Despite Record Heat, Europeans Happy with Harvest

The 2022 growing season was far from dull, thanks to drought, wildfires and storms, but growers are happy with quality, though yields are down

Despite Record Heat, Europeans Happy with Harvest
The team at Château Carbonnieux in Péssac-Leognan sort grapes for their white Bordeaux. (Thibaud Moritz/AFP/Getty)
Nov 8, 2022

After a scorching summer that saw record temperatures across much of Europe and wildfires in France, Portugal, Spain and Greece, winemakers in the three largest wine-producing countries are cautiously optimistic about the 2022 vintage. They also believe techniques they have been adopting to counter climate change are working—for now.

The common theme across the continent was heat and a lack of rain. A wet spring gave way to a dry summer, which led to lower yields in most regions. But vintners in many regions still believe the vintage is a promising one, thanks to high quality fruit.

This harvest report is merely a snapshot of leading regions. Stay tuned for future tasting reports for a comprehensive look at the 2022 vintage.

Bordeaux

If 2022 is an indicator of seasons to come, then Bordeaux can expect the unexpected. "The season has been out of the ordinary, to say the least!" said Jean-Jacques Bonnie, co-owner and general manager at Graves classified-growth Château Malartic-Lagraviere in Bordeaux. Frost, hail, drought and heat waves buffeted the region, impacting some terroirs more than others and testing the sangfroid of growers.

"Frost in early April in blocks where we always escape it, two episodes of hail which did not hit hard but were, again, unusual," said Philippe Blanc, general manager at Château Beychevelle. "On the other hand, the growing season was steady and fast but very easy to handle, in terms of disease pressure."

The dry weather meant many producers could cut back on fungal treatments. And even as the summer was hot and dry, practices adopted in the vineyards in recent years kept the soil moist. For example, cover crops that encourage a living soil and guard against heat accumulation, canopy management that protects clusters with a leaf “umbrella” as well as plot-by-plot viticulture methods.

"It is difficult to explain why the vineyard behaved so well in such extreme conditions. Indeed, our cultural practices promote deep rooting, pushing the vines to cross the gravel and, thus, find freshness in the limestone sublayer, but this is not specific to this vintage," said Bonnie.

Some soils dealt with the heat and drought better than others, and older vines with developed, deep root systems proved more resistant than younger vines, some of which died. Heavily draining soils of sand or gravel, without recourse to the hydration found in a limestone or clay layer, left the vines to suffer extreme water stress.

"Soils that worked the best would be [the] St.-Emilion plateau on limestone, where vines suffered less. In the Médoc on pure gravel, it was more difficult … it all depended on how deep the clay was,” said Philippe Castéja, president of Borie-Manoux, which owns multiple wineries. “It has been interesting to see the yields differ from one plot to the other.”

As harvest time neared, the main concern was grape maturity. Fine wine requires a balance between sugar and acidity, phenolic ripeness and the complexity of fresh aromas that mark a wine for aging. Cool nights in September allowed grapes to maintain good acidity while finishing their ripening.

"Before the harvest, we were concerned about maturation—too much tannins, will they be ripe?" recounted Claire Villars-Lurton, winemaker-owner of fifth-growth Château Haut-Bages Libéral in Pauillac and third-growth Château Ferrière in Margaux. "In fact, the cold night temperature [at the] beginning of September saved the vintage and allowed the grapes to ripen perfectly well, especially the Cabernet Sauvignon."

"We had no choice but to accept what nature was sending us: only drought and warm days," said Castéja. But anyone looking for a bumper crop will be disappointed. Conditions led to small berries with little juice.

Rhône Valley

Rhône vignerons also reported a small but excellent harvest. In the Northern Rhône, spring arrived late, delaying budburst, but summer came fast and hot. Inter Rhône, a regional association for all wine regions in the valley, reported temperatures consistently above normal past mid-April, with frequent record-high heat spikes and an annual rainfall 25% lower than normal, which strained the vines.

"The 2022 vintage was extreme, both for the vines and for the winemakers," said Laure Colombo, second-generation winemaker at Jean-Luc Colombo in Cornas in the Northern Rhône. Plagued by dramatic weather events, in addition to the worsening heat and drought that has become common throughout the valley, Colombo and other vintners reported a high-anxiety growing season followed by a harvest that resulted in a surprise: a vintage that looks to be outstanding. "Tannins are ripe but not overcooked. Aromas are showing fresh fruit, and the finish shows incredible finesse," Colombo said. "It is quite encouraging for the future of the wines."

