyed 125 million liters of wines and then a small 2010 crop, many growers say that price pressure for grapes is already on the rise.
“Those wineries that have been selling at a very low price will have trouble with cash flow,” said Montes. “If you add the weakness of the dollar, the increase in energy costs and labor, my feeling is that Chilean wine prices will have to [increase].”
“With the Chilean economy booming on the mining side, there’s been a labor shortage [for wineries]. So harvest logistics were more difficult than in the past,” said Ed Flaherty, winemaker at Viña Tarapacá, located in the Maipo Valley.
It's hard to be too pessimistic with good fruit in. “Overall, 2011 is a good to great vintage, depending on the variety,” said Flaherty.