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The rain in Spain misses the plain Rainfall this year has spread beyond the usual regions in Spain. Photo © Pepe Franco

Vintages

The rain in Spain misses the plain

Amaya Cervera | October 27th, 2014

In most of Spain’s wine regions, 2014 will be remembered for the damage caused by botrytis in the vineyard. In fact, rainfall during harvest truncated an extremely promising vintage.

For Marcos Eguren (Sierra Cantabria Group) this has been the most difficult vintage of the past ten years, but still considers that 1992, 1993 or 1997 were even worse. "Luckily we now work in a completely different way. Twenty years ago this would have been a catastrophic harvest, but today we carefully select grapes in the vineyard and 99% of the botrytis-affected grapes are removed at the sorting tables. "In any case”, he adds, "it has been painful to visit the vineyards and see almost 2,000 kilos per hectare scattered on the ground. No wonder people were desperate."

Rioja, badly hit

He is talking about Rioja, one of Spain’s worst affected regions, and specially the area around San Vicente de la Sonsierra, where the group’s three Rioja wineries are located. Rain started in mid-September - by then, only a small part of the 60,000+ hectares in the appellation had been picked. 

Rioja Baja and the central area around Logroño, where grapes are picked earlier, have skipped the rain. Lauren Rosillo, winemaker at Familia Martínez Bujanda, a group that operates in different wine regions in Spain, is very happy with Finca Valpiedra and thinks that 2014 will be one of its best vintages. The estate, located in Fuenmayor, not far from Logroño, has distinctive stony soils that radiate heat onto the vines making grapes ripen fully and soon, so bunches were already in the cellar when the rains came.

“Expectations for a bumper harvest have been damped. But despite carrying out a strict selection, leaving bunches on the vine and removing others at the sorting tables, we have picked more grapes than in 2013. It’s a pity because vines were perfectly balanced. We could have easily reached 6,000 kilos per hectare with a similar quality to 2010, but in practice we could only pick about 3,300 kilos per hectare,” Marcos Eguren explains.

He thinks it is too early to give an assessment of the vintage while fermentations are underway, but it seems clear that this year’s reds will be lighter in colour and extraction given that grapes have not fully ripened. With extreme acidity and lower pH levels, Marcos thinks it could be a "classic" vintage as it was “25 or 30 years ago.” This may be great news for lovers of subtle and elegant reds, but it remains to be seen how producers in the region will interpret the harvest.

Ribera, balanced

Rain didn’t affect Ribera del Duero that much, explains Javier Ausàs, technical director at Vega Sicilia. Harvest at Duero’s premium appellation was "heterogeneous" but he considers that "despite the late rains that brought some botrytis and extended picking times, anyone who managed the vineyard well and limited yields should have been able to finish the harvest with some tranquility.” He defines this year as “the good grower’s vintage” because it benefitted those who managed to pick ripe grapes before the rain came. It was an "extremely productive" year, he adds. Many producers miscalculated their yields and have found themselves with production levels which are approximately 20% higher than expected.

Concerning the style of the wines, Ausàs describes 2014 as a powerful and ripe vintage and places it half way between 2010 and 2011. “I’m not sure whether quality levels would have been any better this year had rainfall failed to appear", he concludes.

Toro, on the safe side

The profile of wines in Ribera and in northern Toro, where Vega Sicilia produces Pintia, is similar this year, says Javier Ausàs, with the only difference that rain split the harvest in two in Toro and forced pickers to stop for a whole week. Nevertheless, there are no substantial differences between grapes harvested before and after the rain, he reckons. As a whole, 2014 was “a good year, with moderate temperatures.” 

At Teso La Monja, producer Marcos Eguren praises the quality of the grapes that entered his cellar. “They were spectacularly healthy and just slightly short of aromatic ripeness." The wines are showing pretty well after devatting, he adds. The truth is that Toro is one of the most regular regions in Spain from a climatic point of view, stability being reinforced by the large amount of old vines perfectly adapted to the area.

Rueda, pleasant acidity 

Perhaps some of the most interesting wines from the 2014 vintage in Spain may be produced in Castilla y León, the region spanning Ribera del Duero, Toro, Rueda, Cigales, Tierra de León and other appellations. White specialist Rueda officially finished the harvest in the second week of October with great expectations and virtually no incidents.

Mariví Pariente from Bodegas José Pariente compares 2014 to 2012 in terms of the excellent acidity levels, which provide good raw material for premium white wines. She adds that grapes were very healthy and fermentations were carried out smoothly.

Lauren Rosillo, winemaker at Finca Montepedroso, Martínez Bujanda’s venture in Rueda, emphasized that 2014 has not been a high-yielding vintage (their production is 30% lower than in 2013) but quality is very good.

Bierzo, here comes the rain again

In the land of Mencía, harvest was interrupted by rainfall. Growers picked, then forced to stop, pick and stop again. A painstaking selection had to be carried out in order to remove botrytis-affected bunches.

Ricardo Pérez, from Descendientes de J. Palacios, thinks that 2014 is similar in many ways to 2013 and that both years are part of a cycle of fresh Atlantic-like vintages which started in 2012. He explains how complicated the area and its temperamental grape variety (capable of explosive ripening) can be. This is particularly the case of producers like Palacios who usually ferment with stems, forcing them to virtually decide tank by tank whether or not to include whole bunches. As an example, this year they have devatted much earlier than usual.

"Yields were expected to be high this year, but we have been forced to carry out such a big selection that production has finally dropped slightly below 2013. Although rains usually entail complicated harvests, I prefer vintages with an Atlantic influence because grapes ripen more slowly,” explains Ricardo.

