2018 has been the opposite of 2017. A late harvest compared to the extremely early 2017, yields have been higher given the absence of frost this year. The generous rains in winter and spring explain the bumper harvest as well as the striking recovery of many plants that were severely damaged by frost in 2017. With so much rain, grape growers have been forced to double their efforts in the vineyard to curb an excess of vegetation and a sharp increase of fungal diseases and botrytis. As a result, ripening was delayed and picking times have turned out to be the major headache of the vintage.
We have asked producers in eight wine regions across Spain to share their ups and downs, the style of wines that may emerge and the main challenges they had to face.
Very few producers in Spain can pride themselves on having 50 vintages under their belts and still be able to talk about them. Mariano García has gathered invaluable experience since he oversaw his first harvest in Vega Sicilia in 1968 with the help of Catalan winemaker Juan José de Castro. Maybe that's why he is always looking forward to harvest time: "Others get nervous, but it is the best time of the year for me," he reveals.
García is happy with the quality in 2018. Unlike other regions, the summer was relatively dry in the Duero valley, yet conscientious work in the vineyards was needed. “We have been one of the first to start picking grapes this year and the last to conclude the harvest. The weather has been good except for the heatwave we suffered in early August. Old vines on hillsides coped better with this situation,” he adds. The hot weather in September sped up ripening. From his demanding perspective, García missed "the Duero’s distinctive cold nights in late August and early September which are a great help to achieve phenolic maturity".
Looking back for significant changes over the past half century, Mariano recalls that during his early years in Vega Sicilia full ripeness was achieved at 13º of alcohol and even below: “We sorted out plots based on potential alcohol; there were many excellent wines that didn’t exceed 13% vol. Nowadays a wine with 13% vol. in the Duero area is unripe.
“All of our new plantings are at elevations of at least 850m. When I started on the wine business, these areas were ignored because it was really difficult to get ripe grapes there.”
Mariano is a staunch supporter of minor vintages and wines with insignificant flaws. On my last visit to the area to write about Garmón, the family’s new winery in Ribera del Duero, he uncorked a 1997 bottle of Mauro -a complicated vintage in the region- but as he accurately noted, the wine still “has some grace and shows more life than other allegedly better years.”
For Benjamín Romeo, “with the means we have these days, experienced winemakers cannot say that a harvest like 2018 is difficult.” At a recent presentation in Madrid of his latest releases, Romeo said a lot of hard work and severe green pruning had been necessary in order to control the plants’ unruly vegetative growth brought by the copious rain. “Particularly for those of us who do not use herbicides,” he noted.
“High yields are the main feature of this vintage”, said Romeo. “I haven’t seen such a bumper crop for quite some time.”
Romeo does a double harvest. The first grapes he picks are sold to third parties (be it as grapes or wine), whereas the best bunches are left on the vine to gain concentration and achieve full ripeness -these are usually harvested two weeks later. “I produce 320,000 kg in 50 hectares but only less than half of them end up in my wines,” Romeo revealed.
In 2018 selection was particularly strict. “Around 60% of the grapes were removed on the first pass -up to 70% in several plots- compared to 30 to 40% on a standard vintage. To make an outstanding La Cuenta del Contador, I need to leave no more than three healthy, beautiful bunches on the vine that I am certain they will ripen successfully,” he explained. (It was the opposite in 2017 when frost provided a natural selection and Romeo harvested all in one go).
According to Romeo, removing bunches and having fully ripe grapes delays leaf fall and helps the plant to store reserves for future years. “Little things like these are vital for the future.”
In terms of the style of the wines, Romeo identified similarities with 2001, a high-quality vintage with big tannins. “As grapes have been picked later than usual, the 2018 wines will need to be aged for longer periods to soften tannins,” he noted. Accordingly, he has purchased barrels with higher toast levels “in order to tame and sweeten tannins, and let the fruit emerge”. For this Rioja grower, “winemakers need to walk their vineyards and decide on the best course of action based on the kind of fruit of every new vintage.”
The two producers we have talked to in this region, Fernando Mora from Campo de Borja and Valdejalón, and Jorge Navascués from Cariñena, agreed that they had to take some tough decisions. Both of them took a gamble and decided to harvest early in 2018.
The unusually heavy rains marked the vintage in Aragón.“By April, we had doubled the average of an entire year,” said Fernando. In Cariñena, Jorge reported 600mm compared to 340mm in a standard year.
