Article by Wine Spectator

A first look at vintage quality in South America, with eyewitness reports from growers and winemakers

Ready to taste the first wines of 2013? While vines are just flowering in Europe and North America, the Southern Hemisphere has picked, crushed and fermented this year’s crop. Argentina and Chile experienced a cool growing season, which left vintners waiting for grapes to fully ripen. That wasn’t a problem for big reds like Argentina’s Malbecs and Chile’s Cabernet Sauvignon, but it could be trouble for Chilean Sauvignon Blanc.

ARGENTINA

The good news: A long, cool growing season produced what many winemakers are calling fresh wines

The bad news: Up and down temperatures tested winemakers’ patience and required long hang times for grapes to reach full maturation

Picking started: Harvest stretched from early March to mid-April, with most winemakers reporting that they picked five to 14 days later than usual

Promising grapes: Malbec, which dominates the country’s quality wine production, was able to fully ripen, yet cool temperatures, especially at night, helped preserve the grape’s intense acidity and aromatics

Analysis: Much needed spring rains and an absence of a major frost led to a good fruit set as Argentine winemakers reported normal to 25 percent higher yields. Hail damage, a regular threat in Mendoza’s high-altitude vineyards, was minimal and limited to Agrelo and Perdriel

The up-and-down growing season began warm, then turned cool. The heat returned for harvest, but a cold spell hit Mendoza during the middle of March, delaying maturation and picking. As a result, the grapes feature high acidity levels, low alcohol and fine tannins.

“Normal pH for Mendoza Malbec is 3.7 to 3.8,” said Achával-Ferrer president Santiago Achával. This year, even with a late harvest that extended into April, he said pH levels are between 3.5 and 3.6—meaning higher acidity levels and more vibrant wines. “This has never happened before and looks well for both the aromatic potential and for the ageability of the wines.”

CHILE

The good news: A slow, cool growing season made for elegant, aromatic wines; late-ripening varieties show the most promise

The bad news: With cooler temperatures from start to finish, early-ripening varieties, especially Sauvignon Blanc, struggled to reach full maturity

Picking started: Harvest lasted from mid-March to late-May—some winemakers say they picked three weeks later than normal

Promising grapes: Winemakers are optimistic about the late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère, typically the last variety to be harvested

Analysis: For Chile, 2013 will be remembered as one of the coolest vintages in the past decade, with some winemakers calling it downright cold. “In general, it was cooler than normal across the entire season,“ said Byron Kosuge, a California-based winemaker who consults for Kingston Family in Casablanca Valley. “Highs were often 5 to 8 degrees lower than average.”

The vintage was also marked by a severe December rainstorm that especially affected the northern and southern appellations. While the rain was much needed in dry areas like Limarí, excessive rain early in the growing season can accentuate vegetal characteristics and force growers to further delay harvest. Early-ripening varieties, like Sauvignon Blanc, struggled to ripen. The best wines will come from those that prepared in the vineyard and managed yields.

“We were a bit more aggressive with our leafing from pretty early on (after set, when the berries were about pea-sized),” said Kosuge of the winery’s Sauvignon Blanc vines. “The idea was to get light to the clusters early, both to alter flavor development and to get the fruit acclimated to more light.”

Winemakers are most enthusiastic about their late-ripening reds, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and Pinot Noir, to some extent. Yet despite the long hangtime, most winemakers are reporting lighter, elegant wines, with lower alcohol levels, fresh acidity and light tannins. “It’s a good year for Carmenère,” said De Martino winemaker Marcelo Retamal.

Australia and New Zealand

A first look at vintage quality down under, with eyewitness reports from growers and winemakers

Ready to taste the first wines of 2013? While vines are just flowering in Europe and North America, the Southern Hemisphere has picked, crushed and fermented this year’s crop. Australian vintners report that the 2012-2013 crop was small, thanks to dry conditions in the east and storms in the west. New Zealand’s North Island faced heavy frosts to start the season, while on the South Island, a compressed harvest made for a logistical nightmare.

Australia

Region: South Australia: Clare Valley, Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Eden Valley, Limestone Coast

The good news: Low yields and dry conditions produced concentrated wines

The bad news: A series of heat waves reduced the size of the crop

Picking started: Mid-February

Promising grapes: Shiraz, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling

Analysis: Vintners in South Australia will remember 2013 as one of the earliest and shortest vintages in recent memory. Winemakers are excited with what they picked, reporting good to outstanding quality in both their white and red grapes. “There will be some truly awesome wines from 2013, just not as much of them to share,” said Paul Linder, winemaker at Langmeil in Barossa.

A combination of hot weather and below average rainfall in the spring reduced grape yields across the state. John Duval, of his eponymous winery in Barossa Valley, said vintners had to be diligent with their irrigation to protect grapes from withering on the vines. He said yields were down between 30 to 50 percent in Barossa Valley. Cooler growing regions such as Adelaide Hills and Coonawarra in the Limestone Coast avoided the worst of the heat.

A heat wave jumpstarted harvest in mid-February, with growers scrambling to pick grapes as sugar levels spiked. The upside to the dry conditions was low disease pressure in the vineyards and a small crop that produced concentrated grapes. “Reds are showing excellent color and flavor, with balanced tannin structure,” said Duval. Winemakers in Eden Valley and Clare Valley reported good natural acidity in their Rieslings, despite the heat.

