For the men and women who make wine, perhaps no word is more packed with nervous anticipation than "harvest." After months of spending time, sweat and money in their vineyards, it's the moment to see what nature delivered. For California, 2014 brought another year of record-breaking drought. For America's East Coast, winter brought a deep freeze. For much of Western Europe, 2014 was unpredictable, with sun, clouds and plenty of hail in some unfortunate spots.
In the final of five 2014 vintage reports, European winemakers report a challenging, wet year. In Austria, only sturdy Grüner Veltliner thrived. In Germany's Mosel, everything looked fine until the skies opened up during harvest. Even Portugal's dry Douro region and Spain's scorching Toro area saw plenty of wet days. But hard work made many a good wine in a tough year.
As for final quality in the bottle, it's too early to know, but here's a sneak peek.
The good news: Grüner Veltliner, Austria’s most important white wine varietal, which is mostly resistant to rot, survived and delivered fresh fruity wines, though at yields one-third below average, during a very wet growing season.
The bad news: Drought in the critical months of late winter and spring, followed by the wettest May since 1820, cut yields dramatically. There was also frequent rainfall during September at the end of the growing season.
Picking started: In the prime regions of lower Austria, such as the Wachau, harvest started the first week of October.
Promising Grapes: Grüner Veltliner for whites offers the best of a challenging vintage. The thick-skinned Blaufrankisch of Burgenland also performed well.
Challenging Grapes: The grey rot Botrytis affected Riesling and yields were extremely low.
Analysis: “Difficult weather conditions, persistent rainfalls and fewer sunshine hours demanded scrupulous care and extensive work in the vineyards from Austria's winemakers this year, so that healthy and ripe grapes could be harvested," reported the Austrian Wine Marketing Board in its annual harvest report. "The wine grape volume will be once again below the long-term average, but the vintage should deliver fresh, fruity and pleasantly drinkable wines.”
The wettest May in nearly two centuries challenged vintners across the country. Only Grüner Veltliner, which is sturdy and resistant to rot, passed through the rains unscathed. After that, it came down to who had the best sites. "We feel that the well-drained, classic top vineyard sites outperformed by far the average sites once again," said Berthold Salomon of Salomon Undhof.
Because of cool conditions, vintners had to wait many weeks for harvest. “Our late harvest reduced the yields dramatically, but the flavors improved a lot," said Salomon. "The first 2014s—the still cloudy Grüner Veltliners—are characterized by lower alcohols, if compared to 2011 to 2013. They show approachable fruit and fresh acidity on the one hand, but also a softer structure on the other side."
Picking Tempranillo from bush vines at Emilio Moro in Ribera del Duero.
The good news: Vintners with the patience and skills to handle a problematic growing season were rewarded with juicy and fruity young wines.
The bad news: Rainy harvest conditions made picking difficult and reduced yields significantly. Hail affected the Saar Valley.
Picking started: In the prime regions of the Mosel, harvest began during the first week of October.
Promising Wines: QbA and Kabinett quality level Riesling. Some opulent late-harvest styles made, though in smaller quantities than is normal.
Challenging Wines: In southern regions like Pfalz, Rheinhessen and Baden, an infestation of voracious fruit flies damaged the crop in many vineyards. Many vintners blame a warm winter and the effects of climate change for the appearance of the insects, a variety of which are new to the regions.
Analysis: Annegret Reh-Gartner of Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt in Mosel called the 2014 vintage one in which vintners’ skill were tested over and over. “Berry and cluster selection was decisive for good quality. Due to warm, damp weather, vintage 2014 was replete with challenges."
Reh-Gartner reported a good summer, but rain arrived just as harvest was set to begin. “The grapes were picture-perfect by the end of September, and yields were also promising–a welcome relief after short crops in 2013 and 2012. However, heavy rain in early October suddenly forced us to step up the pace. In order to pick our Riesling grapes precisely at the right moment, we had to ask a great deal of our harvest team. At times, they worked from dawn to dusk, seven days a week. The stringent selection led to reduced yields.”
Her fellow Mosel vintner Nik Weis reported a similar struggle. “Things are looking good, but it was a fairly dramatic harvest. It was a challenge, and I learned a lot. Rainy weather in August and the constantly changing conditions in September had a strong impact on the beginning of harvest and its course. After such a great start in spring and good yield expectations, we had to watch the grapes getting more and more botrytis-affected and rotten. That happened very quickly."