Rhône harvest]
Grape pickers harvest Syrah for E. Guigal in Côte-Rôtie in the northern Rhône. (Olivier Chassagnole/AFP/Getty)

"It’s been a very stressful growing season," said Michael Gerin of Côte-Rôtie-based Jean-Michel Gerin. "After being extremely dry, we then had two hail storms in June in the northern part of the appellation!" The hot summer pushed harvest dates very early, beginning on August 22—eight days earlier than in 2021. The saving grace was some much-needed late summer rain. "In August, we finally had the rain we were looking for," added Gerin, which he said renewed the vines and allowed volumes to rebound.

The same whiplash weather conditions played out in the Southern Rhône, where budburst was delayed eight to 10 days, and then temperatures shot up for a hot summer with little to no rain. By harvest, the growth was accelerated 20 days ahead of last year.

Challenges in Châteauneuf-du-Pape went well beyond heat and drought. A devastating storm decimated the famed La Crau vineyard on August 14. "Over 80% of our vines were impacted, and in some blocks we lost everything," said Ralph Garcin, winemaker at Château de Nalys. Other producers, such as Vieux Télégraphe, Château La Nerthe, Domaine La Boutinière and Guillaume Gonnet, were also impacted. "Our overall volume will be down by more than one-third, but the fruit we did harvest is very high in quality," Garcin noted. "The last time we had such a complicated harvest was 2018, and we see that vintage still resulted in many great wines."

Michel Chapoutier, who has estates up and down the Rhône Valley, believes the vintage is a great one, despite challenges including up to a 25% decrease in volume. The wines, he said, are "elegant and profound, with aromatic freshness and delicacy.”

Burgundy

While yields were lower in many regions, Burgundy vignerons reported both high quality and quantity. A wet spring appears to have given the vines what they needed to produce both excellent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that not only quality but also quantity rose this year. France’s agriculture ministry reported that preliminary data suggests the 2022 harvest will be larger than the five-year average, after several years of small crops.

Burgundy harvest]
Workers from Chateau De La Tour in Burgundy’s Vougeot harvest ripe Pinot Noir grapes. (Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty)

Italy

In Italy, the story was similar in many regions, as high heat and drought meant some regions saw little rain between February and July. Budbreak was late, but record temperatures led to rapid ripening and an early harvest in several areas. A wave of storms in July brought some relief. And the same August storm that brought hurricane-force winds to the Southern Rhône also brought mayhem to Sardinia and parts of Tuscany, reducing yields further. Regional agricultural agencies estimate yields will be down between 10% to 20% nationwide.

Spain

Vintners in Spain faced challenging conditions in 2022, including wildfires in some regions and heat waves throughout. Vicente Dalmau Cebrián-Sagarriga, owner of Rioja’s Marqués de Murrieta and Rías Baixas’ Pazo de Barrantes, noted temperatures between 107° F and 109° F. “I think never in the history of Rioja have we had [such hot] days with no rain," he said.

Although many producers reported a smaller-than-average crop, with anywhere from 10% to 30% less fruit, opinions on the quality of 2022’s wines range from very good to outstanding.

One of the most enthusiastic regarding 2022 is Ribera del Duero’s Dominio de Pingus owner-winemaker Peter Sisseck. "2022 is really exciting. Some crazy way—I don’t know exactly how—we made unbelievable wines," he said. Sisseck describes the wines as "soft, beautiful, aromatic, with enormous tannins" that are incredibly well-integrated from the start. But going into harvest, Sisseck never expected such results.

It’s a common refrain among Spain’s vinegrowers. After a hot and dry year in 2021, conditions remained dry and unseasonably warm through the winter and spring. Like all of Europe, the summer was brutal, with widely reported spikes in temperatures and little relief at night, virtually no rain and, in some wine-producing areas, devastating wildfires. As harvest approached, it didn’t seem like a recipe for success.

Some producers mitigated 2022’s conditions by harvesting early, a decision that Sisseck believes was crucial in such an unusual vintage. "A lot of people decided to harvest normal harvest dates, and they harvested something totally overripe: no acidity, 16% [potential] alcohol … crazy stuff. We harvested 14% [potential] alcohol and with very classic, beautiful fruit," said Sisseck, comparing his September 5 harvest start date to that of others in Ribera del Duero, which in some cases were as late as October 5.

The one benefit of the growing season was clean and healthy conditions for grape development, although at harvest the berries were small, resulting in a reduction in the overall crop size, up to as much as 30% in some cases.


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