Region: Victoria: Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Geelong, Heathcote, Grampians, Strathbogie Ranges

The good news: Warm, dry conditions allowed grapes to ripen evenly

The bad news: Long periods of heat reduced yields in some spots

Picking started: Feb. 6 for sparkling wine; Feb. 16 for still wine

Promising grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Shiraz

Analysis: Winemakers in Victoria are describing the vintage as short and sharp. The harvest commenced in early February and the majority of vintners were finished picking by the middle of March. “The ripening was early and all of the varietals came on top of each other in a quite unusual fashion,” said Lionel Flutto, viticulturist at Heathcote II in Heathcote. Red varieties such as Shiraz and late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon were often picked at the same time. The challenge was finding enough space in the wineries for the grapes.

After two vintages marked by cool, often wet conditions, 2013 brought warm and dry weather. Winemakers faced little to no disease pressure in their vineyards but had to be careful about getting enough water to the vines. With the smaller crop, winemakers are excited about the quality. “In particular, reds will perform, with Shiraz being the shining star and Cabernet nipping at its heels,” said Matt Fowles at Fowles Wines in Strathbogie Ranges.

Region: Western Australia: Margaret River, Pemberton, Great Southern

The good news: Warm weather and clear skies during harvest presented few challenges

The bad news: Spring storms affected flowering, reducing yields for some white grapes

Picking started: Feb. 15 in Margaret River

Promising grapes: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon

Analysis: Western Australia dodged the worst of the heat that swept through the rest of the country, enjoying a warm, dry summer with nearly ideal weather during harvest. Spring storms did create some challenges, with wet conditions while vines were flowering. In Margaret River the rain decreased the fruit set for Sémillon and Chardonnay but didn’t affect the red varieties. “[The storms] had a varied effect across the region, with yields generally being down,” said Virginia Willcock, winemaker at Vasse Felix in Margaret River.

The rest of the season was relatively dry and warm with harvest in Great Southern, home to Frankland River and Mount Barker, officially starting Feb. 17. Vintners are pleased with what they are tasting in their cellars. “Whites are richly flavored, nicely perfumed and balanced with generous textures,” said Bruce Dukes, winemaker at Streicker Wines in Margaret River. He attributes the quality of the grapes to the moderate growing season adding, “The reds have delicious ripe and fleshy tannins while maintaining freshness and fruit perfumes.”

New Zealand

Region: North Island: Gisborne, Hawkes Bay, Martinborough

The good news: Ideal growing season with a long summer

The bad news: Severe spring frost reduced yields for some

Picking started: March 15

Promising grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot

Analysis: The North Island’s growing season got off to a cool start, with severe spring frosts reducing yields for some growers and creating sleepless nights for all. “We will have well less than half of our usual crop of Chardonnay, and even less than in 2010 when we were similarly affected by a spring frost,” said Michael Brajkovich of Chardonnay specialist Kumeu River.

The rest of the season was uneventful, with some of the warmest and driest conditions on record. “I have already described our Gimblett Gravels and Hawkes Bay harvest as ‘the vintage of a generation,’” said Steve Smith of Craggy Range. “Conditions from flowering throughout the season were nigh on perfect.”

It was a slightly earlier harvest than normal. Most vintners reported moderately paced picking due to lack of rainfall and low disease pressure. The quality of grapes is high—many winemakers talked of exceptional fruit, with good colors and ripeness, yet still retaining the typical edge of acidity. The Pinot Noirs are showing great concentration and structure.

Region: South Island: Marlborough, Canterbury/Waipara, Central Otago, Nelson

The good news: Long summer, good quality fruit

The bad news: Compact harvest led to logistical difficulties

Picking started: March 21

Promising grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris

Analysis: The South Island also began the season with a cool start. Some vintners in Central Otago reported frost, but no significant damage. Loveblock winemaker Kim Crawford said that his Central Otago vineyard lost about 20 percent of the crop, adding, “But as we usually thin to 30 percent, it was insignificant in terms of yield.”

Cold spring turned to dry summer. “The growing season was very dry, approaching drought at some stages, but the upside was very low disease pressure,” said James Healy of Dog Point in Marlborough. A warm summer led to a warm harvest, and that meant that many grapes were ready to be picked at the same time, resulting in an extremely compressed harvest.

“We normally pick Sauvignon Blanc over a 22- to 26-day period, but this year it was all picked in 16 days,” said Nautilus winemaker Clive Jones. With all of the fruit ready at the same time, there were hectic days and logistical puzzles to solve. Labor, transportation and machinery were in huge demand. Even if a winemaker had access to everything they needed, they had to find space for all the incoming grapes.

“We probably were forced to harvest at about 130 percent of the normal rate. Things like crusher, must-chilling and lees-filtering capacity were put under stress,” said Simon Waghorn of Astrolabe, adding that he felt hurried to pick the grapes before they got riper. A period of heavy rain in the later part of April caught a few winemakers who still had grapes hanging off guard.

Most vintners are reporting moderate to good-sized yields. Aromatic whites look strong, slightly riper than 2012. Both Crawford and Waghorn suggested Pinot Gris will be a standout. South Island Pinot Noirs are described as aromatic and floral, with good concentration and structure.