Weis added that those winemakers who stayed cool, and who were patient and willing to wait, were able to bring in really great grapes and will make fantastic wines this year. "If you took high risks and if you were not afraid of losing a certain amount of crop, you could pick healthy and aromatic grapes for super juicy QbA and Kabinett. Those who waited until later in October could pick grapes at high must weights and Brix levels up to Beerenauslese.”
Pruning shears are ready to work at Germany's Schloss Vollrads.
The good news: The red grapes Touriga Franca and Sousão, important components in many blends in the Douro, Portugal’s most important wine region, performed very well. Touriga Nacional harvest was also consistently good.
The bad news: A July 3 downpour caused localized damage around the center of Douro viticulture near the village of Pinhão. Another torrential rain hit at the end of harvest on Oct. 8. Overall, the summer started cool and ended with typically hot weather.
Picking started: Aug. 26 in the warm and dry Douro Superior. Sept. 11 in the Cima Corgo, in the heart of the Douro.
Promising Regions: In this rainy vintage, the Douro Superior made the best wines. The cooler weather also made for fresher wines in the Alentejo, in central Portugal, where the temperatures can usually be scorching.
Challenging Regions: In the Douro, the Baixo Corgo was most affected by the wet weather. Alfrocheiro in the Dão region experienced burst bunches due to excess moisture. Cool and wet conditions made for a tough harvest in the Dão overall.
Analysis: According to Sophia Bergqvist of Quinta de la Rosa in the Cima Corgo: “I cannot remember having had so consistent rain over a long period. We were all fearful for the grape quality. But the grapes stood up to the wet weather incredibly well even though the vine was quite stressed after a difficult year." She believes better vineyard management over the last decade meant that her vines were stronger and more able to stand up to the stress.
For the Symington family, the Douro’s biggest vineyard owners, it was a challenging year. “Once the mess caused by this July storm was cleaned up, it became clear that the vines were enjoying the cooler weather which persisted through August," said Rupert Symington, managing director of Symington Family Estates. "In fact we all began to think of 2007, when an equally cool August delivered some stupendous quality grapes to our wineries."
But Mother Nature continued to change the weather, bringing plenty of wet days. "In some areas this caused problems, in others the rain made little impact," said Symington. "It is clear that some extraordinarily good wines were made in the Douro Superior.”
Harvesting in the Douro at Symington Family Estates means working old terraced vineyards.
The good news: Across the country, a warm dry September produced some excellent fruit.
The bad news: Summer was unusually cool and cloudy, so mildew was rampant if wineries didn't work hard in the vineyards. Some regions had October rains mar harvest.
Picking started: In Malaga, August 11. In Borsao, Nov. 16.
Promising regions: Priorat, Monsant, Toro
Challenging regions: Good producers could make good wine in Rioja, but only with a lot of work.
Analysis: The rain in Spain usually stays away, despite the old song. But that wasn't the case in most Spanish wine regions in 2014. Summer was cool and wet in much of the country. Grapegrowers had to work hard during June and July to prevent mildew from running rampant. And they had to be patient, waiting for a warm, sunny autumn to ripen their fruit. Alto Moncayo in Campo de Borja did not finish picking all their Garnacha until Nov. 16.
Spring got off to a fast start, thanks to a wet winter and warm temperatures come March, triggering an early bud break in many regions. Manuel Louzada, bodega director at Numanthia in Toro, said their vines started growing three weeks early. That led to a lot of frost concerns, but thankfully temperatures stayed warm.
"Summer was cool, cold and dry," said Pablo Eguzkiza, who makes wine in multiple regions with partner Telmo Rodriguez. Temperatures dropped at the end of spring and stayed that way until late August. Rain was also heavy, and that led to the threat of mildew. Growers had to scramble to pull leaves and cut off any bad fruit before the mildew spread. Rioja was particularly wet, making trouble for Tempranillo. The one dry region appeared to be Rueda, where water was scarce all year.
Priorat and Montsant in Catalonia didn't have rain during June and July, but temperatures stayed cool, according to brothers Joan and Josep d'Anguera of Joan d'Anguera in Montsant. Temperatures finally rose in August, allowing them to start picking at the end of that month. Other regions had to wait longer, until the sun came out in late September.
Despite the challenges, most winemakers believe the hard work was worth it. Yields are up in many regions, and because of the long hang time, the grapes were balanced, with good sugars and acidity. "The slow end of ripeness allowed the grapes to achieve a vibrant fruit expression," said Louzada. "The result was complex wines, with a lively acidity combined with perfectly elegant ripened tannins."
Grapes are ready to head to the Marqués de Cáceres winery in Rioja.