2016 will be remembered for the piles of grapes thrown to the ground in Rioja. Our most renowned wine region, as well as Navarra and most appellations in Castilla y León, registered very high yields in sharp contrast with Mediterranean wine regions where drought led to below-average production levels. The gloomy picture came from Ribeira Sacra in Galicia where severe hail hit the area of Doade in August and destroyed 400,000 kilos of grapes.
In general terms, winter was one of the mildest in Spain’s recent vintages. Spring was rainy across the country, thus increasing underground water reserves. Despite the balmy winter, budding came later than usual. “This was not the case with other crops like fruit and almond trees,” observes Pablo Eguzkiza from Cía de Vinos Telmo Rodríguez, present in different Spanish wine regions. Flowering was delayed in many areas, but it was trouble-free and abundant —the first symptom of a generous year.
Summer was dry —abnormally dry in areas like Rioja or Penedès— but some regions enjoyed relatively mild temperatures until the weather turned extremely hot in late-August and early-September. This either caused a halt in the ripening process or acted as a turning point in terms of quality. As most respected producers see it, the rains in mid-September did not bring overproduction. The generous harvest was evident right from the start of the summer.
Winegrowers who were brave enough to wait for their grapes to achieve full ripeness were blessed with good weather in September and October thus extending picking times. In many Spanish regions, 2016 has been a comfortable, staggered harvest marked by very healthy grapes.
This is our region-by-region vintage report.
Images of bunches on the ground quickly travelled through Twitter. They were completely at odds with the courage shown by Burgundy winegrowers to fight frost in many legendary vineyards earlier in May.
Pablo Franco, Rioja’s Regulatory Board control manager, explained to SWL that out of 18,000 hectares whose yields where monitored this year by the board since July 1st, 2,000 showed overproduction before veraison. After green pruning, 200 hectares were still exceeding the levels. According to Franco, most of them were young, trellised vines planted in slow ripening areas in the low valleys.
“The harvest has been really abundant and the Consejo has not allowed in the cellars grapes that failed to reach the desired quality. This is the reason why they were thrown to the ground. Now we’re studying what to do with these vineyards,” says Franco. The highest yields were registered in Rioja Alta (+18.5% compared to 2015) and Rioja Alavesa (+27%) while Rioja Baja saw a 23% drop from last year when yields were particularly high in this subarea.
Could this situation have been avoided? According to Pablo Eguzkiza, “bunches were big in July and it was obvious that there would be a large harvest; fruit setting was particularly good this year.” This experienced winemaker thinks that removing grapes is a sign of a lack of balance. “Something is wrong if you have to throw grapes away during the harvest,” he says.
Juan Carlos Sancha, wine grapes researcher and winemaker in Baños de Río Tobía, goes further and talks about underlying problems in the appellation: “Unfortunately, yields are based on price expectations. When prices were low, around €0.40 to €0.50 per kilo, everything was fine; now that they are close to €1, there is a growing interest in producing more. Of course this has been a high yielding vintage, but future harvests may very well follow the pattern. The combination of high yielding clones, the shift in plantings from the slopes to lower parts of the valley and irrigation is worrying.”
In terms of quality, Sancha says that “wines are outstanding, except for growers who picked early and from the high yielding plots where grapes struggled to ripen.” For Julio Sáenz, winemaker at La Rioja Alta, S.A., 2016 was “a vintage of patience. After a very unusual and difficult year with high temperatures and severe drought during the summer, ripening was very slow.”
At Finca Valpiedra, winemaker Lauren Rosillo thinks grapes are even better grapes than in 2010. He is thrilled with his aromatic, fully ripe, low alcohol Tempranillo. “The real miracle is that it didn’t rain during the harvest. Where yields were under control, grapes have ripened beautifully,” he says.
