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Harvest report 2021 (I): North of Spain In many areas the wines have lower alcohol than in recent years. Photo credits:. A.C., Y.O.A, and sent by the producers

Vintages

Harvest report 2021 (I): North of Spain

Amaya Cervera and Yolanda Ortiz de Arri | November 23rd, 2021

We talked to producers all across the country to find out their impressions of the 2021 harvest: the pros and cons, the key factors that shaped the year, and how the wines are developing. In this first part we look at Spain's northern half.

Galicia

Xurxo Alba from Bodegas Albamar points out that the crop in Rías Baixas in 2021 is much higher than in recent years. In fact, the Regulatory Board increased yields from 12,000kg/ha to 13,500 kg/ha, just as it occurred in 2011, a vintage which, according to Alba, is similar in terms of volume although the wines were leaner back then. Interestingly, the minimum price for grapes rose to €1.70 in 2021, 20 cents more than last year, even paying €2.50/kg. "I was talking about it recently with Rodri Méndez; if 2022 is a short harvest, grape prices will rise again," says Alba.

For the Cambados-based winegrower, it was a tough year in the vineyard, with a long veraison caused by the cool summer in the area. With its thicker skin, Albariño withstood the cold and rain well, but Caíño grapes were rotten before ripening. Fortunately, the fine weather arrived in September resulting in a long and smooth harvest, which eventually started in mid-September. As for the quality of the wines, the general impression among producers in the area is good, says Alba. "Although we have had a bumper crop, the wines have structure, volume, lower alcohol  than in recent years and good acidity.”


As in Rías Baixas, 2021 ended in Valdeorras with a 30% increase in the total volume of grapes harvested compared to 2020, according to data from the Regulatory Board.

Both Xurxo Alba, who makes a wine in A Rua, and Jorge Navascués, technical director at Cvne's Virgen del Galir, with vineyards in the easternmost part of the appellation, agree that 2021 has been a good vintage in Valdeorrras. For Alba, Godello vines on slate soils have held up better than those on granite, but he and Navascués agree that grapes this year are healthy and have good acidity, at least for growers who picked them before the rains. "In our case," says the Virgen del Galir winemaker, "this translates into wines that are more aromatic and fresher than usual in this area of Ourense.” With respect to the reds, Navascués confirms that it is a positive year for Mencía, "perhaps on a par with 2019" but not as good as the whites.

Rainy and cool weather conditions marked this year's harvest in Ribeira Sacra, where there were also areas affected by hail in late spring. Iria Otero tells us that, in Chantada, many of the crop losses this year are due to the storms of those days, including a plot where she buys grapes in San Fiz. In this area near the Miño, Xurxo Alba, who makes his Fusco and Nai wines, also speaks of a shorter harvest due to hail and slower ripening, although with healthy fruit. His wines undergo long macerations so they are still a little raw, but he reports that they are thinner than in 2020. 

Meanwhile, Roberto Santana from Envínate adds that they had to stop the harvest due to rainfall, although they managed to pick healthy grapes at the appropriate moment. In his opinion, Amandi was the best area, with good yields and fresh, balanced grapes, while in Ribeira do Sil there was less acidity and alcohol than in previous years. "This is an Atlantic vintage; from the outset the wines are approachable, have smooth tannins and good potential.”


After the slightly higher temperatures than usual in Ribeiro, budding was earlier than in previous years and the vines woke up about 15 days earlier, explains Iria Otero, a winegrower based in Leiro, where she works with her own and rented vineyards. The rain in mid-June was followed by a cool, wet summer. As a consequence, grapes remained healthy, but ripening slowed down. As in other regions, the rain returned in September, partly conditioning the harvest, which ended with slightly lower alcohol than in recent years, and slightly higher but well-balanced acidity. "The wines have a little less structure than in previous years and are somewhat more fluid; they remind me of the wines of a decade ago.”

In Monterrei, on the border with Portugal, there is a defining moment before and after the September rainfall.  The cool summer and the rain at the end of August, which accelerated ripening, meant healthy grapes in the first part of the harvest, with good acidity and balanced alcohol. By mid-September, José Luis Mateo had the whites and some reds in the winery, but after the 17th, everything went wrong. "It started to rain day in and day out, botrytis appeared, especially in Godello and Mencía, pH levels soared and the grapes were unbalanced, diluted and with less concentration and flavour". For Mateo the 2021 picking season has been a humbling experience. "We thought we had everything under control, but when you come across a vintage like the ones from the past, it is very disrupting.  Back when I started 30 years ago, the weather was like that, but we are now too complacent."