According to Mora, vegetative growth and grass growth were held back by the heat wave in the first week of August, “but subsequent rainfall paved the way for fungal diseases. We have fought back severe attacks of downy mildew with sulphur.” Fortunately, old vines have behaved well. “Compared to high yielding plots with tight bunches where grapes struggled to ripen, old vines behaved like in a standard year. In early September our Garnacha showed good flavour, phenolic ripeness and smooth skins -for us skins are much more important than seeds,” adds Mora.
Encouraged by the healthy state of the grapes and their potential alcohol -ranging from 12.8 to 13 for whites and 13.50 to 14.2 for reds-, Mora and his partners decided to harvest early. “It has been a good year to take a different a approach. Now I’m positive that there’s another way to face the harvest. We are thrilled because we have a great diversity of wines with the ability to age in our cellars.”
For Jorge Navascués, “2018 has been the most difficult vintage ever in terms of ripeness; I have spent twice as much time in the vineyards than in the winery, eaten a great deal of grapes and trusted flavour over technical tests.” Ripe, balanced Garnacha grapes with alcohol levels of just 12.5% contrasted with unripe grapes at 14.5% that tasted green. “I decided to pick up early but it took a great effort to persuade growers to follow my advice. If I had trusted analytical data, I would have got it wrong,” he mused.
The 2018 wines remind Navascués of the powerful 2001 vintage: as so many bunches had to be discarded, the wines show concentration but in terms of acidity he thinks 2018 comes closer to the cold 2008. “Despite the heat that stopped botrytis in September, I see 2018 as a cool vintage rather than warm.”
Ton Mata from Recaredo reported 780mm of rainfall turning 2018 into the wettest year since 1998. Most of their efforts were focused on fighting mildew. The fungus was behind the loss of 40% of the crop of Turó d'en Mota, Recaredo’s celebrated single-vineyard Cava. "Mildew dries the fruit but the grapes that are free from it are good and healthy, so what we did was to remove all the damaged bunches prior to harvesting,” says Mata.
In contrast, higher yields of up to 6,900 kg/Ha were welcome news after a series of extremely dry years that resulted in very short harvests such as 2016, when yields didn’t exceed 4,000 kg per hectare.
“August was very hot so preserving acidity was really difficult,” explained Mata. “We experienced a tropical mix of high temperatures and humidity until the beginning of September. As it rained during the harvest, alcohol levels did not rise and we started to lose acidity. There will be some good wines but I don’t see 2018 as a vintage to lay down. It won’t be remembered as an outstanding year either.”
The unusual weather had a direct effect on their still wines. Their skin-contact white Can Credo was not made this year -according to Mata, skins failed to reach the requi-red consistency.
Valentí Llagostera from Mas Doix noted significant variations between different areas in a relatively small region like Priorat: “In 2018 it rained twice as much in Poboleda [the cool village in northern Priorat where Mas Doix is located] as in El Lloar [a warmer village in southern Priorat].”
After a summer with more heat and humidity than usual, the rain forced three different stages at Mas Doix. The harvest started in the first fortnight of September. The first were the white grapes and the early ripening Syrah and Garnacha, all of which showed balance and freshness. The rain and high temperatures of mid-September sped up the ripening process. Despite the risk of botrytis in high-yielding, poorly aerated plots, the harvest continued with the remaining Syrah, late-ripening old vine Garnacha and old vine Cariñena until the first week of October without loosing balance. The last stage was marked by fresh rains that led to harvesting the remaining, late-ripening Cariñena before the heavy rainfall of October 13th. “We had 200mm of rain during the harvest,” Llagostera pointed out. Nevertheless he expects this to be a cool, high-quality vintage.
The rain in 2018 was a bit of a nightmare at Mustiguillo in Requena (Valencia), where Toni Sarrión has spent years painstakingly upgrading the quality of Bobal-based reds. After a rainy winter and spring, hail and storms at the end of the summer damaged 15% of the vineyards.
“Bobal reacts badly to an excess of water,” Sarrión explains. “Storms in late August and early September increased the pH and lowered acidity, but potential alcohol remained unchanged.”
They finally took the plunge, sold the grapes that didn’t meet the quality standards required for high-quality wines to third parties and waited for temperatures to rise at the end of September. “It is the first time we sell so many grapes in bulk but at least we managed to improve the quality of our fruit substantially,” Sarrión adds. He seems happy with the wines that are now resting in his cellar.