Galicia sees rains most of the time

The harvest in Galicia has been marked by heavy rains and moderate summer temperatures have helped very little. José Antonio López, from Cia. De Vinos Tricó (Rías Baixas), is honest about the vintage: "It will be a diluted and less concentrated year," he says. "Problems with flowering have meant a less abundant harvest, and mildew and botrytis forced a severe selection process." Although many of Lopez’s vineyards are in terraces with well-drained soils and yields are kept under control, he is positive about the fact that the wines will be less alcoholic this vintage (1% below average).

French flying winemaker Dominique Roujou, who mostly works in peripheral regions in Spain and produces his own Rías Baixas wine, notes that the region registered 150-200 liters of rainfall in just one week from September 14th. But in contrast with other regions, no grapes were harvested in advance because they were far from being ripe. Therefore it is not surprising that growers panicked and hurried to pick their grapes as soon as they could access their vineyards. "2014 will be a diluted vintage that will keep winemakers very busy,” forecasts Roujou.

Rain has also dominated in Ribeiro where harvest conditions have been extremely hard. In a region that is emerging with a varied range of high quality white wines, winemakers have had to do a strict selection and remove a large amount of grapes, highly affected by botrytis.

It hasn’t been that bad for Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras, says Roujou. In Valdeorras most Godello grapes (white) were harvested before the rain. Generally speaking, it rained slightly less here although pickers were forced to stop their task several times and wait for drier conditions. In Ribeira Sacra, where Roujou advises Ponte da Boga, 2014 has been a better year than 2013 which suffered from continuous rainfall throughout the harvest. 

Cataluña, fifty-fifty

Mireia Torres from Miguel Torres thinks rainfall will determine the quality of the vintage in Catalunya. She believes that 2014 will result in excellent whites thanks to higher acidity and lower alcohol levels, while reds have been a mixed bag. "Rainfall in September has particularly affected late ripening red varieties in Penedès. At Jean Leon, for instance, it has been great for Merlot but this has not been the case with Cabernet Sauvignon or Petit Verdot.” 
 
Priorat usually registers the longest harvesting season in Spain as ripeness varies widely in terms of altitude and grape varieties. Picking times depend on each producer’s style –some harvest at the end of August while others choose to leave grapes hanging on the plant until well into October. September registered some rain too, so the warmest and earliest areas and most of the Grenache was picked in good time. Carignan vines, specially those grown in cold areas, failed to reach optimum ripeness. “This vintage will be fresh, more elegant and with lower alcohol levels”, says Mireia Torres.

The huge family winery in Pacs del Penedès receives grapes picked all over Catalunya. “Concerning reds, this will undoubtedly be a year for winemakers to actively work with the lees and to use yeasts that can add structure”, says Mireia. With this purpose in mind, Torres has started to use its own selected yeast. 

Levante, the flip side

In contrast, there was not a drop of rain throughout the growing season in Jumilla, says Jordi Flos, director at Gil Family Estates. Drought notably stressed the vines until harvest time, when the area registered 40-50 litres of rain complicating things a little. The weather improved considerably afterwards and the high temperatures during the day and cool nights have helped to pick high quality grapes. It is important to note the low yields (roughly 25% below average) due to the extreme drought and the selection forced by the rain.

Castilla La Mancha, on a roll

Spain’s vast meseta plateau south of Madrid concentrates the biggest surface under vine in the country. Unlike other regions, the absence of rain this year has made things much easier. “It has been a good harvest, grapes are healthy and everything is normal”, says Lauren Rosillo winemaker at Martínez-Bujanda’s Finca Antigua in Cuenca (La Mancha). He even allowed himself some indulgences. “As temperatures were mild, I held Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, both late-ripening varieties, with excellent results”.

In Manchuela (Albacete), where the Eguren family sources grapes for their Vinos de la Tierra (vin de pays) category, Marcos notes some episodes of hail and vine disease in certain areas, but “in general it has been a good, healthy harvest with ripe grapes”. 

Other regions

The “two harvests” effect -grapes picked before and after the rain- has occurred across many wine regions in Spain. Few have managed to escape rainfall during harvest. It was the case in Aragón -mostly Calatayud and Campo de Borja, where grapes at high altitude areas are picked at a later stage. But as Jordi Flos explained, regions affected by rainfall have recovered thanks to a later improvement in the weather which kept botrytis under control. Selection has been key at this second stage.

Traditionally dry areas where grapes are picked as early as July and August such as Montilla-Moriles, Jerez and Málaga have had no problems. Quality of grapes is very good although yields are lower than in 2013, a bumper harvest in these regions.

Despite the usually wet weather throughout the year in the Basque Country, Lauren Rosillo explained that the txakoli harvest has been problem-free and showing good quality. “We have harvested earlier than usual, which is good. This year is equivalent to other well-balanced vintages such as 2010 and 2012”, says Rosillo, consultant winemaker at Karlos Arguiñano in Gipuzkoa.

According to Roberto Santana, winemaker at Suertes del Marqués in the Canary Islands and member of the Envínate team, with additional projects in Extremadura, Castilla-La Mancha and Galicia, the islands have enjoyed their third vintage without “panza de burra” (donkey’s bell in Spanish), a weather phenomenon that causes clouds to concentrate at low to medium altitude bringing large amounts of humidity. Rainfall has hardly interrupted the harvest, which has stretched from August 31 to late October. It has been a cool year and grapes have ripened late but slowly therefore Santana expects good quality wines and lower yields than in 2013.

Envínate is also in charge of winemaking at Palacio Quemado, Alvear’s venture in Extremadura. Santana reports that in this usually very hot region, 2014 has been extremely atypical with fresh nights that have helped vines to perform very well.

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