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From the archive: Harvest reports 2003

Harvest reports from the 2003 vintage, from wine regions across the world...

As regions in Europe, including France, Italy and the UK, are battling severe April frosts in the vineyards, we look back at another vintage that was severely hit by frosts, 2003, and how that harvest turned out in the end.

In 2003, the frost hit regions included Burgundy, Northern Rhône, Champagne and central Italy, whereas this year it has also hit French regions such as Bordeaux, Languedoc-Roussilion and Jura.


Bordeaux Left Bank | Bordeaux Right Bank | Bordeaux Dry Whites | Bordeaux Sweet Whites | Burgundy | Languedoc-Roussillon | Rhône | Champagne | Germany | Italy | Spain | Port | Hungary | California | Canada | Chile | New Zealand | South Africa | Australia | Argentina | England |


BORDEAUX LEFT BANK (Graves – Médoc)

By Alan Spencer

Verdict

In the best areas, the Cabernets, the majority grape on the left bank, showed exemplary ripeness with great aromatic finesse, high alcohol content and good extraction of the anthocyanins (colour). The harvest was officially declared on September 8, generalized by September 15, completed by the first days of October, about the date picking began last year.

According to Allan Sichel (Palmer – d’Angludet) this might be called a terroir year since vine-growing or winemaking techniques will have little impact. There were contrasting situations, but oddly this year the so-called ‘lesser’ (heavier) soil areas appeared to do better than poorer terroirs normally expected to produce the great wines.

Ideal conditions in September tended to favour the later ripening Cabernets over the earlier Merlots. Some growers who systematically de-leaf, surprised by the heat-wave, found their grapes turned to raisins. Generally on soils which retain humidity, the wines show deep, rich colour, very up-front, with low acidity. Complexity and balance must be judged when the wines are tasted.

Weather

On July 15, 3000 hectares of vines were seriously damaged in certain parts of the upper Médoc. Min. and max. temperatures and sunshine hours very much above average brought unprecedented maturity.

Since the beginning of the year, extraordinary and uncharacteristic weather patterns have resulted in one of the most untypical years on record and the earliest recorded vintage. By the end of May, the level of rainfall was 170 mm lower than the 30-year average. Drought conditions worsened over the summer with scorching heat.

When the weather broke it was in the form of sudden, violent thunderstorms which brought welcome rainfall to some areas but did serious damage in others.The state of the grapes was far from uniform. Terroir has been crucial. On heavier clay soils, the vines have suffered less from the effects of vine stress where ripening has been quick, producing high sugar levels and low acidity. On poorer, well-drained sandy-gravel soils which normally allow the grapes to ripen more quickly, vine stress certainly slowed the ripening process.

Production

With extremely low yield – in Margaux the average was a mere 25 hectos/hectare – due to vine stress from the heat, production is well below average. However this shortfall coupled with remarkable quality from those terroirs best suited to the vintage could be a godsend in present soft marketing conditions.

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BORDEAUX RIGHT BANK (St Emilion – Pomerol – Fronsac)

By Alan Spencer

Verdict

With a majority of Merlot and Cabernet franc, on certain forward parcels picking began August 19 and was finished by mid September (2002 started September 19 and extended well into October). Wines generally present very high natural alcohol (+13 percent) particularly in clayey-limestone areas.

Acidity is well below average. Exceptionally powerful and complex aromas of ripe fruit. After maceration, wines showed tannins which, depending on the area, were refined, round and mellow or else powerful and fleshy.

First tastings will hopefully confirm this unique potential. Hubert de Boüard, owner of first growth Château Angelus and president of the St-Emilion Wine Syndicate declared: ‘whatever the situation, whether on early or late-ripening terroirs, the harvest shows a quality potential only observed in the very greatest vintages. A vintage in conformity with the climatology: huge, exceptional, unparalleled.’

Weather

On April 28, a hailstorm caused some serious damage in certain areas of the St-Emilion vineyard. Then on June 24 a mini-tornado destroyed 6000 hectares of vines mainly in the Entre-deux-Mers annihilating this year’s harvest in the unlucky vineyards and seriously compromising next year’s.

The storm also affected certain outlying areas of the Saint-Emilionais but fortunately damage was local and top vineyards were spared. The hot spring and sub-tropical summer heat with drought conditions accelerated the ripening process promoting historically early maturity.

Ideally sunny warm weather in September with some welcome light rain provided perfect conditions for picking. Therefore the grapes arrived in a remarkably healthy state and the first juice is deep-coloured and opulent.

Production

As in other areas, yield has been well below average, even less than the short 2002 harvest which produced only an overall total 5.6 hectolitres. Production in the Pomerol area was particularly low. The storms in spring and at the beginning of the summer damaged or destroyed several thousand hectares and the drought seriously reduced the quantity of juice in the grapes.

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BORDEAUX DRY WHITES

8 October 2003

Verdict

On certain warm, very early-ripening soil areas close to the town of Bordeaux, picking began for the Sauvignon gris and blanc on August 13, the earliest harvest ever.

With a high proportion of Sauvignon blanc the crop did not suffer unduly from the heat and drought. The juice was high in sugars but very low in acidity which might have caused the wines to lack aroma and freshness. Fortunately, the new wines show discreet crisp, aromatic and very fruity aromas with elegant freshness on the palate. However, showing virtually no malic acidity the vintage this year will prove to be completely atypical.

Weather

Average temp. in August was six degrees above the 30-year average and sun hours (276) showed 27 over the average. The vines suffering from hydric stress had a further shortage of rainfall – 18 mm below average for the month. However, planted essentially on limestone, clayey-limestone or clay soils which retain moisture better than gravel, the warm spring and torrid summer with drought conditions did not cause the Sauvignon blanc undue stress.

Production

Yield this year is at an all-time low due to the extravagant weather conditions with coulure in spring. The buds began to open in very cold and humid weather conditions which caused widespread failure of the flowering, thence coulure. Yield for the Sémillon on the contrary was closer to normal.

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BORDEAUX SWEET WHITES

By Alan Spencer

Verdict

The golden vintage. Normally spread over 5-6 weeks, well after the red harvest has been completed, this year the botrytized white grapes were picked at the same time as the reds in record time (20 days).

Extraordinarily rich and opulent, the first musts show sugar-levels rarely achieved in the past, together with very high alcohol content with aromas of apricot symptomatic of top-quality Sauternes. Conditions for sweet wines were similar in St Croix-du-Mont, Loupiac and Cadillac on the opposite bank.

All the lots are now (October) in the process of fermentation. Alain Pascaud, technical director at Château Suduiraut, was unwilling to forecast but pointed out that the juice was already perfectly sound with excellent fruity (apricot) aromas ‘A vintage incomparable with any other since conditions this year were unique,’ Pascaud said.

Weather

Already well concentrated by the summer heat and drought, light rainfall between 5 and 10 September promoted the botrytis which attacked the grapes in a uniform manner.

This alternating heat and moisture, helped by an east wind, completed the process of concentration. After a first picking of certain parcels which appeared passerillized by the heat, the remainder of the crop was gathered in a single picking, an exceptional harvest for Sauternes.

Production

Unlike yield in other parts (red or dry white), production of the sweet botrytized wines this year showed a net increase over 2002 which produced an average yield for Sauternes of 16 hectos/hectare. Quantity will therefore be greater since the weather conditions promoted early picking, and less waste. Quality + quantity should be the end result.

