Every year, vintners learn a crucial lesson: No two vintages are the same. In 2009, much of Europe enjoyed a warm, dry summer. Almost too warm, as soaring temperatures threatened to stress the vines and halt ripening. Thankfully, winter and spring rains had raised ground water levels, and most areas enjoyed a promising harvest. Here's a first peek at the upcoming vintage.
Damaging hail and spring rains cut yields in Austria this growing season, but overall quality is expected to be high because of warm and dry weather in summer.
Isolated patches of inclement weather—including heavy rains in mid-September in the key white winegrowing regions of Kremstal, Kamptal and Wachau—triggered fungus growth and forced growers to use rigorous harvest selection to get quality fruit. In addition, a July hailstorm destroyed a majority of the grapes in the top-quality Nussberg district in the Vienna winegrowing area.
"Despite the hail and the difficulties with the fruit set, we can look forward to a highly interesting vintage of white wines, as well as red wines," said Willi Klinger, general manager of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board.
In Burgenland, home of Austria's best reds and dessert wines, conditions were close to ideal and the region escaped hail damage. "Warm, dry days and cold nights in autumn produced healthy, fully ripe grapes with developed aromas," reported Klinger's office in its vintage evaluation. "As in Lower Austria, the dry weather in late August and early September led to a lower juice yield during vinification."
In the Carnutum district, vintner Dorli Muhr reported that the white grapes showed good structure. "The Grüner Veltliner is not green, but golden and very, very aromatic. The great thing is the acidity. Very clear, focused and brilliant," said Muhr. The southern region of Styria didn't fare as well, plagued by rain and cold weather during the flowering period, which cut the yields of Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. A wet summer followed, though warmer and drier weather in autumn resulted in well-ripened grapes.
After a cold winter, April was unusually warm and the vegetative cycle got a jumpstart. June was cool, disturbing the flowering, which occurred over a period of three to six weeks, depending on the spot, as compared to seven to 10 days in years with better weather. June and July were also wet, requiring attentive spraying to combat fungal diseases in the vineyard.
August brought heat and mostly dry weather. In the Rheingau, the ripening was two weeks ahead of schedule by mid-month. Drought was a problem in isolated areas and hail in some vineyards reduced the crop at Schloss Schönborn in the Rheingau by about 35 percent compared to long-term averages.
"August, September and October were months with very sunny, very dry, textbook weather—almost too dry," said Johannes Selbach of the Mosel's Selbach-Oster estate. "We received a little bit of rain in early October which did not do any damage but was instrumental to have botrytis going three weeks later."
Reichsrat von Buhl began picking Sept. 14 in the Pfalz, while in the Mosel, Rheingau and Rheinhessen, harvest waited until early to mid-October, with most fruit picked by the end of October.
The healthy state of the grapes makes 2009 ideal for dry-style Riesling, and the high level of ripeness means there won't be many wines below spätlese level, except from less privileged terroirs, overcropped vineyards, or severe declassification to lower prädikats or QbA. Most estates made small quantities of beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese, despite very little botrytis.
"We harvested only healthy, mature, rich grapes," reported Christoph Graf, partner and sales director at von Buhl. "The physiological ripeness is extraordinary; the density of the musts and of the wines already fermented is overwhelming, yet wonderfully balanced."
Overall, yields in Germany are 10 percent to 15 percent lower overall, but with some exceptions. Stefan Pauly, of Dr. Pauly-Bergweiler in Bernkastel, reports yields 10 percent higher, which he credits to better vineyard management.
Italy proved once again that it's a country as diverse as ever in wine, with producers up and down the peninsula reporting that 2009 was everything from outstanding to mediocre.
It seems the farther one travels north, the better the harvest this year, with wine producers in such areas as Piedmont, Alto Adige, Veneto and Friuli reporting very good to excellent results.
"We had a beautiful year in Trento and Alto Adige," said Ruben Larentis, the technical director for sparkling wine producer Ferrari. "With the mountains, it gave us cool nights during the very hot growing season during the later part of the summer. So there were no problems with the heat. We are very happy with the quality."
With the exception of some parts of southern Italy, such as Sicily, wineries had to cope with extremely hot weather in August. Some said it was the hottest August in almost 50 years; yet the abundance of snow in the winter and rainfall during the summer left plenty of water reserves in the soil to compensate for the hot and dry weather.
"It was so hot in August," said Andrea Pieropan, the well-known producer of Soave. "Some of the lower areas in Veneto suffered from the heat, but the higher, hillside slopes did better. Moreover, the precipitation before the summer balanced out some of the hot weather."
Consulting enologist Riccardo Cotarella, who works with wineries from Sicily to Piedmont, added that the boiling weather in many areas was a weather pattern that many wineries are now used to. "Most serious wine producers now know how to cope with such weather conditions, so it's not a problem," he said. "You can't change the weather. You have to work with it."