Without a doubt, the lack of rain in October and the mild temperatures in autumn have been a major qualitative factor in the region. “After the severe hydric stress generated by drought, fresh autumn nights have been crucial to have ripe grape skins without bitterness,” Eguzkiza points out. At the Cía de Vinos they started to pick grapes on October 1st in Rioja Alavesa and ended up on November 1st in the highest plots in Labastida. “It’s rare to see quality and quantity on the same vintage,” he observed.
“In my 15 harvests so far I had never seen such high yields in old vines”, says a stunned Eduardo García, technical director at Mauro. As far as he sees it, this year there will be many good quality wines but perhaps not outstanding reds with great cellaring potential. The 2016 harvest “was better than expected but not as good as 2014 and 2015”, García thinks. The year was defined by “the absence of rain since May and the hot temperatures in July and especially in late August and early September. The difference between day and night temperatures was not marked.”
Almudena Alberca from Viña Mayor agrees and describes 2016 as a “naturally modern vintage” due to the lack of concentration, but she remarks that grapes were exceptionally healthy. And María del Yerro, from Viñedos Alonso del Yerro, highlights the outstanding aromas of the wines after fermentation.
Despite the character of the vintage, Eduardo García confirmed that they will make Terreus, their top red in the VT Castilla y León designation (“well-cared old vines have performed really well”). He points out that most reds will be lighter, with lower alcohol (“this will allow us to gain finesse, particularly in Toro”) and low in acidity because “dilution permeates to every element of the wine,” he explained. In Toro, the Regulatory Board reported a record vintage in terms of quantity, almost 30% higher than in 2015 but only a 2% increase compared to 2014.
Pablo Eguzkiza is pleased with their fresh, lighter reds from Ribera and Toro in this vintage. As vines are well adapted to severe weather conditions, they have suffered less hydric stress than those in Rioja, he says.
Production in Cigales rose 12% compared to 2015. Rueda, with close to 109m kilos, set a new record for the appellation. Again, quality will go hand in hand with the yields. According to Pablo Eguzkiza, the few dry-farmed, bush wines left in Rueda (many have been turned into trellised vineyards) ripen before trellised vineyards. At Finca Montepedroso, Lauren Rosillo has obtained “fresh, clean Verdejo whites”, perhaps with less extract than in 2014 but with higher quality.
In Bierzo yields were lower for Mencía while Godello followed the standard pattern. The year was extremely rainy, with 1,000mm of water compared to the average 600-700mm thus provoking millerandage during the flowering and a severe mildew attack in May.
According to Ricardo Pérez from Descendientes de J. Palacios, the weather was a bit extreme in 2016 with a particularly cool, damp winter and a very dry, hot summer. The three weeks’ delay in the cycle was offset by the rain in late August and the harvest started in similar dates to 2014 even if it lasted a bit longer. “It has been a difficult year due to the high humidity at the beginning of the summer and the ensuing drought, but the wines are beautifully balanced. They have the structure of continental vintages and the aromatic character of Atlantic vintages”. The profile is similar to 2014 since both vintages lie between Atlantic and continental harvests.
For Dominique Roujou, who consults for different producers in various appellations in Galicia, the final outcome has surpassed expectations. Mildew was an issue during flowering with different results depending on the cycle of each grape variety (it was fine for Albariño but Treixadura in Ribeiro suffered more), and it later damaged wide areas in the early summer. Situations like this, says Roujou, “should make us consider the effectiveness of certain systemic products which end up generating more resistant mildew strains.”
Things improved notably thanks to the “spectacular” weather in August. High temperatures reduced malic acid levels (a key element in Albariño) and increased alcohol. Roujou points out that ripeness surprisingly took place almost at the same time in the three subareas in Rías Baixas: Condado de Tea, O Rosal and Salnés. In the end, and despite the appearance of botrytis caused by the rains in September, “grapes ripened well with alcohol levels similar to 2012 while acidity was slightly lower in Condado and Rosal,” he concludes.