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BURGUNDY

by Natasha Hughes

Predictions

‘The reds are ripe, with good, soft tannins and no harshness at all,’ Olivier Lamy of Domaine Hubert Lamy said. ‘I think they will turn out well and have the potential to age. The whites, on the other hand, are not as expressive as usual: the nose is more closed, they’re a bit less lively. We’ll see how they turn out after the malolactic fermentation is over, but I think it will be a white vintage to drink early.

Jean-Claude Mitanchey, cellar master at the Château de Mersault, is more optimistic: ‘We will get very nice Pinot Noir wines thanks to a low but sufficient acidity, balanced by a large richness of supple, tender and very ripe tannins. The Chardonnay grapes are rich, fat, opulent and unctuous. They are well constituted, with good structure, the finish is reinforced by a freshness and some liveliness, which has reappeared following fermentation.’

Weather

Like the rest of France, Burgundy’s vineyards were on the receiving end of some exceptional weather conditions in 2003. A fairly humid winter gave way to an early spring, prompting early growth of the vines. ‘Then,’ said Lamy, ‘there was a frost, so everything lower down the slopes froze a bit.’

The resumption of mild weather led to an early flowering, which took place three weeks ahead of schedule – then Chassagne and Puligny were hit by a hailstorm. Thankfully, damage was fairly limited and all progressed as normal – until the heat hit. Exceptionally high temperatures were already being registered in June and little rain fell, conditions that prevailed throughout a long, hot summer.

‘There was so much extreme heat that some of the grapes on the southwest-facing vines dried out, and areas like Chassagne did badly,’ said Lamy. ‘Thankfully, east-facing vines escaped damage and cooler climates such as Saint Aubin did well.’

Unsurprisingly, under the circumstances, harvest started early – so early, in fact, that records were set. On the southern fringes of the region, picking began on 13 August, some ten days earlier than the previous record, which was set in 1893.

Production

The prolonged heat and drought led to drastically reduced yields right across the region. ‘The quantity of grapes harvested is around half that of previous years,’ said Mitanchey. ‘The volume of must is quite scant and varies from vine to vine. For example, the Chardonnay vines from very stony soils have produced 20hl/ha while vines on deep soils, which are cooler and situated at the base of the slopes, have yielded around 40-45hl/ha.

‘The same is true for Pinot Noir vines,’ he added, ‘which have given around 20 to 35hl/ha.’

The damage caused by the extreme conditions varied according not only to the position of the vines but their age. ‘There was a big difference between the old and the young vines,’ Lamy said. ‘The older the vines, the better they did because their roots are deeper, enabling the plant to access water below ground.’

Overall, yields were down between a third and a half, compared to a normal year.

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LANGUEDOC-ROUSSILLON

by Natasha Hughes

Predictions

This has proved to be a mixed year, one in which the experience and judgement of the individual vignerons and winemakers will have a great bearing on the end result. ‘Overall we’re satisfied,’ said Christophe Palmowski, marketing director for Vignerons Catalans, ‘but it all comes down to the vinification. It’s certainly not going to be one of those years where it’s enough to chuck the grapes into the cuve and just wait for things to happen.’

‘It wasn’t a uniform vintage,’ Katie Jones, export director for Mont Tauch said. ‘In particular, the traditional grapes like Carignan and Grenache performed well in the drought conditions while Syrah, especially those vines planted in the wrong places, suffered as it didn’t get enough water.’

Abbott, on the other hand, is more sanguine: ‘Overall, the wines are very elegant and not at all what I’d expect in such a warm year. The Syrah, Carignan and old vine Grenache are fabulous.

Jean-Paul Mas of Domaines Paul Mas, too, is optimistic about the traditional varieties. ‘Grenache and Carignan were the best they’ve ever been this year for two reasons: they’re adapted to the conditions and, because they tend to be older vines, their roots are deeper, which allowed them to access vital water reserves.’

Weather

A cold, damp winter gave the vignerons of the Languedoc-Roussillon little clue as to what the 2003 growing season held in store for them. Spring blew in quite late and was marked in the south of the region by windy conditions.

Luckily, the early rains had raised the level of the water table, which gave some protection for what was to follow. By early June daytime temperatures had risen to 40°C, and even at night there was little relief. ‘As you can imagine, the vines were stressed by the high temperatures, and the fact that there was little temperature difference between night and day,’ said Mas, ‘Some regions were worse off than others, while La Clape, in particular, benefited from a storm in July, which gave the vines some water.’

‘The weather was unseasonably hot from June through to the end of August,’ négociant Nerida Abbott said. ‘This led to some sunburn and a rapid increase in Beaumé due to concentration rather than physiological ripeness. When it is too hot, the vines close down and go into survival mode and there is no development of flavour in the berries.’

Thanks to the uneven degrees of ripeness, harvest was spread out over an unusually long period of time, with picking of the Muscats beginning in Rivesaltes on 8 August and not ending until the second week of October, when the last of the Carignan and Mourvèdre was brought in.

‘The weather changed at the beginning of September and, while it was still hot, we had cooler night temperatures, which allowed the vineyards to wake up and the flavour, colour and tannins to develop,’ said Abbott. ‘In actual fact, 2003 is a “normal to late” year, rather than early, as some believe.’

‘Everybody’s shouting about 2003 being the vintage of the century,’ Katie Jones said, ‘but what we’ve found is a huge difference between sugar ripening and phenolic ripening. We harvested on exactly the same dates as last year as we were waiting for the two ripenesses to coincide. Acidity was certainly lower than last year, which is a good thing as 2002 was a bit too acidic.’

Production

Yields are down on average years, but not by much overall.

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RHÔNE

By John Livingstone-Learmonth

Verdict

Northern Rhône: All roads lead to patient cellaring by buyers, and chunky wines. ‘Extraordinary’ is a word much in use: it means that growers have never worked with such an extreme harvest before.

The big challenge for growers like Chave and Clape is to finish the fermentation of the very ripe sugars without a blockage. High tannins, but ripe ones are spoken of by the top names. ‘Tannically like 1983, but with more fruit – I’m enthusiastic,’ says Marcel Guigal.

Colours are uniformly very dark. Acidification has been allowed this year to freshen the wines, and has been done by many. The whites are very big wines, the Viognier heady and often partly sweet even when finished.

Southern Rhône: The wines are potent, high in tannin and will keep well. They may close up, and are unlikely to be suitable for early drinking. Growers talk of allowing them longer than usual in cask to soften them out. There will be wines that lack balance – too alcoholic, or lacking in acidity.

‘Superb, a year for the best-located terroirs,’ says Daniel Brunier of Châteauneuf’s Vieux Télégraphe. ‘Grandiose, helped by July rain,’ states Jean-Pierre Cartier of Les Goubert at Gigondas, Sablet and Beaumes-de-Venise. ‘Atypical, complicated, I’m tired but happy,’ is Christophe Delorme’s comment from Mordorée at Tavel. ‘Not exceptional, but very good,’ is the fair view of Jean-Claude Bouche of Vieux Chêne in the Côtes du Rhône.

The whites are fat, and lack acidity. So ripe so early was the Roussanne that it will be fine on its own, but has been omitted from blends by some growers.

Weather

Only those whose nickname is Olympic Flame (never goes out) can have failed to realise that summer 2003 was one long, hot event. The Southern Rhône’s vineyards stood the heat well. The water table was high after the deluges of autumn 2002, so areas with clay subsoil were fine. More draining soils suffered, but often can be irrigated up till mid-August. Old vines – deeper root systems – fared better than young ones.

The Gard area – Lirac, Tavel, Laudun – was the hottest, driest zone; storms at Rasteau, Cairanne and Gigondas – all with clay – dropped around 80mm (3+ in) of rain, but Châteauneuf-du-Pape was drier.