In his case, the harvest is smaller in quantity (in DO Monterrei DO the crop is bigger), but the owner of Quinta da Muradella believes that the wines have good potential. "The Treixaduras have finesse and a well-balanced acidity. I also like the Dona Blanca variety, which was picked early, as well as Caíño Redondo, Souson and Zamarrica, which have fine tannins and no more than 12.5% alcohol. Mencía is unbalanced and Tempranillo feels alcoholic and green”.

Pros: A generally abundant and fresh harvest, after some years with low yields, especially in Rías Baixas.

Cons: the lack of balance or loss of some varieties as a result of the late summer rains and hail in Chantada, which reduced yields.

The vintage in a sentence (Xurxo Alba): “It's a vintage like the ones before 2015, with less alcohol but with acidity and muscle”

Bierzo

The welcome winter and spring rains, coupled with mild temperatures, preceded the hail that affected parts of Bierzo shortly before the summer and the intermittent rainfall in the last days of August and part of September, forcing pickers to interrupt the grape harvest.

In this sense, Diego Magaña has mixed feelings. "As the weather decided the date of the harvest, you get the impression that you haven't done the job as you would have liked. Some bunches were affected by botrytis and a great deal of selection was needed in the vineyard, but in the end, the result was good and the wines today show plenty of fruit and are aromatic in a vintage with somewhat lower yields than in 2020," says the producer, who works with plots in El Rapolao (Valtuille de Abajo) and Otero (Villafranca del Bierzo). As the vines yielded more grapes, Magaña has used more stems than in the previous vintage.

Pros: The work in the vineyard have paid off in the end.

Cons: The feeling of being at the mercy of the weather during the harvest.

The vintage in a sentence (Diego Magaña): “This vintage is somewhat reminiscent of 2016, with an Atlantic character.”

Valle del Duero

At Viña Mayor, winemaker Almudena Alberca MW picks grapes in various areas across Ribera del Duero. For her, 2021 has been a difficult, irregular year marked by the snow storm Filomena, which helped to restore water reserves, as well as frosts and storms in late May and early June. This instability meant the presence of fungus in the vines and low yields with significant variations across the different villages. The summer was dry with mild temperatures except for two weeks of scorching heat. The rain in September conditioned the picking of the grapes.

"This year we had to forget about preconceived ideas and pay careful attention to what was going on in the vineyards. It was an unusual harvest and, to a certain extent, a bit messy", Alberca said. "For me, it's a good vintage, except for the last batches which were too ripe and had an excess of alcohol. So far, I can't tell whether it's a cool or a warm year. The vegetative cycle was certainly cold. We got good acidity but ripeness levels were similar to hotter vintages like 2015 or 2019, probably due to low yields," she concluded.


At Vega Sicilia, winemaker Gonzalo Iturriaga shares this impression. The wines have a similar density to the 2019s, but he says that 2021 is fresher than 2020. Eduardo García (Mauro, Garmón, San Román) also sees many similarities with 2019 and 2015.

According to García, 2021 is a very good vintage in Ribera del Duero, particularly thanks to the cold nights in the latest stages of ripeness that helped to delay picking producing full-bodied, deep-coloured reds. Nevertheless, he warned: “This year we have riberas like toros and toros like riberas. Those who waited too long to pick their grapes may have to deal with high alcohol levels.” The technical director at Mauro thinks that climate change is so far benefiting rather than harming the region. He also noted that deciding when to pick grapes should be increasingly linked to the vine’s growth cycle, taking into account flowering and veraison dates: “In 2020 we were able to start picking grapes with 13% of potential alcohol; but other years we get closer to 14% or 14,5%.”

According to García, in Toro, where the cycle is different, grapes were harvested before the positive influence of the cold nights, but the rain helped to keep alcohol in check and led to good pH and moderate concentration —something they are never short of in the area. For Gonzalo Iturriaga, 2021 is colder than 2020 in Toro, more in line with 2018. The most challenging part of the harvest, he says, was the last stretch, badly hit by the rain.