“Locals cannot recall such heavy hailstorms in 40 years”, says Carlos Rodríguez from Sílice Viticultores in Ribeira Sacra. The beautiful area of Doade, where producers pioneering terroir-focused wines like Algueira and Guímaro have many vineyards, was badly hit. As in most areas of Galicia, mildew was also an issue resulting in lower yields. Fortunately, August was bright and sunny and vines could recover from so much pain. After some rains in mid September, the benign weather allowed producers to wait and pick up high quality grapes. "The vintage won’t be as good as 2015, but it is above 2012 and 2013," says Roujou, who consults for Ponte de Boga in the area.
In Valdeorras, Pablo Eguzkika talks about a rainy, frost-free spring followed by a dry summer which produced hydric stress and delayed picking times for white varieties. In spite of it, white wines are balanced while reds are fresh and low in alcohol.
“I had never seen such a dry year in Penedès,” says Mireia Torres, general manager at Jean Leon and Torres Priorat and head of Torres’ R&D&I division. This year rainfall levels reached 200mm compared to the standard 450-500mm. “We haven’t had rain during the growing season, thus yields have been very low: up to 50% less for Merlot in one of our plots and around 25% on average.”
Bruno Colomer, winemaker in Codorníu, said during a recent presentation in Madrid: “This year I have pressed the smallest grapes in the world. We have picked 30% more clusters, but yields have dropped accordingly. This is a low production vintage, with lots of grapes and great aromatic intensity.”
According to Mireia Torres, local and long-cycle grape varieties have performed better and is happy with the quality of the whites: “fresh, aromatic and with very good acidity because, despite the summer drought, temperatures were mild.” In contrast, red wines will be deep and concentrated.
Circumstances were similar in Priorat, but the high temperatures in late August and September speeded up the ripening process, especially in younger vineyards. It also forced to pick up some plots prematurely, explains Mireia. In her opinion, the hottest areas were the worst affected, but grapes were tremendously healthy and final yields were similar to 2015.
Mild temperatures were the norm both in Conca de Barberà (they also enjoyed a rainy spring) and Costers del Segre, where drought was far more severe, yet Mireia thinks that varieties are well adapted to hot conditions in this region and react better to the shortage of water.
Navarra. High yields and late picking dates were the two main features in the region. In the Ribera Alta sub-area, Adriana Ochoa from Bodegas Ochoa reports that production fell down 15% compared to the previous year. "We managed to save the harvest thanks to drip irrigation; otherwise we would have had a brutal loss of vegetation due to the scorching temperatures in late August and early September." The heat blocked the ripening process and delayed the harvest 15 days “but finally we were able to obtain fresh, balanced wines,” she explained. “This year we will make wines with less alcohol and acidity”, she added.
According to Adriana, local grapes have performed well: “Dehydration has been fine with Muscat for our sweet wines and Garnacha has ripened nicely. Soils and the amount of watering used will determine the quality of the region’s Tempranillo”. There have been some exceptions with international grapes, she says. “Merlot, for instance, is usually one of the first grapes we pick, but this year it has been one of the last to enter the cellar.”
In the cooler, northern sub-area of Baja Montaña, Elisa Úcar from Domaines Lupier is happy with the vintage. They had snow during the winter which fed water supplies and a slight delay in the cycle. From her point of view, the 60-70 litres of rainfall in late August and early September were key in terms of quality. "The wines are distinctively floral, with lots of red fruit and acidity," she told us.
Aragón. Gil Family Estates has two projects in the area: Ateca in Calatayud and the recently founded Morca in Campo de Borja. Winemaker Bartolomé Abellán reports that both yields and quality have been similar to 2014. “In Campo de Borja we’ve had slightly lower yields because of the drought; in Calatayud, production was slightly higher but the grapes were small given the scarce rains.”
