With most of the grapes safely in the wineries by the first week of April, Argentina brought an end to its 2023 harvest almost a month earlier than usual. The reasons for the haste date back to the early mornings of 31 October and 1 November, 2022, when frosts struck to determine the course of this unusual year.
Alejandro Vigil, the president of Wines of Argentina, director of production, vineyards and wineries at Catena Zapata and creator of El Enemigo Wines, sums things up. ‘We had an early harvest with low yields but with unprecedented balance between the malic acidity, pH and ripeness. We’re very optimistic about the wines we’ll be making this year.’
Interpreting the harvest
Following the polar cold front, which hit almost every wine-producing region in the country, expectations were low. Some were even gloomily predicting historic losses. Fortunately, however, many producers saw their vines recover in time with estimates of the eventual drop in yields falling between 25 and 30%. Meanwhile the grapes that were harvested were of excellent health and quality.
This was due to the fact that after the frosts, the spring was warm and dry as Argentina suffered from a historic drought that continued into the hottest summer in decades. Because of the heat and the lesser loads of fruit, the vines ripened more quickly.
Although by February temperatures were dropping – there was even an unprecedently early frost – the pace of ripening continued steadily, especially among the reds. In Mendoza and Patagonia, the grapes were generally harvested about three weeks earlier than normal.
‘This harvest required great precision when it came to deciding on the right moment,’ says Germán Di Césare, head winemaker at Trivento. ‘By the middle of February, we saw that everything was happening much earlier than usual, the grapes were small and not very fleshy but showed remarkable aromatic development and rising Brix degrees as well as pronounced malic concentration. By the end of February we had decided to bring the harvest forward.’
Meanwhile the whites, among which yields were lower, are already showing some promising Chardonnays, Semillons and Sauvignon Blancs. Following some rain and milder temperatures towards the end of February, the Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc were able to settle down. As a result, many are now predicting reds with excellent ageing potential.
‘Overall, the hot summer was a major factor in forcing us to rethink our calculations about ripeness,’ says Gustavo Rearte, head winemaker at Achaval Ferrer. ‘Ripening happened much earlier than usual but remarkable natural freshness was maintained. The wines were fermented at low pHs, meaning excellent ageing potential and life expectancy we can’t wait to see come to fruition.’
Of all the regions, Patagonia was hit hardest by the frosts of 2022. Here, average losses reached as high as 50% in Río Negro and Neuquén, where 90% of Patagonia’s vineyards are located.
‘The autumn and winter of 2022 were cool and dry while the spring had higher than average temperatures that brought budding forward,’ says winemaker Marcelo Miras of Bodega Miras. ‘Then came the frosts, which were especially lengthy in our area and affected as much as 70% of output in some vineyards. The rest of the growing period was warm and dry.’
Lower fruit yields and higher temperatures speeded up ripening by 15 days, resulting in aromatic whites – Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay – with tart acidity. The reds – mainly Malbec and Cabernet Franc – had good aromas, intense colour, appreciable concentration and refreshing acidity.
Pinot Noir, the variety for which Patagonia is most famous, suffered more due to the fragility of the grape, but those that made it through to the harvest promise to be rich and intense.
In San Juan – a province that accounts for 20% of Argentina’s output – the drop in yields was about 15%. Germán Buk, the oenologist at Finca La Moras, reports: ‘We had a warm harvest with more degree days than 2022 and a similar amount of rainfall. The frosts didn’t hit us as hard as other provinces, although we did get some hail.’
In general, the San Juan valleys saw the harvest brought forward by about 10 days due to accelerated sugar development with good levels of acidity and pH. In the Pedernal Valley, a cool, high-altitude region, the natural acidity and pH were notable, greater than last year, resulting in an enticingly fruity profile for the reds. The whites are showing good acidity and bold aromas.
Meanwhile, in the northwest, which boasts the highest vineyards in Argentina, the harvest was cooler than usual. But no significant drops in yield were reported in Cafayate, the hub of the extreme altitude winemaking scene.
‘Lower temperatures in spring led to some minor damage from frosts, from which the vines recovered during the growing cycle, so we had a normal year,’ says Jorge Noguera, winemaker at Bodega Amalaya in Cafayate. ‘The cool climate held back the harvest for about 15 days so we only started with the Riesling at the end of January, the Torrontés and Malbec at the end of February and had finished by April.’
The result was lower than usual potential alcohol levels, meaning subtler, fresher than average wines from the high altitude, sun-kissed terroir.
However, in the highest valleys of the northwest, where vineyards in Salta and Jujuy are generally planted above 1,980m above sea level, the frosts did affect yields. This was especially true in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, Colomé and Payogasta.
Overall, the drop in yields during the 2023 harvest was compensated for by healthy fruit with good concentration and acidity, a combination that is producing excellent quality in the initial musts. And so, the wineries of the largest wine producer in South America are breathing a sigh of relief, and looking forward to next year with renewed optimism.