Here comes the rain again

31 October, 2008

Patricia Langton looks at the 2008 vintage across the northern hemisphere

The picture of the harvest in Europe and North America is almost complete. Almost everywhere it has been a challenging year punctuated by dramatic weather conditions - rain, frost and hail feature regularly in regional accounts, and generally low temperatures rather than excessive heat were the issue.

Harvest dates ran later than in recent years and viticulturalists were kept on their toes fighting off vineyard diseases. It was a particularly difficult year for those who have taken the organic or biodynamic route.

Being a wine producer was nearly as difficult as being an estate agent until the Indian summer solved most of the problems. As always, it's the last three weeks that count.


Across France a cool summer followed a difficult spring. The country's vintage is expected to be 13% less than the average of the past five years. Champagne (up around 15%) and Alsace (4%) are the only exceptions, according to reports from France's agricultur al ministry this month.

In Bordeaux, in early September, morale was low after an "awful" spring and mixed summer weather, according to winemaker Denis Dubourdieu. Then the situation improved. He said: "We had three weeks of good weather with a wide diurnal temperature differentiation, and so far October has been fine too."

Merlot, though low in quantity, is reported to be well -balanced and high in quality. The picture for Cabernet Sauvignon is mixed, although some good quality fruit is emerging from the Médoc.

The mood also lifted in the Loire and Burgundy in September as good weather allowed grapes' sugar levels to rise. Jasper Morris MW of Berry Bros & Rudd reported from Burgundy in mid -October: "The change of wind on Sept 14 was absolutely crucial. There is a feeling of euphoria - the wines will be fine and they have been saved from disaster."

It was also a difficult year for the Rhône, where hail storms and flash floods played havoc during the summer months. The vintage is the latest for a decade and volumes are predicted to be as low as 30%. Here, as in many regions, intense work was needed in the vineyards to achieve decent quality.

High points to note for France are Champagne and the Languedoc. Champagne producers escaped much of the adverse weather and decent volumes will allow them to top up their reserves this year. Meanwhile, in the Languedoc, the coolest year in a decade bodes well for quality, though volumes are down by as much as 25% depending on area.

"We certainly have one of the best vintages that I have ever made in the Languedoc," said François Lurton. "The whites are very well -balanced with good acidity and freshness - the must is very aromatic. We didn't need to acidify this year. The reds have lots of colour with good tannins and a long finish due to good acidity, and not too much alcohol."


Strange things also happened in Italy, including a very rare incidence of frost in Brunello in August.

On a brighter note, by mid -October sunny, dry weather in the Veneto was being welcomed by Valpolicella and amarone producers after a wet spring and early summer. However, September was a little too dry, as Carlo Pasqua explain s: "We needed to irrigate a lot to save vines and grapes. This was perhaps the reason why the Valpolicella grapes were around 10 days late to ripen."

Prospects look particularly good for Italian whites, including Pinot Grigio and other whites from northern regions, especially the Veneto.

In Tuscany the harvest was late, but the outlook is reasonably positive - though it's not expected to be an exceptional year and volumes are slightly down on 2007. Martina Piccini , of Piccini in Chianti, said: "I think we're in for a surprise in the quality of the white wines as well as the young, fresh reds."

Moving south to Sicily, the harvest is reported to be generous after plentiful rain in the spring and a warm, dry growing season. There are high hopes for quality, especially for reds. "A midsummer heat wave caused concern and had the potential to advance ripeness and make it a difficult year. Luckily the heat wave broke and we returned to a combination of cool evenings and hot days. Near optimum ripening was achieved," said winemaker Owen Bird, on behalf of Settesoli and Enotria.


Spain also had its share of weather issues. The wettest May on record caused concern in Rioja and frost hit half

of Ribera del Duero's vineyards during the harvest, which was bad news for growers who hadn't already picked their grapes.

As the vintage ran late almost everywhere (compared to recent years), the risk of poor weather increased. Rain delayed picking in the north from time to time, but the worst scenario was Valencia in mid -October, when three days of heavy rain worried producers waiting for later-ripening Monastrell to reach maturity.