The Northern Rhône heat was quite exceptional: early August’s 42°C in the villages – 10°C above normal – meant 60°C+ in the hillside vines. This baking led to early harvests everywhere: ‘I started the 26 August – two weeks early – and was among the last to pick,’ comments Auguste Clape at Cornas.

‘We had finished all picking by 31 August,’ states Philippe Guigal, Côte-Rôtie. At Châteauneuf, La Nerthe started cropping the reds on 23 August, Vieux Télégraphe 25 August. These are extraordinarily early dates.

Production

Most Northern Rhône growers report 50% lost harvest. In the South the figure is nearer 10-20%, although in the Gard, domaines like Pelaquié and Mordorée talk of 40% less crop than usual – for the second year running.

In the North, the sequence was severe frost in April for some, pockets of hail in the summer and then the burning effects of the sun on the grapes; ‘it’s more the burning of the sun than the drought,’ says Auguste Clape. ‘We needed 130 instead of 100 crates to fill a vat, so dried and solid was the crop this year, with incredible concentration inside the grapes,’ comments Jean-Louis Chave at Hermitage.

In the South the Grenache presented problems – its sugars well ahead of its skin and stem ripening. Picking too soon meant poor colour, underripe tannins. Picking too late meant vats at 18° and major loss of acidity and clean fruit. It’s a triumphant year for the southern Syrah, a good year for the Mourvèdre. Everyone talks of a healthy harvest, not a trace of rot.

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CHAMPAGNE

by Giles Fallowfield

Verdict

The Champagne harvest had the earliest start on record with picking beginning in the Côte des Bar village of Bligny, in the southernmost part of the Appellation, on August 18 and for most producers finishing not later than September 7. After a very dry and unusually hot summer, sugar ripeness and potential alcohol are high with some parcels picked at 12.5 deg. While there have been no problems with rot, there are however worries about low levels of acidity, particularly in the Côte des Bar region. Generally quality looks promising.

Georges Blanck, head winemaker at Moët & Chandon said, ‘Winemaking decisions will account for big differences in the quality of the wine, but given the exceptional maturity of the grapes we expect some very good vintage Champagnes to come out. However selection will need to be strict. Our main concerns have been limiting the risk of spontaneous fermentation and the acidity balance.’

Weather

It has been a viticultural year of exceptions with an unusually warm December and Spring leading to very early bud break, followed by the worst frost the appellation has ever seen in April. The summer was generally very warm and dry with temperatures in August foreshortening the growing season. Normally the harvest starts around 100 days after flowering but this year in some areas it began only 85 days later, partly as a result of temperatures in early August reaching 40degC in the day and remaining around 30degC at night over a three week period.

June was also very warm.

‘A total lack of rainfall and consistent sun has resulted in the grapes exposed to the sun being scorched and to an extent dried out,’ said Laurent Gillet, president of the giant Alliance co-operative whose grower members have vineyards all over the appellation. At Jacquesson in the Vallée de la Marne premier cru village of Dizy, ‘Due to the hot weather, a number of bunches suited raisin production better than bubbles,’ said Jean-Hervé Chicquet.

Production

The CIVC (Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne) predicts that overall the harvest should average around 6,000 kilos per hectare, about half the normal quantity allowed. Yields will be much lower in the Côte des Blancs however as Chardonnay was more advanced than either Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier when the frosts hit the vineyards in April. Yields here are as low as 2,000 kg/ha, ‘3,000 kg/ha will be good for Chardonnay in this area and in the Côte de Sezanne,’ said the CIVC.

The hot weather has generally reduced yields further than expected. In the Côte des Bar at the start of August a potential yield of 9,000 kilos per hectare was estimated.

By the start of the harvest on August 21 estimates had however been revised down to between 6,000 and 6,500 kg/ha. At Jacquesson yields ranged from 5,900 kg/ha for Pinot Noir down to 3,700 kg/ha for Chardonnay. Moet’s expectations across the Appellation average between 6,300 and 6,500 kg/ha.

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GERMANY

By Stephen Brook

Verdict

It is already evident that 2003 could be a great year for red wines, especially Pinot Noir. Because of Germany’s northerly climate, it is still too early to deliver a final verdict on the quality and character of its most important grape variety, Riesling, which in some areas has yet to be harvested. The concern with white grapes has been a loss of acidity as the grapes ripened, but this is less of an issue with red grapes.

There are likely to be considerable variations from region to region, and village to village. In the northern Nahe, Armin Diel found acidity levels remaining gratifyingly high, but elsewhere that was not likely to be the case. These variations in quality stem from the ability of the vines to withstand the lack of water. Within the same estate there are likely to be superlative wines from certain sites, and disappointing ones from neighbouring sites that have proved less able to cope with these unusual conditions.

Sugar levels were easy to attain in 2003. In the Pfalz, Rebholz by mid-September had Riesling natural sugar levels of 11-11.5% but insufficient phenolic ripeness. So he delayed harvesting, preferring loss of acidity to inadequate ripeness. In the Mosel, growers are predicting an inconsistent vintage, with some outstanding wines and other that will be frankly mediocre.

Also in the Pfalz, the Burgundian varieties, red and white, were harvested in September in perfect condition. Christian von Guradze of the Bürklin-Wolf estate described 2003 as ‘a dream of a vintage’ for these varieties. Riesling was picked from late September onwards in fine conditions, and estates that kept the crop very low had no problem with their acidity levels. The Rheingau harvested during the second half of October, and large estates such as Schloss Schönborn report that they are content with both quality and quantity.

It has been recognised by EU authorities that low acidity and high pH will lead to unbalanced and flabby wines that could also be biologically unstable, so permission has been granted to acidify if the pH is higher than 3.3.

Although the great sweet wines of Germany are usually harvested very late in the season, Schloss Vollrads in the Rheingau picked a Riesling TBA at over 300 Oechsle (twice the legal requirement for TBA) in September, and wines almost as spectacular were produced by other estates in Baden as well as Rheingau. These are not traditional botrytis wines, but wines produced from individually picked berries that had shrivelled and raisined after the very hot summer.

Weather

Extremely hot conditions led to a growing season that was hard to compare with others of the past, although a few growers with long memories recalled the hot summer of 1947.

The whole country experienced these conditions, from Sachsen in the former East Germany to Baden in the southwest. The early ripening and ensuing hot summer not only led to speedy ripening – in general about three weeks ahead of normal – but, inevitably to drought stress. With scarcely a drop of rain for eight weeks, vines were competing for increasingly scant water supplies in the soil.

Green-harvesting was common at quality-conscious estates as the only way to ensure that quality would be high and water stress minimal. Irrigation was permitted, but few growers are equipped with drip irrigation systems. However, some estates such as Gunderloch in the Rheinhessen, swiftly installed drip irrigation in order to save parcels of vulnerable vines in their top vineyards. Where irrigation was not feasible, many parcels of young vines planted in shallow soils suffered badly from the heat.

In the Mosel and elsewhere, a spell of rain in early September helped restore many parched vines. By late September average sugar levels at top Mosel estates were very high and acidities, while on the low side, had stabilised.

It was clear that the crucial decision would be when to harvest. Pick too early and the wines could have the necessary acidity but could lack phenolic ripeness. The longer growers waited for that phenolic ripeness, the more the acidity levels would plummet. Nonetheless by early October many quality-conscious estates in the Mosel had not yet begun the Riesling harvest, since the grapes were in healthy condition and there was no rush to harvest, other than continuing worries about low acidity.

Franken and Württemberg had the same dry hot conditions as further north, leading to excellent red wines, and some problematic white wines, with very high sugars but also with high pH.

