This is the third of Wine Spectator's reports on the 2011 vintage in the northern hemisphere. All this week, we'll be bringing you harvest details from winemakers throughout Europe and North America.
The 2011 growing season was erratic in Central Europe and on the Iberian peninsula. A warm spring got things off to a fast start. The warm weather was welcome in Germany. In Spain, a hot, dry September threatened to roast the grapes, while in Portugal, ideal fall weather made for an outstanding harvest. As for final quality in the bottle—it's too early to know. But here's a sneak peek.
Austrian vintners experienced a seesaw vintage until harvest, with hot weather in the spring that resulted in an early flowering, followed by a month of cool weather from mid-July to mid-August that slowed things down. But then the weather turned very hot and dry, which lasted through the first week in October. The results were normal crop yields after two sparse harvests.
“In the end, we had fantastically healthy grapes, with no fungus [problems] at all. Very nice and ripe, with good sugar and very good acidity. The wine will be drinkable quite soon,” said Dorli Muhr, a producer in the Carnuntum district southeast of Vienna.
The Austrian wine marketing board called 2011 a rewarding year. “The weather gave us healthy and ripe grapes for the most part—a reward for all the good work and for the challenges over the last few years," a statement from the board reported. "The warm summer this year did present its own challenges in terms of choosing the right leaf management, and with the somewhat moderate acidity content, careful vinification was in order.”
The long harvest was seen as key to quality. Continuous ideal weather conditions allowed for the luxury of choosing a harvest day according to the ripeness sought. This resulted in a varied and long harvest—by the beginning of the main harvest period on the Wagram, the first bottled wine from the Seewinkel in Burgenland was on the table.
Kremstal vintner Berthold Salomon said that rain during the last week of October halted the harvest temporarily, but did not result in the spread of botrytis rot. Salomon completed his harvest by the first week of November. “[The] juices taste fantastic. So we seem to have an exciting vintage. Quantities are also back to normal after two small vintages," Salomon said. He was unsure which of Austria’s two leading white grapes, Grüner Veltliner or Riesling, would show higher quality in 2011. “Too early to say.”
German vintners report that 2011 should offer very good to excellent quality once the wines are bottled. Overall, the wines are reported to be firm and rich, with good acidity. In addition, production levels are nearly back to normal after a very small harvest in 2010.
Vintners faced roller-coaster weather conditions throughout the growing season, according to Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP), a trade organization of quality producers. “Summer-like weather in spring led to an extremely early blossoming, followed by night frost in numerous regions in May and too much rainfall in July,” the VDP reported. "Nevertheless, grapes ripened quickly and early this year and preliminary harvesting began earlier than ever. Yet growers were able to delay their main harvest until well into October thanks to the beautifully warm, sunny weather that set in during September."
Workers gather Blaufränkisch grapes in Sudburgenland, Austria.
“We’re pleased with the fully-ripened, high-quality crop we were able to bring in," said VDP president Steffen Christmann. "Whether vintage 2011 will join the ranks of its legendary predecessors—1811 and 1911—as a ‘vintage of century’ remains to be seen. The potential is there, but we’ll know more after the first tastings in spring. At this time, though, we can already say that our Erste Lage wines are truly first-rate.”
Mosel producer Nik Weis of St. Urbans-Hof said the harvest benefited from warm, dry weather throughout most of September and October, though the vintage’s potentially high yields were also a challenge. “One can say without any doubt that 2011 is a vintage that fills everybody's barrels in the Mosel. If you didn't decide on making rigorous green harvesting or hadn't pruned short canes in the first place, you ended up with tremendously high yields. 2011 is a vintage which requires patience,” said Weis.
Vintners in Portugal’s Douro Valley are exultant over the potential of the 2011 vintage, describing it in terms such as “extraordinary” and “perfect." A cool summer with some rain in August and a run of unusually hot days during harvest appears to have given Douro vintners plenty of high-quality raw material to work with.
“The weather was warm and pushed everything early,” said Dirk Niepoort, one of the region’s top table wine and Port producers. “But August was unusually cold and unfriendly, with cool nights that let the grapes ripen slowly and evenly, keeping the acidity [fresh]. At the end of August a heavy rain seemed to promise a lot of rot, but after the rain it did not get too hot and dry so no rot happened. All [of] September was warm and beautiful, making the ripening perfect.”
Scaling the steep vineyards of Germany's Middle Mosel.
Niepoort sees high quality for both table wine and Port. “The reds are rich, very dark but with great balance and not too much alcohol," he said. "The Ports are a miracle. Just perfect.”
Olga Martins, who makes wine with her husband, Jorge Moeira, at their Poeira estate, noted that while July and August were mild, temperatures in September and October were hot, almost summer-like. “These conditions caused a ripe vintage in the Douro, with beautiful fruit and great concentration,” Martins said.
Paul Symington of Symington Family Estates, the Douro’s largest vineyard owner, was similarly effusive in his praise for 2011’s potential quality. “It can be said that this has been a good and very possibly a great year in the Douro,” Symington said. “No doubt some very exciting wines have been made in 2011.”
Across much of northern Spain, winegrowers spent much of September praying for rain. The 2011 growing season was marked by a warm, early spring and a hot summer. So when September arrived, growers wondered if things would cool off long enough for grapes to fully ripen before harvest. With the exception of Galicia, which enjoyed ideal conditions, yields are down in most regions. But many producers told Wine Spectator they believe quality is up.
The growing season started early in many areas, with a warm March bringing vines to life. “We had the hottest April in the last 50 years,” said Manuel Louzada, director de bodega for Numanthia in Toro. “During the month of May, there were enough water reserves to allow a vigorous growth of the vines.” The story was similar in Galicia, Ribera del Duero, Rioja, Navarra and Priorat.
Just when it looked like harvest might begin before summer ended, July brought cloudy, cool weather to slow down ripening. Then, about one week into August, temperatures began rising. Even more worrisome was the almost complete lack of rain. In Rioja, there was not a drop from the end of July until October. Conditions were just as dry in Priorat.
Harvested grapes await the ride to the winery for crush.
Water reserves from a cold, wet winter prevented vines from shutting down in most areas, but not all. And growers could only watch as sugar levels rose dramatically while acidity dropped and tannins did not ripen. In Rioja, some had to choose between harvesting grapes with 13.5 percent potential alcohol and green tannins, or waiting until potential alcohol rose to 16 percent.
Conditions were far easier in Galicia, where temperatures were cooler throughout July and August. Most estates in Rías Baixas and Ribera Sacra began picking during the last week of August. Acidity levels were impressive in the whites, and yields are higher than 2010.
In the warmer regions, the end of September brought some relief. “Fortunately, there was a significant decrease in the temperature, allowing phenolic ripeness,” said Louzada. In Toro, the final week of September brought big temperature swings between day and night, allowing the grapes to fully ripen. Winemakers in Rioja and Priorat who rigorously selected to get rid of dehydrated and sunburned bunches believe the vintage will prove outstanding. Yields are down by 10 percent to 30 percent in much of the north, thanks to rain during flowering and from the excessive summer heat and dehydration.