The vintage progressed slowly, especially in the western parts of Rioja (Rioja Alta and Alavesa) and Navarra. "It's the kind of year when you have to be calm, wait for the grapes to ripen and not worry," said winemaker Adriana Ochoa, of Bodegas Ochoa in Navarra.

At La Rioja Alta, winemaker Julio Sáenz added: "The harvest is going well but it's slow. We harvest parcels as they become ready and sometimes have to stop and wait, but the quality is very good."

Authorities in Rioja predict volumes slightly below last year's figure of

412 million kg of grapes and, given the declining demand at home, neither supply nor price should be a problem.

Price could, however, be an issue for the much sought -after whites of the Rías Baixas. After an alarmingly wet period during flowering in May and June, yields are low again this year - the crop is expected to be marginally more than in 2007 at around 19 million kg, compared to 30.6 million in 2006.

Thanks to 20 rain-free days in September in the region, the quality of the wines is expected to be good. Ramón Huidobro, head of the consejo regulador, said: "Alcohol is a little lower than last year, around 12% abv, and there is more acidity and good aromas. It's a typical Rías Baixas vintage."


Germany's growing season got under way without major incident in the spring, but in June hail ruined prospects for this year's vintage across 700ha in Cochem in the Mosel, and around 100ha in Württemberg.

After a cool, rainy August, producers crossed their fingers for fine autumn weather and, as always, a "golden October", which generally defines the success of a vintage, especially for late-ripening varieties such as Riesling. The harvest continued with dry, sunny weather which led to optimism for Germany's flagship grape.

Just ahead of the harvest, Moselland's Martin Henrichs reported: "Volume looks fairly average across the main growing regions - Mosel, Rheinhessen, Nahe and Pfalz - and quality is a little above average when comparing the Oechsle degrees of this vintage with the average of the past 10 years."

California and Washington State

It's likely to be a case of quality, not quantity, from California's vintage after spring frosts and low annual rainfall impacted on yields.

Mark de Vere MW at Constellation's Mondavi winery said: "A heat spell in late August led us to think the harvest would be early, but the cold nights in September slowed ripening.

Early impressions of the wines are good - the grapes for Fumé Blanc were mostly harvested before the late -August heat spell, and have retained good aromatic complexity. The best Cabernet Sauvignon is still fermenting, but the small berry size seems to be delivering great intensity and colour."

In Washington State the harvest ran over a week late after a relatively cool summer. However, the extended growing season favoured aromatic development and flavour and the colour in reds is described as "astonishingly deep". "If the conditions hold, this vintage should produce wines of significant character and capacity to age," concludes a summary from the Washington Wine Commission.


A report from Viniportugal, the country's main association of wine producers, promises "good, fresh and well-balanced wines from the 2008 vintage thanks to below-average temperatures throughout the growing season".

In general, disease was not a major problem, although rain during the flowering period has impacted on volume and this appears to be the biggest setback. Southern regions such as the Alentejo, Terras do Sado and Bairrada are likely to have particularly low volumes.


Austria's wine regions were hit by nine hail storms over the summer and high levels of humidity meant that mildew had to be kept at bay - Grüner Veltliner was more affected than Riesling.

The weather improved in August and by September warm autumn days with temperatures as high as 20ºC were providing ideal pre-vintage conditions. "I presume that the character of the vintage will be comparable to 2001 or 2004 - so on the lean and crisp side. Growers who could wait will be rewarded with some very fine wines," said Michael Moosbrugger of Schloss Gobelsburg in Langenlois.


The south west of England was badly hit by bad weather from flowering onwards and volume will be low for the second year running.

Chris Foss, head of the wine department at Plumpton College, report s: "After a reasonably good flowering period in June, the main problem this summer has been keeping powdery and downy mildew away from the vines - a real struggle with all that rain. The quality of the vintage will depend on the weather for the next few weeks - if we get dry, sunny weather it will be a good year."


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