Cotarella and others report that the heat was not a problem in Sicily. But intermittent rain plagued the island, producing one of the wettest harvests in memory. "It just rained too much, especially during the harvest," said enologist Carlo Ferrini, best known for his work in Tuscany but also a consultant for top names in Sicily like Donnafugata, Feudo Maccari and Tasca d'Almerita.
Up north in Friuli, winemakers are celebrating an excellent vintage. "It was one of the longest in memory, considering we began on Aug. 17 and just finished in November," said Andrea Felluga of Livio Felluga. "And the quality was very, very good. We are very, very happy."
Added Klaus Gasser of Alto Adige's Cantina Terlano, "We probably haven't seen grapes like this in the last 10 years. The reds are exceptionally ripe and slightly low in acidity. It reminds us of 1997."
—James Suckling, with Rosanne Quagliata
Many of Piedmont's leading wine producers were concerned that this year's vintage could turn out to be a jammy, ultraripe year due to extremely hot and sunny weather in July, August and early September. But ample water reserves and careful viticulture techniques allowed many to make balanced and attractive wines.
Gaia Gaja of Gaja in Barbaresco said that the large amount of snow from November to March this year and the rainfall that followed in April and May restored moisture and balance in the soil. This helped the vegetation cope with the hot weather during late summer.
"The vines didn't suffer from the heat or dryness," she said. "And the fruit was very healthy. The wines are showing fresh acidity, ripe tannins and good color—2009 is a traditional Piedmont vintage."
Enrico Scavino of Paolo Scavino added, "It was important to take care in the vineyard during the hotter months and keep the foliage on the vines to protect the fruit from too much exposure to the sun."
Winemakers are reporting a much better quality of Dolcetto and Barbera than last year. Grape quantity was good as well, producing wines with balance, good structure and finesse. Nebbiolo, the grape for Barolo and Barbaresco, is also a cut above last year's vintage, with Barolo being slightly superior in quality to Barbaresco, some wineries reported.
The later ripening vineyards in the areas of Serralunga d'Alba, Castiglione Falletto and parts of Monforte d'Alba profited from the long autumn, uninterrupted by early rains or cold weather. It was a luxury to be able to leave the fruit on the vine until it was able to reach optimum ripeness, said one winemaker.
Roberto Voerzio said that the growing season was uncomplicated and straightforward. "The days and nights were balmy," he said. "Just before the harvest is a critical time for the final maturation of the fruit. And we had just the right weather." The warm weather continued through harvest. Sugar levels were high and the fruit very ripe, he added.
Producers each have their own idea about the vintage, comparing it to 1989, 1998 or 2005. But they all agree it was a hot and ripe vintage and are grateful for conditions in winter and spring that helped the vineyards survive the heat.
On paper, 2009 looks like an excellent year for Tuscany, thanks to a hot and sunny growing season, but the vintage turned out to be mixed in quality as some vineyards suffered from too much heat and not enough water.
"It was not as easy as you think," said Luca d'Attoma, a well-known consulting enologist who makes his own wine at Duemani. "Many areas, particularly in warm ones such as the Maremma, had problems with dehydration. The grapes shriveled up."
Nonetheless, some producers are calling 2009 one of their best vintages ever. "I have just finished assessing the vintage here, and the Sangiovese is unbelievable," said Hans Vinding-Diers, winemaker for Brunello di Montalcino producer Argiano. "I have never seen stuff like this! Adriano, the cellar master of 20 years here, has never seen such wines."
Vinding-Diers said that rain the previous winter and in June enabled the vines on the southern side of Montalcino to combat the extreme heat and dryness in August. "So in the end it was the yin and the yang that made the harvest so good," he said. "Another important detail—it rained in September almost everywhere in Tuscany but not a single drop with us. Some say that it saved their vintage by lowering the alcohols, but for us it would have diluted too much, in my opinion."
Just a few hours drive from Montalcino, on the coast, Sebastiano Rosa of Tenuta San Guido reports that 2009 delivered "awesome quality." He said that the only drawback for his 2009 Sassicaia could be the high alcohol of the wine, but "the wine is still balanced, so we are very pleased, for San Guido as well as Bolgheri."
Cooler growing areas with good drainage might have produced the best of 2009, areas such as Chianti Classico, Chianti Rufina and Valdarno. Vintner Lamberto Frescobaldi said that it was the "best vintage ever" for the mountainous region of Pomino, where he makes refined whites and reds, mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, for his family's label. The wines from his estate of Castiglioni, which is located about 12 miles south of Florence, are "the bomb," he said.
