A freakish summer of record heat and little rain could bring a famous harvest for some of Iberia’s best-known wines.
The August heat wave shriveled some grapes, but also concentrated aromas and tannins in the skin. The sugar content is higher, meaning the alcohol level will be stronger and the best wines may age gracefully for years longer.
At many vineyards, the harvest began weeks early, and while reserving judgment until all the grapes are pressed, winemakers predict the quality will be superb.
“Great conditions are in place for an exceptional year for port wine,” Manuel Antonio Santos, president of the Casa do Douro wine producers federation, said in a phone interview from the group’s base in Peso da Regua, a village 180 miles north of Lisbon on the Atlantic coast.
Chances are high for a vintage year, he said. That happens only about three times a decade for port wine.
Similar results are expected on the Spanish side of the Iberian peninsula.
“Everything that’s coming in to the winery is really good,” said Mireia Torres, winemaker for Miguel Torres winery in Penedes, south of Barcelona. “We’re getting great results: high grades of alcohol and smooth tannins. The wines this year will be high quality.”
In Spain’s renowned Rioja region a three-hour drive north from Madrid, “We’re seeing something very special, exceptional quality,” said Carmel Angulo, head winemaker for Berberana, Lagunilla and Marques de Grinon wineries.
“This is a very special year everywhere — in Spain, in France, everywhere,” added Rafael Alonso, director of exports for Vega Sicilia, maker of the Ribera del Duero wine that reputedly is Spain’s best.
Summer here as elsewhere across Europe was one of the harshest on record. Temperatures hit 104 degrees and vines started to shut down to protect themselves. Some grapes were scorched, spoiling their flavor. Others were so parched they turned into raisins on the vine.
In Portugal in late August, temperatures cooled and growers fretted whether their crops could sustain the abrupt change. Then came spectacular thunderstorms with pelting rain, followed by more heat.
“It’s been a curious year,” said Vasco Penha Garcia, a winemaker for JP Vinhos in the town of Azeitao on the Setubal peninsula 30 miles south of Lisbon. “We’ve had much frights.”
Strolling along the sun-baked, clay-and-chalk soil between waist-high muscatel vines draped over thin lengths of wire twitching in the ocean breeze, Penha Garcia reached under the foliage and plucked handfuls of grapes. He chomped on them, squinting distractedly as he savored the fragrant aroma reminiscent of orange, figs and walnut.
“Part of our production was lost,” he said. But what has been harvested is good, he added. “It should be a good year.”
Joao Nicolau de Almeida, at Portugal’s Association of Port Wine Companies, said he hadn’t seen such high quality grapes for decades.
Grapes have been grown in Iberia since Phoenician times.
Spain is the world’s third-largest wine producer, putting some 780 million gallons on the market in 2001.
At the Costers del Siurana winery in the Priorat region near the Mediterranean Sea, owner Carles Pastrana, said there, too, the harvest began early and the grapes look fine.
“Until the wine is fermented, it’s hard to say,” he said. “But what’s coming into the winery is of a superb quality — a very, very good harvest.”
Portugal is the eighth-largest producer, turning out 172 million gallons last year.
Portugal’s wines are distinctive: from the amber-colored muscatel of Setubal to the refreshing Vinho Verde, or “green” wine, of the mountainous north to the syrupy after-dinner port wine of the enchanting Douro Valley.
The country boasts many indigenous grape varieties, including such tongue-twisters as Trincadeira Preta, Roupeiro and Touriga Nacional.
Despite the high quality of grapes that survived the summer, this year’s crop won’t necessarily fetch much higher prices, experts say. Supply outstrips demand after good harvests in recent years, and younger Portuguese are drinking more beer and mixed-in-the-bottle drinks known as alco-pops.