In Rueda, Almudena Alberca described a similar pattern to Ribera del Duero, with late and irregular veraison and some powdery mildew in the plants. The rain in September helped grapes to achieve full ripeness. “Yields were lower for Sauvignon Blanc but the wines are very aromatic because the ripening process skipped the higher temperatures.” There is good acidity in Verdejo. Alberca is happy with the quality obtained in the company’s own vineyards as well as in old vineyards from suppliers. "This year, the wines show better on the palate than the nose,” she notes. 

Pros: Significant contrast between day and night temperatures in the latest stages of ripeness. 

Cons: The end of the harvest in Toro was badly affected by rain.

The vintage in a sentence (Almudena Alberca MW): “The vintage was cold, but the levels of ripeness don’t correspond with a fresh year.” 

Basque Country

Arkaitz Gabanxo, from Hasi Berriak, with vineyards around Gernika (Bizkaia), says that flowering started early but the summer was cold, dry and not very sunny in the three txakoli production areas, with some frost affecting inland vineyards. The harvest, mainly carried out in October, finished with some mildew caused by the light rain, which was accompanied by high temperatures and humidity. In general, though, the quality is good and Gabanxo, who farms one of his main plots biodynamically, has not noticed that disease is more prevalent here than in others which are not.

In terms of volume, Hasi Berriak estimates that yields will be similar to 2020, but in other inland areas such as DO Arabako Txakolina, yields are expected to fall by 37.5 %. The resulting wines, according to Gabanxo, have good acidity, lower alcohol than in recent vintages and show fresh aromas.


Pros: A return to some sort of normality after a difficult 2020.

Cons: The cold, dry summer with no sunshine and a decline in yields.

The vintage in a sentence (Arkaitz Gabanxo): "Our wines have pronounced acidity, fresh aromas and moderate alcohol.”

Rioja

In a slightly longer harvest than 2020 and slightly more abundant in the appellation as a whole, the general feeling in Rioja is one of great optimism, especially in Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. It was a cool year with a much welcomed rain at the beginning of September that alleviated the drought experienced during the year. Those who avoided the hailstorms at the beginning of June, which mostly struck the corridor from Fuenmayor to Lanciego and Yécora to the east, speak of slow and very balanced ripening with good polyphenolics and excellent colour extraction in a smooth harvest, with sunny days and cold nights.

Raúl Acha, technical director at Vintae, believes that it could be "a historic year, with wines with high alcohol, good pH and structure but also almost perfect ripeness and balance", while in Contino Jorge Navascués underlines the quality of the tannins, especially in the Tempranillo "on a par with the great vintages" and the aromatic expressiveness of the Viura grapes.


Diego Magaña, who farms vineyards in Laguardia and Elvillar, agrees. "In my case, everything has gone according to plan. I think it's going to be a great vintage in Rioja Alavesa, with wines with alcohol, lots of fruit and good acidity. I put it between 2019 and 2020". Telmo Rodríguez goes even further: "It is the best vintage in the history of our Rioja vineyards. It was a vintage like  in the old days; other years we had snow in November but this one was shorter and with generous yields, particularly in Remelluri although not so much in Lanciego".

This optimism is more contained in Rioja Oriental, where Rubén Pérez Cuevas, winemaker at Ontañón Familia, points out three stages in the harvest: before the rain (ripe grapes with water stress and wines high in alcohol and less volume), after the 40 litres of rain between 10th and 20th September (aromatic fruit and wines with less colour and alcohol) and grapes picked in October, expressive wines with ripe fruit, body and plenty of colour. "This year the prize was for the less impatient. At our winery we managed to wait and we are being rewarded", Pérez Cuevas points out.

Pros: A slow and prolonged ripening has resulted in grapes with balance and energy.

Cons: The loss of yields in parts of Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa due to hail.

The vintage in a sentence (Telmo Rodríguez): “The best vintage in the history of our vineyards in Rioja.”

Navarra

The harvest began at the end of August and, after the rains at the beginning of September, the considerable temperature fluctuations between day and night and the cool cierzo wind helped the grapes to ripen and develop successfully According to the Regulatory Board of Navarra, yields across the region were 20% down.

In the words of Jorge Navascués, consultant at Viña Zorzal, it was a good vintage for Garnacha. "Just as 17 and 19 were years of greater ripeness and somewhat heavier wines, in 2021 we found the fresh fruit and elegance of 2018 but more concentration, good acidity and balance". The slower ripening and the fine weather during the grape harvest ensured stress-free conditions, making decisions easy and relaxed: "It was one of the few harvests I was sorry to see it end.”