Production

Low rainfall across Germany will inevitably result in a smaller crop, estimated at 20% lower than normal. Berries were small, which was a good quality indicator, but juice extraction would be relatively low. Although Rheingau yields were close to normal, some southerly regions such as Württemberg were predicting a crop 20 to 50 percent lower than average. And in Franken, estimated crop levels were 30% down. In the Mosel, it is expected that yields will also be around one third lower than usual, but since the harvest has only just begun, it is hard to be certain.

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ITALY

By Michele Shah

NORTH

Verdict

Most northern producers, especially those in the regions of Trentino and Alto Adige where Merlot and Cabernet are the main red varieties, have given excellent verdicts on these varieties along with the indigenous Lagrein red variety. Due to the heat, acidity is too low for them to be deemed a five star vintage.

‘The harvest was very good with ripe, healthy grapes. It was a festivity throughout,’ said Alois Lageder in Trentino. White wines are showing better than predicted. Many producers were worried over the low acidity levels and excessively warm temperatures, which could have caused serious problems for the aroma of the grapes.

According to Lageder the 2003 whites have a big structure, with a slightly less elegant aromatic profile. Wines not to be excessively aged, yet with ‘plenty of ripe fruity depth and persistence,’ says Elena Walch in Alto Adige. ‘Soft, ripe aromatic wines’ is also the verdict from the Prosecco consortium in Conegliano Valdobbiadine in Treviso and from Franciacorta, Mattia Vezzola advised that Bellavista’s sparkling wines are good but not as fresh as in top years.

‘In Veneto, Valpolicella’s older vines faired better, with Corvinone yielding better results than Corvina and Rondinella,’ says Sandro Boscaini of Masi. The grapes this year are in perfect condition for drying in order to produce Amarone and Recioto wines. Likewise in Soave late harvest Garganega is fairing well on the vines.

According to Giovanni Minetti MD of Fontanafredda, in Piemonte white varieties followed by Dolcetto and Barbera were harvested with ‘good results’, while Nebbiolo from Barolo, Barbaresco Alba and Roeso has just been harvested. Thanks to the climate change the results are considered very good, and even better than 1997 and 2000.

Weather

Spring began with very good budding for all varieties, the flowering was normal and even with a greater number of bunches compared to 2002. Despite the heat in northern Italy, the areas of Trentino and Alto Adige were able to irrigate. According to Lageder and other producers production did not suffer.

All regions began harvesting between 10–15 days earlier than average. In Piedmont, according to Alberto Chiarlo it was the earliest harvest for 200 years. Piedmont also suffered from excessive temperatures and no rain over the four summer months. ‘The change in climate in September was a godsend,’ says Giovanni Minetti. The last few weeks in Piemonte, as in most of northern Italy, were characterized by lower temperatures, balancing sugar, acidity levels and aromatic profile.

Production

Production levels were mainly up in most of northern Italy, compared to 2002, with the exception of Lombardy, which According to Assenologi figures, fell by -15%; Trentino/Alto Adige, Veneto, Friuli, Piemonte and Emilia Romagna were all up by +5% on last year’s figures.

CENTRE

Verdict

‘It’s an extraordinary vintage for several reasons,’ says Marco Pallanti of Castello di Ama, in Chianti Classico ‘It’s the earliest harvest I have experienced over the past 22 years, yet if all goes to plan, 2003 could be one of Castello di Ama’s historic vintages – rich with depth and elegance.’ The same verdict is echoed by Claudio Balsa of Altesino in Montalcino ‘Our production is -30% down, however, what we have is worth its weight in gold,’ says Balsa. According to Balsa vines with northern exposure and clay and stony soils faired better than those with southern exposure.

In Umbria Marco Caprai’s Sagrantino and Sangiovese have faired well, predicting excellent results, thanks to the cooler September. According to Riccardo Cotarella, Umbria’s wines have done well. However, as is the case for many of 2003 wines throughout the whole of Italy, due to climatic conditions high levels are shown for pH, alcohol and tannins, while not enough in the anthocyanins. This could raise some doubts on 2003 being an age-worthy vintage.

According to Francesco Bardi, GIV’s MD for Fontana Candida in Lazio and Bigi in Orvieto, Lazio’s whites faired very well, especially the older vines with deeper roots, while in Umbria yields were down by at least -15%.

Vines everywhere suffered serious stress from drought. They developed high sugar levels and in some cases clusters were overexposed to sunlight because of sparse foliage. In these ‘extreme’ conditions, the vines that suffered most were the younger plants with relatively shallow roots. Older vineyards reacted well and, depending upon exposure and soils, suffered little harm.

Weather

After a normal winter with cold and rainy spells spring came early, and so did the budding. A short frost in early April killed many of the tender buds, lowering production levels. There were record high temperatures during the summer (average 33-35˚C in the day, peaks over 40˚C, and 24-26˚C at night) in Tuscany and Umbria. Harvesting began on average two weeks earlier than usual. Rain fell on 25 August in some zones which led to a revision of schedules, especially for late-ripening varieties.

Production

Central Italy’s production levels were down compared to 2002. According to Assenologi figures, Tuscany and Abruzzi were down by 15%, Umbria by 15%, Marches by 15% and Lazio by 5%.

SOUTH

Verdict

Southern whites will be low in acidity but with good aromatic profile. Later ripening reds such as Nero D’Avola fared well in colour, aroma and tannins. According to Franco Giacosa, winemaker to Zonin Vienyards, Puglia did better than Sicily. ‘The reds are ripe and well balanced, especially the early varieties such as Merlot. Primitivo is also rich and well-balanced, however, yields are considerably down,’ said Gaicosa.

In high-altitude Campania, despite higher than average temperatures, Irpinia and Sannio wines were saved from drought, thanks to regular rains in July, August and September. According to Enzo Ercolino of Feudi di San Gregorio it is going to be an excellent vintage, especially for Campania’s top Aglianico wine, which is similar in quality to 2000 and 2001. ‘The wines are well-structured and the levels are all under control, in particular good acidity levels and promising elegance and longevity,’ said Ercolino. The same verdict was also given by Piero Mastroberardino who is currently harvesting his Greco grapes after having completed Falanghina, Coda di Volpe del Vesuvio (Caprettona), Fiano and Piedirosso del Vesuvio, with excellent results.

According to Mariano Murro of Argiolas, the main problem in Sardinia was ripening halted by excessive heat. ‘It has been a difficult and long harvest, with yields down some 20%. But thanks to back-up irrigation our whites have done well, so has the red Carrignano. We are currently picking the Canonau grapes which have reached a slow and balanced ripening.’

Weather

Southern regions of Puglia, Campania and Sicily did much better than central and northern Italy. In winter and spring (until June) water reserves were topped up by rain. Soil type played a part as well; clay soils retained more water from the winter rainfall than alluvial soils. In Sardinia the climate was similar to that of Northern Italy – the vines suffered from intense heat and lack of water.

Production

Thanks to the water reserves the vines’ vegetative cycle developed perfectly. Due to the dry heat the grapes were very healthy and production levels, according to Assenologi, are higher than 2002, with the exception of Campania, which was down by 5%. Puglia and Sardinia were up by 5%, and Sicily up by 10%.

Mixed results: Italy’s Assenologi Italiani (National Association of enologists) describe it as one of the earliest and shortest harvests seen over the last century. Italy’s total yield has struck a low of 44 million hectolires, against the average 53 million hectoliters.

According to Guiseppe Martelli, president of Assenologi, early ripening varieties such as whites and Merlot have suffered, in the north, while the later ripening varieties such as Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and northen Cabernet will have fared well, recuperating in acidity levels and making the most of the cooler weather to intensify aromtic profiles.