The good news for him in 2018 came from Calvestra, a vineyard in Requena where white grapes are grown. At an elevation of 900m, it was unaffected by the storms, so grapes ripened slowly and the wines show excellent acidity and consistency. Toni con-cludes: “I had two different harvests: one for the reds and one for the whites.”
A region bordering Galicia, Bierzo had a wet winter and spring but unlike other Span-ish regions, the summer was particularly dry, according to Ricardo Pérez from Descendientes de J. Palacios.
Again, the vintage was the opposite of 2017. “Budding was delayed one month co-pared to the previous year. Mildew, frost and hail thwarted an abundant harvest, so yields are in line with a standard year in the area,” explained the Rioja-born producer who settled down in Bierzo almost 20 years ago.
“From an agronomical point of view, it has been an exuberant year. Intense green colours have persisted in the landscape during the whole cycle, but we have been really busy dealing with the lush vegetation to the point of clearing and ploughing the same plots several times,” he said.
Given that Mencía tends to develop sugar very quickly in the last stage of ripeness, Descedientes are great advocates of a staggered harvest which can last one to two months. They usually start picking the grapes on their own vineyards in Corullón, continue with plots located in the valley and end with hillside vineyards. Ultra-premium La Faraona is always one of the last vineyards to be harvested -grapes here were once picked under the snow on October 28th. “Hillside vineyards have performed well this year as there was good aeration. In contrast, vineyards down in the valley were severe-ly damaged by mildew,” explains Ricardo.
In terms of style, he describes 2018 as a continental vintage in line with 2010 and 2011, but cooler and more aromatic. “The true magic of Bierzo comes from the ability to make fresh wines despite the low acidity of Mencía. Having said that, this year’s malic levels were higher than usual and acidity reached a record.” Interestingly, the fruity, round character of the grapes at harvest time stands in contrast with the power-ful tannins of the wines after fermentation.
“It was the worst mildew attack since I took over the family vineyards,” claims Xurxo Alba, a young producer based in the Salnés valley in Rías Baixas. Fungal diseases are frequent guests in the area, he adds: “June tends to be the worst month for both mildew and oidium due to dense vegetation, high humidity and mild temperatures.”
Paradoxically, vineyards worked with conventional farming methods registered losses of up to 50% (the single-vineyard Alma de Mar Albariño won’t be produced this year). In contrast, the best performing plot was one where Xurxo is experimenting with organic farming using only sulphur, copper and plant extracts.
Alba describes 2018 as a standard vintage in the region in terms of rainfall and harvest dates starting in mid-September. For him, the wines stand between 2016 (“a hot, con-centrated vintage with sweet notes”) and 2017 (“a dry year with an early harvest but low in alcohol due to high yields; it reminds me of classic Albariño”). As a result of the high temperatures from veraison to harvesting, pH levels are slightly high but Xurxo thinks that it is still too early to define the wines. All that he ventures to say at this point is that 2018 is “just good.”
Reds benefited from the warm summer instead, so Xurxo expects more structure and is very happy with the 11,5% vol. given the usual difficulties to reach 11% vol. After all, this is is one of the wettest areas in Spain.
Jonatan García is both amazed and exultant: “We had never achieved such acidity levels with Listán Negro; we even had to wait to pick the grapes this year.”
Behind the good news there’s a somewhat irregular harvest given this year’s unusual weather. “After the early 2017 harvest, autumn was warm and dry to the point that vines were on the verge of bud break. The weather changed on December 10th and we experienced the coolest winter and spring of the last 15 years,” García reports. “There was no excess of rainfall; it rained gradually and in due time.”
The contrast in temperature between the seasons resulted in very irregular budding which was more evident in vines trained with the traditional cordón trenzado system where young and old canes are bound together. Suertes del Marqués decided to do two harvests: around 70% of the grapes -including those destined to single-vineyard wines- were picked on the first pass; the remaining 30% was destined to entry-level wines. In contrast with most Spanish wine regions, production dropped 20% against 2017 but was in line with the standard in the area.
Harvesting started on September 3rd with Baboso Negro, the earliest-ripening variety, and ended on October 25th. pH levels are considerable low (3.17 compared to 3.35 on a standard vintage) and the wines are the opposite of the supple, enjoyable 2017. “For us, this vintage shows an atlantic, fresh profile; I think it could very well be ‘The Vintage’,” García reveals. He is very optimistic and expects wines that will develop beau-tifully over the years.