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  • Severe frost will mark the 2017 vintage in northern Spain
  • Severe frost will mark the 2017 vintage in northern Spain
  • Severe frost will mark the 2017 vintage in northern Spain
  • Severe frost will mark the 2017 vintage in northern Spain
Some vineyards hit by frost in Ribera del Duero (1) and Páganos-Laguardia in Rioja (1). 3. Propane burners at As Sortes in Valdeorras. 4. Antifrost towers in Abadía Retuerta. Photos courtesy of producers, Y.O.A. and via Diego Magaña.

Vintages

Severe frost will mark the 2017 vintage in northern Spain

Amaya Cervera | May 9th, 2017

This year frost has not only affected French vineyards. After damaging vines in Champagne, Burgundy, Alsace and —unusually— Bordeaux, it left its mark on the Iberian Peninsula devastating many wine regions in Castilla y León, particularly Bierzo, Galicia (except for Rías Baixas) and Rioja Alta and Alavesa

Once the damage has been assessed, efforts are now aimed at advising winegrowers how look after the vines and manage economic aid; in the worst-case scenarios, local governments might declare their region a disaster area; this is particularly the case in Bierzo, Monterrei and Valdeorras. It’s also worrying that as many as 80% of the winegrowers in Ribeiro were not insured against frost; in Rioja many are protected against hail, but not frost, as it is not generally a risk in the region.  

Bierzo, a disaster area

According to Misericordia Bello, president of Bierzo’s Regulatory Board, initial estimates show that 80% of the vineyards have been damaged. Freezing temperatures in the early hours of Friday 28 April were particularly devastating as the unusually mild spring meant that vineyards were between two and three weeks ahead of normal. “Barely a few southern exposed slopes in the vicinity of Villadecanes and Villafranca del Bierzo have survived the frost,” Bello explained. “In some cases next year’s harvest may also be lost because there’s no possible way of pruning,” she added.

The last severe frost to hit Bierzo was in 1995.  Prevention measures like anti-frost towers would not really work in an area with many small-size producers, Bello explained. As fruit crops have also been hardly hit, the Regulatory Board will probably join forces with fruit growers to demand the disaster area status. In any case, the Board’s president thinks that the most important thing now is to move forward and start working in the vineyards.

Galicia

Monterrei has been the hardest hit region in Galicia. “I’ve never seen a freeze like this in the 27 years I’ve been here,” José Luis Mateo from Quinta da Muradella told us. Vineyards everywhere in the region have been damaged, both in the valley and on mountain slopes. “On some Guyot-trained vines, even the young wood was burnt,” Mateo explained. The confluence of two consecutive frost nights had devastating effects in the vineyard. The most harmful was Wednesday 26 and Thursday 27 April with temperatures dropping to -6ºC and -2ºC respectively.

In Valdeorras, the Regulatory Board’s technical department reported that 70% of vineyards have seen damage to their vines. Badly hit villages include O Bolo, A Rúa, Villamartín de Valdeorras, Petín and Larouco; the loss has been greater in vineyards located close to the rivers. Winemaker Rafael Palacios from As Sortes confirmed the damage in O Bolo and Seadur, a helmet of Larouco. In his opinion, the main issue was the frost’s virulence and persistence with temperatures dropping to -5ºC. Palacios, who spent the night of Wednesday 26 April in his vineyards, hopelessly witnessed how the propane burners, able to protect between 0.5-1 hectare of vines, proved insufficient to fight against the frost. 

According to Cristina Alcalá, director of Ribeiro’s Regulatory Board, the damage was mostly felt in Beade. In the Avia valley, 80% of the vineyards were affected in contrast with 30% of the vines in the Arnoia and Miño valleys with flat areas suffering the most. As many properties are small, some winegrowers have lost their entire vineyards. By all accounts, nobody remembers such a severe frost in the past 20 years. As other appellations in the province of Ourense, Ribeiro will also ask to be declared a disaster area. Expert Francisco Rego, formerly at Evega (the Galician Viticulture and Oenology Centre) has led a seminar to train growers on the kind of pruning that can be done at this stage, as well as the use of healing treatments in the damaged plants. Rego has also visited Valdeorras with the same purpose.

Ribeira Sacra was less affected with around 20% of the vines damaged by frost according to the president of the region's Regulatory Board, José Manuel Rodríguez González. The hardest hit areas were the Quiroga and Cabe valleys as well as some areas in the Bibei valley and specific plots in A Teixeira and Castro Candelas. Vines on flat areas suffered more than vines on slopes.

Ribera del Duero

Spring frost is a very common risk in this region with extreme climate. Except for some areas in the province of Soria and in Valladolid bordering the province of Segovia, frost damage has been quite extensive, according to Agustín Alonso, technical director of Ribera del Duero’s Regulatory Board. On the early hours of Thursday 27 April temperatures dropped to -5ºC with a decisive factor: the frost lasted for over five hours.

In La Aguilera (Burgos), Jorge Monzón from Dominio del Águila —our Winery to Watch this month— reported temperatures of -6ºC with peaks of -10ºC in the coldest areas. “This is terrible; a disaster”, Monzón lamented. “We are lucky that the growing season wasn’t ahead of time; perhaps some buds which were yet to break have withstood the cold.”