Added Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi in Chianti Classico: "It's a very good year for Sangiovese. The wines are clean and elegant with excellent acidity and perfumes. They have wonderful structure with ripe and fine tannins."
The fact is that 2009 is sure to produce numerous excellent wines due to improvements in viticulture and winemaking. Yes, the year was a little tricky due to the excesses in precipitation as well as heat and sunshine, but more wine producers are better equipped to deal with such calamities than before.
"The vintage should end up somewhere between 2004 and 2005," said Carlo Ferrini, who works for Petrolo, Casanova di Neri, Brancaia, and Sette Ponte, among others. "There are many wines that are balanced and very good quality, and then there are some that are not good at all. It's difficult to say more than that at the moment."
Vintners in Portugal's top wine region, the Douro Valley, reported challenging conditions coming into the 2009 vintage. Drought conditions for the past three years have reduced water supplies, and thus yields.
"By the end of September only [11 inches] of rain had fallen at Quinta do Bomfim, 40 percent less than normal," said Paul Symington. "Many neighboring villages have been with little water, sustained only by tanker deliveries from the volunteer fire brigade. Peoples' wells and springs were giving the merest trickle." The Symingtons are the Douro's largest vineyard owners. Overall yields are down by as much as a third in their vineyards.
Fortunately, some rain did fall in June to provide the vines with water, and a cooler-than-normal summer reduced drought stress. The searing heat for which the Douro is known did not kick in until mid-August, and vintners began picking the first of September.
"The harvest from the higher and less-exposed areas produced better wines than normal. This is due to the heat and lack of rainfall," said Adrian Bridge of the Fladgate Partnership. Bridge noted that after the harvest, on Oct. 6, a torrential downpour pummeled the area around the town of Regua, resulting in damaging erosion to many of the region's steep vineyards and historic terraces.
In the Douro Superior, Francisco "Vito" Olazabal at Quinta Vale do Meão said that the late heat and long-running drought took their toll. "The end of last summer was very hot again and this led to some loss of volume since the most exposed bunches were affected by excessive sun radiation before reaching full maturation and had to be rejected", he said. "But for those of us who resisted the temptation to pick too soon, the unaffected grapes [attained] a balanced maturation, and we managed to produce very good wines."
Winemakers in most of Spain's myriad regions are confident that their final product will be of very good quality. The one major problem was that spring rains were a little too brief, and younger vines struggled to cope under the summer heat.
Silvia Clemente, the commissioner for the Castilla y León Regional Agricultural Agency, the large province that encompasses the wine regions of Ribera del Duero, Bierzo, Cigales, Rueda and Toro, reported that it's been a warm, dry year. Her one concern was that alcohol levels might have exceeded phenolic ripeness.
Producers in the region grappled with an irregular harvest thanks to one of the driest and hottest summers in recent memory. Vines 30 years or older have deep enough roots to handle the heat. Younger vines experienced dehydration, and ripening suffered.
Harvesters gather grapes from old vines in Toro.
"The wines will have a highly intense color and will be very fruity. They will have a good body on the palate and rounded tannins," said Mireia Torres, a technical director at Torres. "We can safely say it has been an excellent year."
The normally arid region of Toro experienced a rare snow last winter, according to Manuel Louzada at Bodega Numanthia. Once flowering began in mid-July, temperatures began to spike, leading to some tough choices. "The key objective has been to keep the outstanding fruit expression while achieving the perfect maturity of the tannins," said Louzada.
In Rioja, harvest came fast and furious beginning in late September. The grapes entered the bodegas at such a quick pace that workers struggled to keep up during the selection process. At Campo Viejo's massive winemaking operations, vineyard coordination was key to keep the picking process from becoming disorganized. For some subregions, such as Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja, harvest began early. Sun and high temperatures around this time provided a final push and producers expect alcohol levels to be at around 13.5 percent to 14.5 percent.
On the western border of Rioja, in Navarra, summer was very hot and dry, and the grapes developed somewhat unevenly. However, rain in mid-September and a drop in temperatures allowed even the late-ripening varieties to fully develop.
In Priorat, a wet winter delayed budding, leading to a slow start to harvest. High temperatures improved sugar concentration. "The harvest has been quiet, since there were no prominent diseases in the vineyard and, therefore, not too many grapes had to be rejected," said Carles Pastrana, who runs Costers del Siurana. "The wines will be full-bodied, with long tannins and very ripe and soft texture."
In the region of Penedès, a relatively dry winter followed by a wet spring led to early signs of promise. But in mid-August, clear skies and scorching sun burned many grape skins, especially on early-budding varieties. Some plots lost up to 70 percent of the expected yield.
Cava producers report that yields are down 5 percent from 2008, despite abundant spring rains that caused an exuberant growth period. Producers are expecting good wines.