‘The white wines will require a few extra months in the bottle to achieve an optimum degree of maturation while the reds will be of excellent quality, structure, colour and complexity, also due to the fact that the smaller berries and thicker skins will allow for a greater concentration of the high quality components’ says Anselmo Martini, chief winemaker of Cavit in Trentino.

According to Gaja in Piedmont the quality is excellent, even though the quantity is scarce. ‘2003 will produce full-bodied wines which will be high in alcohol.’

In central Italy, producers have mixed feelings, though in general there is a sense of optimism. ‘It’s another year for selectivity but for those who aim at quality the lesser yield is no problem,’ said Marco Ricasoli-Firidolfi of Rocca di Montegrossi in Monti in Chianti, Siena.

Down South most regions have faired well. According to Franco Giacosa, winemaker at Zonin vineyards, wines in Puglia and Sicily have ripened well and promise good balanced reds with plenty of fruity aromas.

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SPAIN

By John Radford

Predictions

Nationally: Areas which were less affected by the summer heat, and especially those at higher altitudes, are showing well, with dry, healthy and fully-ripe grapes. Overall quality should be at least ‘Muy Buena’ (4/5) and even drought-hit areas may produce very good wines with what grape they have.

Penedès: The harvest started early with Moscatel in the Baix-Penedès on the 18th August, with red varieties showing very well, dry, ripe and healthy. Syrah has suffered from the heat and drought, however, and may be reduced in quantity.

Rioja: The harvest is in full swing (01-Oct-03) but there has been irregular development of sugars and colour in grapes due to the heat and drought in the summer. Green harvesting has been encouraged by the Consejo, and ripeness levels overall are very good.

Ribera del Duero: Harvesting started on the 11th September and the Consejo Regulador reports ripe, healthy dry grape – some bodegas are saying the best quality for a number of years.

Jerez: Palomino was showing 7-10 days early, and at González Byass the harvest started on the 13th August for table wines and the 19th August for Sherry, and was completed by the 8th September. The very hot summer has seen a reduction in yields but a consequent increase in quality.

Weather

Nationally: The heat-wave has affected vineyards throughout the country and yields will be below the confident predictions of the early summer.

Penedès: There was severe draught and high temperatures (up to 42ºC) in the summer, followed by rains in the early autumn, raising humidity with attendant worries about cryptogams (vine diseases such as oidium, mildew and botrytis).

Rioja: Affected by high temperatures and drought during July and most of August. Young vines trained on wires in vineyards without irrigation have suffered the most. There was heavy overnight rain on Saturday/Sunday 27/28-Sep-03.

Ribera del Duero: There were small but worrying outbreaks of hail in June and September, but in the end these did little damage. The harvest is taking place in good conditions – sunny with light winds and slightly higher than average temperatures.

Jerez: Extremely hot during July and August, and then made even hotter by the Levante wind which blows from the north-African coast, but the harvest was completed in good conditions.

Production

Nationally: Production is predicted to yield some 40 million hl, which is more than recent average years (37m hl) but less than early predictions before the summer heat-wave.

Penedès: The harvest is expected to be 5-10% below normal, as a result of the summer heat and also more thorough grape-selection during the humid weather.

Rioja: The Consejo has approved 118% of mean base yield so the maths predicts 3.3 million hl for the current area of vineyards, which would make it the largest harvest ever, against a three-year average of 2.6 million. However, this total is unlikely to be reached.

Ribera del Duero: The harvest is predicted to be in the region of 49.6 million kg (approx 347,000 hl) which is smaller than 2000 but bigger than the five-year average of 320,000).

Jerez: As with most of the rest of Spain, quantity is down as a result of the extreme summer temperatures and the Levante wind. It is probably slightly les than the five-year average of 750,000 hl.

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PORT

By Richard Mayson

Verdict

It still remains to be seen if 2003 produced wines of potential Vintage quality but, at the time of writing, ‘good’ rather than ‘great’ is the consensus in the Douro.

Due to the winter rains and fine weather during flowering, yields are up between 20% and 30% on 2002. Many wines are lacking in balance as a result of high sugar levels and high pH.

Fine, abnormally warm weather continued until 29 September when rain swept in from the Atlantic. Nontehless grapes remained generally disease free. The high ambient temperatures gave problems for those without temperature control and many lagares consequently took little treading work before they the juice was run off and fortified.

Due to large amounts of Port from the end of the previous year’s damp harvest remaining unsold, the beneficio (the total amount of must that may be fortified to make Port) has been cut by 21% leaving a large amount of grapes available for those who make unfortified Douro wine. Contrary to 2000 (when there was a shortage of grapes), the price of Douro wine has fallen correspondingly. The cut in the beneficio has angered the Port shippers who view 2003 as the perfect year to replenish stocks of premium quality Ports (Reserve and LBV).

Weather

There was a burst of extreme heat in mid-June when the thermometer briefly hit 50 degrees celsius in the Douro Superior. Between the end of July and mid-August there was a period of sustained heat with temperatures rising in excess of 40 degrees on a daily basis throughout the region. Night temperatures remained abnormally high.

Fortunately the vines were generally able to cope. An exceptionally wet winter replenished the water-table and most vineyards did not suffer visibly from heat stress. However during the hot weather the maturation process came to a complete standstill and, at the start of September, sugar readings were still surprisingly low.

Younger vineyards suffered the most and when the berries began to shrivel on the vine some growers simply had to start picking in early September before the grapes were physiologically ripe.

Production

In the Cima Corgo (the heart of the Douro region) picking began around 15 September and was underway throughout the region by the 26th. In the intervening period sugar levels rose rapidly with Tinta Barroca (the sweetest of the Port grapes) registering 16 plus. More than one lagar had extremely raisined grapes with a potential alcohol content of 19. These were turned into jeropiga, an intensely sweet fortified wine occasionally used in blending.

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HUNGARY

By Natasha Hughes

Verdict

This has not been a great year for Hungarian white wines, whether sweet or dry, but the reds have done well. Producers in regions specialising in reds are claiming that the wines stand comparison with those harvested in 2000, which was a top-quality vintage.

There has been little or no botrytis.

Like the rest of Europe, Hungary is coming to terms with the aftermath of an unusually hot, dry year.

‘The Matra region (in the northeast) traditionally has low acidity and good ripeness, but this year the acidity’s been too low because of the hot summer,’ comments Eva Keresztury of Hilltop Neszmély. ‘Eger (east of Matra), on the other hand, has done very well as it’s an area dominated by red grapes and these have good concentration and colour. The lower acidity is a benefit here as it’s often too high and too malic.’

Regions closer to Budapest did better than usual this year as they are high acidity regions, which have been tamed by this year’s growing conditions. Grapes from around Lake Balaton (southwest of Budapest) did well because the grapes ripened better than usual.

Weather

Across the country winter was tough, with heavy frosts in some regions. In Tokaj, however, spring came quickly. ‘We had very early development, with early budding and early flowering,’ says Andras Egyedi of Tokaj Renaissance, ‘and as a result April saw a very abrupt change from winter to summer.’

As summer developed, most regions were subjected to extreme heat, bordering on drought in some areas. In Villany, in the south of the country, the conditions resulted in the destruction of a significant proportion of berries, while those that survived the heat were fairly desiccated.

The lack of rain has meant that there is very little noble rot this year. Speaking in mid-October, Egyedi said: ‘What we have so far is of extraordinary quality, but no rot. We had some rain in early October and we’re sure this will help the botrytis to develop.’