Pros: Varietal and terroir expressiveness: fresh fruit and high acidity.

Cons: Drought during the year, but it was greatly compensated by quality.

The vintage in a sentence (Jorge Navascués): “One of the most expressive vintages of recent times.”

Aragón

Producers and harvest reports from the various appellations in this part of northeast Spain agree that the 2021 vintage was more relaxed than the previous year, with no grape diseases, slower ripening, and in general, slightly lower yields.

Having said that, Norrel Robertson (El Escocés Volante) points out that vines in Calatayud and other areas in Aragón suffered considerably as temperatures plunged to minus 20ºC after the Filomena snowstorm swept central and eastern Spain in early January. Despite winter dormancy, many exposed vineyards suffered vascular damage and as a result, budburst was very irregular and staggered. 


“In some cases whole vine arms were lost and pruning decisions for 2022 will have to redirect vigour and growth,” says Robertson. Disease pressure was lower than 2020 during flowering and set, however a cold snap at the end of fruit set led to some coulure and millerandage in higher and later ripening parcels. The Flying Scot did avoid botrytis after some early September storms thanks to good grape positioning, sensible yields and using new organic techniques such as spraying Bacillus amyloliquefaciens to outcompete any rot.

"As the ripening period was cooler, the wines have more malic acid and are crunchy and appealing,” adds Robertson, who picked his Garnacha before Macabeo. “The 2021 wines remind me of some of the fresher harvests here such as 2004, 2008, 2013 and 2018 in terms of quality.”

Jorge Navascués, who runs the Mas de Mancuso family project in Cariñena and is a consultant in Aylés, agrees with Robertson and rates this vintage positively, especially because the vegetative cycle was longer, resulting in grapes with "greater life and identity.” The winemaker indicates that, in spite of some setbacks in terms of quality after the rain at the beginning of September, the plants ripened very well between cold nights and warm days, praising the "excellent concentration and balance" of the wines. "Perhaps it is too early to say, but 2021 will be one of the best vintages of the last 10 years.”

Pros: The cold nights and warm days that helped grapes to reach balanced acidity.

Cons: The increasingly unpredictable weather phenomena. 

The vintage in a sentence (Norrel Robertson MW): “The wines have more malic acid and are crunchy and appealing.”

Catalonia 

Josep Sabarich, technical director at Familia Torres, describes 2021 as a strange vintage. The cycle was marked by drought in Penedès (by June, rainfall was 50% below the annual average), Empordà and the central area of Costers del Segre. After a mild summer, the rain in September brought variations in the different regions and grape varieties and, in some cases, had an impact on the sanitary condition of the grapes.

In Penedès, low yields meant early ripening varieties like Moscatel and Chardonnay matured quickly, but the rain slowed down the process for Xarel.lo, which was picked with less alcohol. "In general, acidity is good, even if we have less malic acid this year, but since the weather wasn’t hot, the wines are not at all flat,” Sabarich points out. All in all, he finds that white wines are less exuberant with more herbal nuances and not as intense as usual.

In terms of the reds, Garnacha was the best performer (“it coped well with all the challenges we had to face this year”) and resulted in deep-coloured reds with intense aromas. In contrast, Cariñena, a grape that needs warmer conditions to ripen fully, fared worst, particularly young vines in Priorat that were picked with below average sugar —with their lower yields, older vines performed better. At a certain point, Priorat even considered to reduce its minimum alcoholic strength below 13%. In 2021 yields were higher in Priorat and Montsant.

In the north of Catalonia, in Tremp (Lleida), where the Torres family grow vines at a high elevation, 2021 was a generous, high-quality harvest. The ancient varieties, Forcada and Pirene, were the last two to be harvested; both are late ripening so they were not affected by the rain.

“At first, 2021 looked like it was going to be a warm vintage, but it is actually closer to 2018 and 2013, despite quality in Priorat being a bit lower. We had to work hard to get it right. High-yielding, tilled vineyards were the most challenging. Nevertheless, this is a very good vintage compared to what we envisaged in June and July; the final outcome is very positive, ” concludes Sabarich.

Pros: Except from the high-yielding Cariñena, reds are fresh and powerful. The wines made from Cabernet, Merlot and Tempranillo show the characteristic tension of a fresh year. 

Cons: Drought and low yields in Penedès.

The vintage in a sentence (Josep Sabarich): “Garnacha was this year’s star in Catalonia.” 

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