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2017 Harvest Report: A Baffling Growing Season Challenges German Vintners

April frost followed by summer heat resulted in low yields, but the best vintners persevered
Photo by: Courtesy of Immich-Batterieberg
A vineyard worker hand-harvesting at Immich-Batterieberg in the Mosel

Aleks Zecevic
Posted: December 22, 2017

German vintners will long remember the 2017 growing season—though many would like to forget it. An early spring, April frosts and a hot summer brought difficult conditions to many of the country's top wine regions. The need to harvest arrived before some were even ready.

"We would have started picking in August, but most of our team was still on vacation," said Jan Eymael, owner of the Pfeffingen winery in the Pfalz. His team officially started picking Sept. 4, extremely early for the region, and finished by Sept. 26.

"Harvest was the earliest that people remember in the Mosel," reported Gernot Kollmann, winemaker at the Immich-Batterieberg estate.

The growing season started with mild temperatures in February and March, which triggered the growth of vegetation and an early budbreak—two to three weeks sooner than normal. But then the weather grew cold again in April, and in the second half of that month, nearly the entire country—in fact much of Europe—was hit by heavy frosts. Saale-Unstrut and Sachsen, in the eastern part of Germany, were the only regions spared.

Mittelrhein and Franken were hit by frost but were able to recover. In Franken, the harvest volume is expected to be even higher than in 2016.

But in the Mosel, the frost struck hard. Even the steepest vineyards suffered to an extent, which is unusual because cold air typically flows down the slope. "The frost night of April 20 caused noticeable damage, even in the vineyards [where] we had never in my life experienced frost damage," said Johannes Selbach, proprietor at Selbach-Oster in the Mosel. Lots of young shoots were damaged, which significantly cut yields.

Summer did not bring relief. High temperatures and a lack of rainfall marked the midsummer. Some growers had to irrigate their young and newly planted vines. "The old vines had access to water since their roots go 30-40 feet deep," said Selbach. However, the grape skins started getting hard because of the dry conditions.

The end of summer brought rain and a few strong hailstorms, which caused many berries to expand and burst. Wet weather in August and a cool beginning of September also caused the growth of botrytis, and meticulous growers had to remove some bunches just before harvest to allow the remaining grapes to ripen fully and remain healthy."To protect the healthy grapes, we began quite early with the negative selection," said Clemens Busch of his namesake Mosel estate.

This hectic weather at the end of summer convinced many growers to start picking very early. Nik Weis, the owner of the Mosel estate Nik Weis St.-Urbans-Hof, said that this was a bad decision. "Many berries had not reached physiological ripeness and it was still raining. The sugar level was OK, but the acidity was too high."

Those who waited a little were rewarded. Katharina Prüm, of the renowned Joh. Jos. Prüm winery in the Mosel, said they started harvest Sept. 25, which is still quite early, but the grapes had ripened by then. "The weather greatly pleased us during harvest, with a sunny and dry October that allowed the grapes to be picked at good weather conditions."

In the Nahe, frost inflicted significant damage. Yields were 30 to 80 percent below average. Many winegrowers lit candles in their most exposed vineyards to try and save the grapes.

In the Pfalz, the volume is 19 percent less than average, but the best sites mostly escaped disaster. "In our best vineyards, we did not have any frost," said Richard Grosche, managing director of Reichsrat von Buhl. Similarly, Rheingau estates got hit hard by frost and hail in the plains, but their steeper sites remained untouched for the most part. The team at Robert Weil winery reported that their vineyards on the hillside of Kiedrich were in top condition.

In Rheinhessen, Germany's largest wine region, the yields are also 20 percent below average. Frost, heat, drought and hail marked the growing season, and patience and uncompromising vineyard work were required. Johannes Hasselbach, the proprietor at the Gunderloch estate, said that his main focus was keeping the vines in optimal shape and protecting the fruit that was left. His vineyards in the Roter Hang saw only minor damages.

Many vintners believe it was a year that favored hand-harvesting. The rollercoaster temperatures throughout the year produced a mix of ripe, unripe, rotten and overripe grapes. Vintners who failed to pre-select and hand-pick their bunches harvested an assortment of sour, tart or overly sweet grapes. Even at the best estates, the quality varied from site to site.

Those who worked carefully were able to make the whole range of prädikat wines. While quantity is down, top producers reported high quality. The botrytis after pre-selection was clean, and vintners made auslese, beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese selections. A few growers still have some grapes hanging for potential eiswein.

Considering that most of central and western Europe had a challenging year, vintners in Germany sound optimistic, but almost all agree that this has been another unusual year—yet a ripe one, too. "Keeping the crisp acidity has become the task of today, versus reaching physiological ripeness that used to be the task of our grandparents," said Selbach.

"We are really happy with the vintage, even though it will be another warm one," added Dominik Sona, the winemaker at Weingut Koehler-Ruprecht in the Pfalz. "Looks like we will have to get used to that."

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