But a couple of weeks later, according to Keresztury, the rot had failed to set in. ‘It’s not going to be a good year for aszu,’ she says. ‘The grapes are properly ripe, but we didn’t have the rain in time. It will be a very short year for the aszu wines, but what there is will be very ripe with a high sugar content.’

Production

Grape yields, across the board, are down this year, while the production of sweet wines in Tokaj has been severely limited by the late, patchy arrival of botrytis infection.

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CALIFORNIA

By Norm Roby

Predictions

Napa: At Silverado, winemaker Jon Emmerich is optimistic about the Chardonnay but is withholding judgement because, he says, ‘Chardonnay is a bit weird. You really don’t know what you have until it’s wine.’ Despite the grapes’ tendency to smell a bit green at fermentation, he said, ‘I’m really amazed at the Merlots, they don’t taste weedy at all.’

Jack Stewart also at Silverado: ‘The Cabernet is a bit higher in sugar (25.5 instead of 25.4), but the berries have true ripeness while retaining good acid. The now-wines seem dark with good flavour. The Sangiovese is marked by bright, rich fruit. Merlot is dark, rich and full of fruit.’

‘Colour content in red grapes, in my experience, always a good indicator of potential quality, is exceptionally high this year. Prognostications of a poor vintage – due to the wet spring and cool weather in June – from some ‘informed’ consultants are severely in question at this time. Of course, proof will come from the wines produced.’ (Craig Williams – Joseph Phelps)

Carneros: ‘The Pinot Noir in the barrel is chocolatey in richness and truly opaque. As for varietal identity, we will look for the spice flavours to emerge as the wines settle down in barrel over winter. As for Chardonnay, it is clear that we have gorgeous flavors from well-sunned berries and also as a result of a more Botrytis from the unusual rains in late August and early September.’ (Michael Terrien)

Edna Valley: ‘The vintage should be finished two weeks ahead of average. Quality looks to be good to very good, depending upon variety and site.’ (Harry Hansen)

North Coast: ‘There is the potential for a very high-quality crop in the above varieties in the interior valleys of the North Coast, if the growing conditions continue in the same fashion for the rest of this month.’ (Malcolm Seibly)

Rutherford: ‘Tonnage is down and the heat we had should thicken the grape skins and give us great flavors. Because of the reduced tonnage and shatter, this will be a difficult vintage for the grower but a great one for the vintner.’ (Tom Rinaldi)

Sonoma: ‘Veraison is progressing quickly, and the small berries should result in good color and tannin when the Cabernet Sauvignon is harvested, most likely in October.’ (Randall Watkins)

‘We are seeing great concentration across the board. For the reds, it looks like it will be a stand-out for Shiraz in Sonoma County. Although it’s early to say so definitively, we have never in recent history seen Shiraz so black. It is showing great spice aromas and flavours, more than typical peppery qualities. With Merlot, we are getting great berry flavours and upfront fruit. Although Merlot yields are significantly down, it looks good: soft, supple, and fruity – less of the monster of recent years. On Cabernet, we’re very pleased: tiny berries and great concentration.’ (Mark Schroeter)

Weather

Warm February weather tricked the vines into early budbreak, but it was immediately followed by an unseasonably cold and extremely wet April in which the vines virtually stopped growing for several weeks. May temperatures were closer to normal, and the vines resumed growth once again. Bloom was variable with some varieties blooming during hot spells which caused shatter and some during cool, wet periods.

The result was a slightly below average ‘set’ in Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet, and a much-below-average set in Merlot, which experienced widespread shatter. It warmed up in June and there were some record-breaking heat waves, especially in July. August saw a return to average or below-average temperatures. After some rains in early September, a warm pattern set in around September , and the harvest was running hot and heavy since then. Hot weather around the 25th has most crews picking non-stop as varieties ripened quickly.

Production

Crop levels were down in all varieties in all major regions. Merlot which experienced horrible set in most regions and Zinfandel which ripened irregularly suffered considerable crop loss. In Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were down by 10-20%. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon growers said both cluster and berry size were smaller than usual partially accounting for the short tonnage.

Many Zinfandel vineyards in Dry Creek Valley were off by 50%, but old vine Zinfandels displayed less stress and ripened evenly. With 90% of Carneros Pinot Noir picked, Acacia Winery reported tonnage was slightly low.

In Napa and Sonoma, the Chardonnay harvest was taking place under intensely warm conditions leading to some sunburn damage. However, in Santa Barbara and Edna Valley, both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay ripened ahead of normal but crops size was small, especially for Pinot Noir.

In Mendocino, McDowell Valley Vineyards harvested all of its Chardonnay and Viognier and reported a 20% crop reduction in each. In Napa, Sauvignon Blanc was being picked at higher than usual sugar levels, but production was just a little under normal. Syrah, one exception, was said to carry a normal crop in both the Central Coast and in most vineyards in Sonoma County.

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CANADA

By Carolyn Hammond

Verdict

Producers in Ontario expect a drastically reduced crop size this year after extremely low temperatures in January, February and March. Sue Ann Staff, winemaker of Pillitteri Estates Winery in Niagara says, ‘[W]e will be left with just 30% of a typical crop this year.’ Other Ontario vineyards may not be hit as badly. Donald Triggs, president and CEO of Vincor International—Canada’s largest wine company, pegs the crop loss at about 40 per cent overall in Ontario. Pelee Island Winery is a notable exception with the harsh winter only affecting Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot, and reducing the yield by merely 25% in those varieties.

Although yields may be down, producers are anticipating good quality wine. Donald Ziraldo, co-founder of Inniskillin Wines, says he expects. ‘…significantly high sugar levels due to the reduced crop load, especially in the red varietals.’

British Columbia anticipates a superb vintage from excellent weather this year. The raging forest fire that struck the Okanagan region in August only damaged one winery.

Weather

In Ontario, the temperatures rising in early March to about +2C then plummeting to about -16C overnight wreaked more havoc on vineyards than the severely cold winter, according to Sue Ann Staff. This deep freeze in March ravaged vines because natural protection mechanisms such as starch reserves had diminished. After the freeze in March, Ontario experienced a long, cool, moist spring followed by a seasonable summer and temperate autumn. Pelee Island Winery, due to its southerly location and microclimate, experienced milder winter and spring conditions than the rest of Ontario’s vineyards.

‘There is considerable variation by site location and clone so it is an excellent learning opportunity for the region,’ says Ziraldo.

In contrast to the harsh weather in Ontario, British Columbia experienced optimal conditions. A mild winter with temperatures well above normal started the season, followed by a warm spring, a long hot summer and a mild autumn.

Production

Although vinifera crop loss will impact production levels, Ontario’s valuable icewine is expected to be among the least affected because of the hardy nature of Vidal and Riesling. Only a 10% to 15% loss of icewine crop is expected. Less cold tolerant varieties were hit worse with producers expecting losses of up to 95% of Merlot, 50% of Cabernet Sauvignon, and 30% of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. Chardonnay loss will vary depending on the vines’ clones and microclimates.

Picking has been delayed in many areas due to unfavourable winter and spring weather conditions so precise production levels are yet to be confirmed.

British Columbian producers look forward to a prime vintage this year with an average size crop and good quality according to Donald Triggs.

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CHILE

Verdict

A long, slow and nerve-racking harvest, but those winemakers who patiently waited for their grapes to eventually reach maturity were rewarded with ripe, superbly balanced fruit and the promise of full-flavoured elegant red wines and fresh, intense whites with racy acidity.

Harvesting the red grapes proved particularly fraught as each extra day on the vine would mean greater maturity and softer grained tannins, though rain would have ruined everything thing. Pickers were on constant standby, but fortunately April remained dry and mild and the wines are showing great suppleness and character.