Gredos. Pablo Eguzkiza is happy with the yields of this vintage thanks to the perfect setting of the cluster, even for a grape variety like Garnacha, so prone to millerandage. Ripeness came later than usual and we struggled to complete veraison but “the vintage has turned out to be fresh”, he concludes.
La Mancha. Yields were kept under control in La Mancha in 2016 and final production was similar to 2015. Lauren Rosillo, winemaker at Finca Antigua, the project of Familia Martínez Bujanda in La Mancha, says that despite the mild summer, “it was extremely hot during the first week of September, just on the final stage of ripening”. He is happy with the whites but “red varieties came to a halt”. The scorching temperatures ruined the high expectations they had up to that moment. Rosillo thinks that 2016 in La Mancha will be in line with 2003 and 2005.
Jumilla. Despite a loss of around 25%, Bartolomé Abellán, winemaker at Gil Family Estates, is excited about the "exceptional health" of the grapes picked this year. Drought, a regular feature in the area, meant very low yields. Rain was absent since the spring and by the time it returned in October, it was too late to have an effect on the harvest. According to Abellán, 2016 is similar to 2015, with very good concentration. As usual, alcohol levels are higher in the lower part of the appellation —in the province of Murcia— compared to higher altitude vineyards in Albacete (Castilla La Mancha) where they rainfall is usually higher.
Almansa. Compared to 2015, a rainy vintage in which he had to deal with botrytis, Bartolomé Abellán considers that 2016 was a much better vintage. “Grapes were healthy; the rain in September helped with ripeness and we harvested at the end of October”. Abellán expects reds with less alcohol, which is a positive element in Almansa.
Málaga. The summer was unusually cool in the area, says Pablo Eguzkiza, and that was far from ideal for a grape variety like Muscat which benefits from some hydric stress. “Grapes destined to sweet wines have to achieve full ripeness in the plant before being places in the pasera for sun-drying”, he explains. “Our first treading of grapes was on August 22nd and the last one on November 1st and the drying process in the pasera was longer than usual”. Despite this setback, Eguzkiza says “the balance is good”.
Baleares. In Mallorca, the summer was very dry, but producer Francesc Grimalt from 4 Kilos, says mild temperatures prevented a repeat of the hot 2003 vintage. “It has been a good year for local grapes because we have achieved good concentration, but this has not been the case for international varieties”, he explained. Unlike other Spanish regions, Mallorca was not affected by the heat that scorched much of the country between late August and early September.
Canary Islands. Yolanda Ortiz de Arri, who has just returned from the archipelago, talked to different producers.
In Tenerife, both Borja Pérez, who runs Ignios Orígenes in DO Ycoden Daute Isora, and Jonatan García, from Suertes del Marqués in DO Valle de La Orotava agree that the vintage was marked by a mild, rain-free winter that led to an early, irregular budding. In contrast, spring was cool so budding was delayed in some areas. “We experienced summer heat waves with temperatures soaring up to 43°C which is really rare in La Orotava, in the north of Tenerife”, explained Jonatan García. “In 2016 we won’t make La Solana, which comes from an east facing plot at 350m of altitude; nevertheless, vineyards at 400m to 700m have ripened beautifully.”
Borja Pérez remembers being at 26ºC on the 26th of December and then snow in January. Plants on high altitude plots suffered and “we started pruning a month later than usual”. In Icod, production has dropped between 40% to 50%. In Anaga, in the northeast of Tenerife, where Envínate sources grapes for their wines Táganan and Parcela Amogoje, vines have also suffered dramatically (single vineyard Amogoje will not be released this year), but Roberto Santana is happy with the general quality of the vintage, particularly in Santiago del Teide where they work some plots for the new Listán Prieto single-varietal red Benje. He also expects to release a couple of new single-vineyard wines from La Orotava.
Victoria Torres, from Matías i Torres in La Palma, said this has been a “very difficult” vintage. Yields are down both in the north and south of the island due to the severe drought and the lack of rainfall until the end of October.