 Bordering Ribera del Duero, in Abadía Retuerta, winemaker Ángel Anocíbar distinguished between the frost that took place on the early hours of Friday 28 and the one registered on the night leading to Monday 1 May. The first one was caused by a big mass of cold air which pushed temperatures down to -3ºC in virtually the entire estate; the second one was a classic radiation frost, with rapid heat loss on the soil surface with temperatures ranging from -2.5ºC to -1ºC. Anti-frost towers are particularly useful to fight against radiation frost as they work with the hot air in the upper layers, but they are less effective to fight the large mass of cold air of the previous night. Abadía Retuerta started installing anti-frost towers in 1997; the currently use 17.

Some producers in Ribera compare this frost to the one they suffered in 1995. Agustín Alonso explained that it will take 10 to 15 days to see how vines cope.

Rioja

Julio César López de Heredia from Viña Tondonia reported damaged vines in Rioja Alta from Cenicero to Fonzaleche. “I have never seen weather like this. I can only think of the frost we suffered in 1926 –we only picked 58,000 kilos of grapes, a mere 15% of our usual production.”

While Sandra Bravo from Sierra de Toloño confirmed the damage in Rioja Alavesa, producer Juan Luis Cañas, from Familia Luis Cañas, with vineyards around Villabuena, Navaridas, Leza and Baños de Ebro, told SWL reporter Yolanda Ortiz de Arri that about 75% of his vineyards were hit by the mid-spring frost. “We may be able to save up to 60% of the harvest, but I don’t think we will make any of our top cuvées this year”, he said. 

Pablo Franco, Rioja’s Regulatory Board technical director, said that the frost that hit Rioja in 1999 was more widespread but with less devastating effects. This radiation frost, said Franco, cooled the soil very quickly. Haro, Sajazarra, Briones and San Vicente suffered heavily with temperatures reaching -3ºC in Casalarreina. La Rioja Alta, S.A., a producer with vineyards in different areas of the appellation, said that vineyards in central (Cenicero) and eastern Rioja (Tudelilla) were not affected, but damage was severe around Haro.

Very low temperatures over several hours are responsible for the widespread virulence of the frost. The situation was made worse in Rioja after dawn, when the intense sun rays literally burnt the plant tissues. On the other hand, the growing cycle was about two weeks ahead of time, so plants had already used a great deal of resources on their development. “Many plants have to start from scratch now and use the little reserves they have in their trunks,” explained Roberto Frías, who is charge of viticulture at La Rioja Alta group. 

According to Jabier Marquínez, winemaker at Castillo de Sajazarra, to the northwest of Haro, “vines are strong and they will flower, but bunches will be scarce and will have less time to ripen. Plants have been left weak and unbalanced and have to live off the little reserves they have. As leaves have been lost, reserves are down making them an easier target for mites. Inside the plant, phenolic stages vary and this will have an impact on the work that needs to be performed in the vineyard right up to the harvest”, Jabier explained. “This is the effect of climate change; it’s the worst frost in the past 50 years. The night of the 27th was colder in Sajazarra than on New Year’s Eve”.

Frost plus drought: the worst possible combination

Most of the people we’ve talked to are aware that vines are very rustic plants with a notable capacity to regenerate. But the most important thing after the frost is rehydration —it might be critical in many regions as drought is an issue in many of them. In the absence of rain, the option of irrigation remains, but not all growers have the possibility of doing so.

The lack of water is particularly remarkable in the regions around the Duero river. Angel Anocíbar from Abadía Retuerta said that water supplies in his area stand at 56%, a figure that is expected in early August. According to Agustín Alonso, technical director of the DO Ribera del Duero, “drought could be crucial if it limits the vigor of the plant to produce new buds” whereas Pablo Franco from Rioja acknowledged that it “may be a problem” in some areas of the appellation.

The impact on the 2017 vintage

In contrast with the excesses of the 2016 harvest in many Spanish regions, a significant drop in yields in the affected areas is expected.

Ángel Anocíbar is convinced that 2017 will be a markedly heterogeneous vintage. In Rioja, Julio César López de Heredia said that they will have “plots with a vegetative difference of one month”. Speaking on behalf of the Regulatory Board, Pablo Franco recommends winegrowers to wait and see the evolution of the vineyard before making decisions: “Working the land will be crucial in 2017 and we will see the plants’ resilience. It will be very important that growers keep their vines balanced and try to homogenize the ripening process as much of possible with a view to the harvest.” 

There are two options now: either to wait and see how the plant reacts to frost or to start working in the vineyard. Roberto Frías from La Rioja Alta prefers the second option; his team has already begun to desmochar —the local word for the withdrawal of the damaged buds and a relatively common task after frost or hail. According to Frías, there are studies supporting this practice including one authored by Antonio Larrea in the 1960s when he was director of Haro’s Oenological Centre. This sort of pruning allows the plant to concentrate its energy on the development of the secondary buds on the base of spurs which are not fertile in normal circumstances.

The general mood among many of the winegrowers we have talked to is summed up in Julio César López de Heredia’s words: “The time for regret is over; we must now focus our efforts on doing everything we can to stop vines from suffering.”

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