Weather

Weather conditions were similar throughout Chile, in marked contrast to last year which saw one half of the country deluged while the other enjoyed excellent conditions.

A wet winter in 2002 with 30% higher rainfall than average was followed by a cool spring which delayed shooting and budding and caused some problems with fruit set in Chardonnay and Carmenère in particular.

From then on, the vintage escaped the highs and lows in temperature of the previous two years, particularly later on in the season when it turned endlessly sunny and warm. Of the last three vintages, Nov 2002-Mar 2003 had the fewest number of hours with temperatures above 30°C but the most hours exceeding 12°C. Only January bucked the trend which was hotter this year than in 2002 and 2001.

After March, virtually the whole of Chile enjoyed Indian Summer-like conditions – dry and bright with only two rains in the whole period. The mild, dry weather allowed every red variety to be harvested at just the right moment, though winemakers had to nervously weigh up the risks of hanging on another day and achieving full maturity against the rains arriving. Fortunately, April was rain free. Generally, every variety ripened late – in the Maipo Valley Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon were harvested three weeks later than normal.

Whites – harvested from mid February through March – were able to achieve mature flavours while maintaining a lively acidity, and are showing very fresh with an intense bouquet and good concentration.

Production

Very low yields of Sauvignon Blanc have been recorded in Casablanca, while the remaining zones have average production, with a slight rise noted in Curicó. Chardonnay is down in all regions.

Merlot has seen a medium to high yield. No serious berry dehydration was observed during this season, as in previous years, probably due to the greater quantity of reserve water in the soil from the past winter and to a greater concern about irrigation. Pais is significantly down, and there has been a substantial fall in Carmenère, largely due to problems with fruit set.

There has been an obvious fall in Cabernet Sauvignon production too, though mostly from higher quality vineyards; for bulk producing vineyards the yield has fluctuated from medium to low. A 20% reduction of Cot has been registered.

In well managed vineyards, Syrah yields have been normal and controlled, and in some cases significant increases and great size bunches have been noted. Very low yields of Pinot Noir in colder climate regions have been registered.

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NEW ZEALAND

Verdict

New Zealand’s 2003 vintage will be most remebered for its unusually low yield. Around 76,400 tonnes of grapes were harvested, which is 42,300 tonnes or 35% down on last year.

According to New Zealand Winegrowers CEO Phillip Gregan, the average national yield of just 4.9 tonnes per hectare for 2003 is well below long term averages. It reflects the cool spring in 2002 which caused frost damage to vines and led to a reduced fruit set after flowering, he says.

Mid-vintage estimates had forecasted a shortfall of as much as 45% but but some areas escaped the frost and there are higher than expected supplies of some varieties.

Gregan remains optimistic about quality. ‘In terms of quality the key periods are summer and autumn ripening periods, and in those respects 2003 was a normal vintage,’ he says. ‘Autumn delivered its usual mixture of fine warm days and cool clear nights, vital pre-requisites for flavour and colour development, so there should be plenty of vintage highlights for consumers to enjoy.’

Regional production

In terms of tonnes harvested, 2003 is the exact opposite of 2002. This year, Nelson and Central Otago were the only regions to benefit from a larger harvest, whereas last year they were the only two regions to experience production falls. Both regions enjoyed good 2002 spring weather. Auckland and Hawkes Bay have experienced the biggest falls in production, harvesting 53% and 58% less grapes this year than last.

Marlborough is 26% down but remains the largest producing region, comprising 54% of the vintage. Gisborne harvested 19% and Hawkes Bay 15% of the grape crop. The largest producing of the smaller regions this year is Nelson, overtaking Wellington/Wairarapa.

Varietal production

Pinot Noir was just 10% down on last year, while Riesling, Chardonnay and Muller Thurgau saw falls of 33%, 54% and 65% respectively. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were both cut by about 25% and Sauvignon Blanc by 23%.

Sauvignon Blanc is the leading variety harvested, accounting for 38% of the vintage compared with 32% in 2002. The next most important variety is Chardonnay with 21% of the vintage, while Pinot Noir, the most abundant red variety, has the third highest tonnage with 13% of the vintage.

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SOUTH AFRICA

Verdict

The 2003 harvest is generally considered to be one of the finest vintages in recent years. The weather was favourable right through to harvesting, and the grapes were able to ripen slowly on the vine, developing optimum ‘physiological’ ripeness – ideal sugar levels, good acids and prominent varietal flavours.

Long, hot dry spells kept rot and mildew to astonishingly low levels, leading some producers to describe it as ‘an almost organic’ harvest, with minimal use of pesticides and other chemicals. Vines everywhere were remarkably free of disease.

Only heavy rains in March gave cause for concern, and the quality of later ripening blocks is more variable, with some dilution of sugar levels. However, many producers had finished the harvest before the rains arrived.

The wines are typically full-bodied, fruity and full of flavour, with the reds in particular showing a superb colour. The season’s stable temperatures with limited extreme heat are largely responsible for this, helping to keep berries small and firm with excellent skin to pulp ratios. In Paarl, grapes reached optimum ripeness at lower sugar levels, which should result in lower alcohol levels.

With regards to white, Chardonnay is generally considered to have fared better than Sauvignon Blanc, which doesn’t have the racy acidity of other years (it’s showing big and fruity instead). In Swartland, Chenin Blanc (along with Shiraz) is rated particularly highly.

Weather

Despite obvious regional variation, the 2003 harvest was generally long and slow. A chilly spring in most regions saw delayed budding and slow shoot growth, at least in some varieties, and ripening temperatures were generally lower than usual. In Stellenbosch the average temperature for the critical four months Dec-Mar was at least 6°C down on the same period last year. This, combined with the region’s drier summer, resulted in smaller berries with excellent skin to pulp ratios.

Despite the generally cool ripening and harvest temperatures – and a marked lack of rain January to February – above average rainfall occurred towards the end of March in many regions. In Stellenbosch, the rain combined with dewy nights caused Botrytis and rot in some late ripening Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards. Elsewhere, though, earlier dry weather kept rot and mildew at bay while March rains provided much needed relief plus the extra time needed for grapes to ripen sufficiently on the vine.

In the Robertson region, the 2003 ripening period was very hot, exacerbated by heatwaves early in December and the first week in February. In Klein Karoo too producers suffered the worst drought conditions in years. Different varieties ripened simultaneously and in some cases Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz were pressed before Chardonnay and Pinotage. However, the heavens opened on 23/24 March and both regions suffered localised flood damage. Robertson and around Montagu in Klein Karoo were declared national disaster areas.

Production

A 12.2% rise in the total yield is expected, which amounts to an estimated 1,211,785 tons of grapes. Increases occurred in all the major wine growing regions. One reason for the increase – particularly in lesser regions – is the fact that young plantings came into full production, particularly those of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Pinotage.

In both Stellenbosch and Paarl the crop was roughly 45% bigger than in 2002 – the biggest since 1997 for Paarl. A 31.8% rise for Swartland makes it the region’s biggest crop in 15 years, while Olifants River also saw a spectacular rise – at more than 198,061 tons, the biggest ever for the region.

In Robertson and Worcester good weather and a lot of young red grape vineyards reaching maturity pushed production up by between 4% and 6%.

The only regions to see drops in production were Klein Karoo and the Orange River. The former is 1.7% down on last year largely due to drought conditions followed by flooding in late March. The Orange River region was 18% down on its bumper 2002 crop.

White grape production accounted for the biggest falls, with drops in Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc – though Olifants River region saw a big rise in its Chardonnay yield. In Stellenbosch, Cabernet Sauvignon production was lower than last year, mainly due to rot affecting later ripening blocks.

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AUSTRALIA

Verdict

Drought conditions reaching critical levels in the more easterly wine regions of Australia were the overwhelming feature of the 2003 harvest. As a result, the annual crush weighed in at 12% down on last year – at around 1.36m tonnes. The low yield marks the first time in six years Australia has seen a fall in production.

Yet despite extremes of heat and dryness – plus widespread rain late February just as the harvest began – the vintage is rated as good to outstanding. Premier wine producing regions such as Hunter Valley and Coonawarra are expected to turn out excellent wines, while Chardonnay is reported to be showing particularly well among the grape varieties.

The overall quality is unlikely to match that of 2002, which was superb across the board, but the smaller berry size that results from a dry harvest promises an intensity of flavour and colour that bodes well for the resulting wine. Nevertheless, the February rain has down graded quality in some areas.

In South Australia the Barossa Valley‘s warm conditions prompted an early vintage, with fruit ripening evenly. As weather became milder later harvested Chardonnays produced full, rich flavours and tight structure. Shiraz shows depth and structure, Cabernet Sauvignons are more refined than previous years.

Clare Valley suffered droughts resulting in reduced yields. The best whites were the reislings from Watervale and Polish Hill River areas with intense lime and citrus flavours on a well balanced body. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot was soft and fruity with immediate appeal.

In Coonawarra Chardonnays were good, red yields were down on target but well balanced with moderate weight and length. Shiraz from Robertsons Well and Glenroy the pick.

In McLaren Vale chardonnay was again the highlight, showing intensity and elegance. Cabernet and Shiraz performed well, with condensed, powerful flavours and pronounced spiciness in the shiraz.

Victoria’s Yarra Valley had excellent climactic conditions, despite reduced yields and no rain. The shiraz is the star red, with deep colour and coriander/ peppercorn aromas. Cabernet also had a good year, especially off the older vines. Chardonnay was the best of the whites – elegant and intense. Young Sauvignon Blancs have also developed good flavours.

In New South Wales, the Hunter Valley produced some of their best Semillons to date, in an exceptional vintage for the area. Rich Chardonnays and fruity Verdelhos were also produced. Due to the dry weather conditions Shiraz was picked late and is said to be outstanding.

Weather

Drought inflicted much of Australia throughout the winter of 2002 and the following spring, but particularly in the east of the country. The extreme weather not only limited berry size but also restricted bunch development, hence the low yields that characterise the harvest.

The high, unforgiving temperatures peaked in November 2002 adding to the stress on the vines just about everywhere, while some regions saw increased damage from birds and other animals searching for alternative water supplies.

Warmer-climate inland areas suffered most, with inland Victoria – the Pyranees, Grampians, Strathbogie, Bendigo and Heathcote, for example – worst affected. Here rainfall was 53% below the long-term average while temperatures shot up 9%.

Coastal vineyards on the other hand improved marginally on 2002 yields (which were uncharacteristically low), though overall production was well below the year-on-year average.

The drought broke late February, with widespread rain on 20/21 – just as the harvest began. In some areas, tight, drought-constricted grapes rapidly expanded and split letting fungal infection and mildew get a hold.

But not all producers were unhappy with the rainfall. For the most part, the prevailing dry conditions kept vines remarkably free of disease while the rain simply lowered the yield as split fruit dried and shrivelled in the ensuring sunshine. Coastal regions like Yarra Valley and Geelong actually benefitted from the general freshening-up effect.

Best performing regions include Hunter Valley where the crop was collected before the rains began, and Rutherglen which escaped the rain altogether. Top quality fruit was also harvested from McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, Margaret River and Coonawarra where relatively minor splitting had minimal impact on quality. Coonawarra acutally experienced relatively normal seasonal conditions this year and tonnage was up on 2002.

Picking started between one and two weeks early in most regions.

Production

Even though the country saw an estimated 6% increase in grape bearing areas this year, the drought put paid to an expected increase in yield. Instead, total red winegrape production fell 6-9% on last year while white grape yield dropped by a massive 16%. Red grape production accounted for 59% of total harvest.

Among red grape varieties, Grenache showed the biggest decline – 28% down on 2002. Shiraz dropped 2%, while Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot both fell by between 8% and 10%. Red grapes were less affected by rain damage than their white counterparts by virtue of thicker skins combined with longer recovery periods on the vine. Some of the drought damage was also offset by the increase in bearing acreage.

Of the whites, Semillon, Grenache and Sauvignon Blanc suffered most from splitting and disease as a result of the February rains. Sauvignon Blanc yields fell by as much as 28%.

Only Pinot Noir and Riesling bucked the trend. Pinot Noir production was up 34% on the unusually low yields of 2002, while Riesling rose 7%.

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ARGENTINA

Verdict

‘A high quantity of excellent and competitive wines’ is the word coming out of Argentina concerning the 2003 harvest, with many rating it better than 2000 and 2001 though not as good as 2002. Many producers picked later than usual, especially the Cabernet Sauvignon which was able to develop full maturity during an extended spell of warm, dry weather in April. The country’s principal grape, Malbec, is reckoned to have done particularly well.

Weather

A cold and dry winter with abundant snow on mountains was followed by a cool, sunny and dry spring. The result was a reduction in fruit set and thus sparser bunches with fewer grapes in each one – a sort of natural selective thinning with good consequences for fruit quality.

A warm, dry summer led in some areas to early ripening and a generally disease-free harvest. Autumn was also sunny and warm, which allowed producers to wait for the grapes to become fully ripe before picking them, so ensuring finer-grained tannins in the skin and pulp.

A heat wave during early February caused some grapes in Mendoza – especially those in large cropping vineyards – to ripen too quickly which means that colour, tannin and flavour development is likely to be impaired. However, vineyards with lower yields were not as adversely effected.

Overall, wines are showing very good aromatic intensity and are pleasant and balanced in the mouth. Red wines have intense colour, powerful fruity aromas, complexity and smooth, round tannins.

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ENGLAND

By Carolyn Hammond

Verdict

This year will be one of the best years ever, according to Chris White, general manager of Denbies Wine Estates in Surrey—England’s largest wine producer. Others agree. Tom Shaw, managing director of Three Choirs Vineyards in Gloucestershire, is calling this year’s fruit ‘magnificent.’

‘We have a little smile on our faces right now,’ says Carl Koenen, sales and marketing director of New Wave Wines in Kent. ‘The vintage this year is very good in terms of must weight and flavour and, although there is a risk of losing acidity if grape varieties such as Bacchus are left on the vine too long, we are harvesting early so it should be a very good year.’

The 2003 vintage is about two to three weeks early.

Weather

‘The weather this year has been perfect so far with absolutely no weather problems,’ says Tom Shaw.

Winter was relatively warm with a little snow; spring came early and without frost; and the summer was long and hot leading to an autumn of fairly warm days and cool nights. The generous dose of sunshine this year resulted in high sugar levels and balanced acidity while the low levels of rainfall kept berries small, concentrating flavours. In short, the 2003 growing season was better than most in England—including 2002, which was a very good year.

Production

The 2003 vintage will produce higher yields than average generally, with one winery—Denbies Wine Estates—reporting a 35% rise. The higher yields are not expected to compromise wine quality because the weather conditions led to ripe, concentrated fruit. Both the white and the red wines are expected to be good, particularly Pinot Noir, which is one of the few noble varieties planted in England.

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First published on Decanter.com in 2003. For 2002 harvest reports click here

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