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How did wine fare in a year filled with heat and drought

Major wine regions had to deal with scorching heat and record-breaking drought in 2022. But, winemakers are optimistic and talk of great vintage

Heat can produce food wine too. (Engin Akyurt, Pexels)
Heat can produce food wine too. (Engin Akyurt, Pexels)

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In Portugal’s Douro Valley, the team at the Quinta do Vesuvio winery was stomping picked grapes in ancient stone lagares (troughs) in August. “Never in the history of this great estate, which dates to 1565, have grapes been trodden this early,” says Harry Symington, whose family has been producing premium ports in the Douro for five generations.

The nail-biting tale of the 2022 harvest—scorching heat and record-breaking drought that sped up ripening in vineyards from Germany to Paso Robles, Calif.—is another reminder of the power of climate change to upend the wine world.

Still, many winemakers are bullish. Drought causes smaller grapes with more concentration and deters diseases such as mildew. Winemakers in some regions, such as Champagne, talk of a great vintage.

But the downside of a lack of water and 100F temperatures is lower-than-normal yields and thus less wine to sell. In France’s Alsace, where it didn’t rain a drop for two months, the region’s wine growers’ association reports there will be a very, very small harvest.

Heat waves push up sugar levels in the grapes, which translates to higher alcohol in the wines and can upset the ideal balance between sugar and acidity. With a sudden heat dome over Bay Area vineyards on Labor Day weekend and the days following, the rush was on to grab grapes before they turned into juiceless raisins.

Yet the situation is always more complicated than you might think, with differences from region to region and vineyard to vineyard. And the harvest isn’t over yet.

The overall bottom line for 2022: cautious optimism, less wine, intense flavors.

Here’s the outlook by region.

This celebrated French region saw spring frost, June hailstorms, extreme heat, the driest July in more than 60 years, and threatening wildfires. Whew! Authorities permitted irrigation, which is usually banned, at some estates. Despite the nearby flames, the Bordeaux Wine Council insists grapes are smoke-taint-free.

For first-growth Château Margaux, the white grape harvest was the earliest at the estate “in living memory.” Ditto first-growth Château Mouton Rothschild, which experienced its earliest harvest since 1893 and has also begun picking merlot, emailing: “2022 looks like being both a very early and highly promising vintage.” So far the grapes are small and rich in phenolic compounds that contribute flavor and color to the wines.

Another hot vintage (up to 102F during the day, but with cool nights!). About half of Burgundy’s domaines began harvesting by the end of August, according to Bill Nanson’s Burgundy Report, and some finished by Sept. 8.

Veronique Drouhin, of Maison Joseph Drouhin, which owns vineyards up and down the Côte d’Or, says both chardonnay and pinot noir are flavorful and tasty, with good balance between sugar and acidity. It is “potentially a very good vintage with heterogeneous yields,” she says. The amount of wine overall will be a little less than expected, but higher than in recent years. That won’t mean lower prices.

All looks good in normally cool Chablis, too.

A winner. The Comité Champagne trade association set the official harvest start date for Aug. 20, about two weeks earlier than last year, and set yields at the highest level for more than a decade. This may help solve the recent Champagne shortage, eventually, but some think it raises questions about the dedication to quality.

Séverine Frerson, winemaker at Perrier-Jouët, waxed enthusiastic on Zoom over grapes looking “very, very good, ripe, and well-balanced. The texture of the chardonnay is delicate, and the pinot noir is very fruity and complex.” That’s because of long sunny spells to fully develop flavors in the grapes and keep them healthy, and water reserves in the soil from last year that preserved acidity.

A few Champagne houses, like Famille Moutard, are looking at the potential of old vines of forgotten grape varieties such as arbane and petit meslier in the face of climate change. Alexandre Moutard points out that these “have reacted particularly well under the heat waves.” The more traditional pinot noir, meanwhile, “is magnificent” this year.

Loire Valley
Photos of the Loire river this summer showed water levels so low people could walk from one bank to the other. But Loïc Caïlbourdin of Domaine Cailbourdin in Pouilly Fumé says “the harvest looks good, with small bunches that should give concentrated juice.” He’s harvesting at night to keep freshness, as he’s begun doing in the last few years. Maison Pascal Jolivet predicts its top Sancerres are “going to be gorgeous.”

Don’t fret about the rosé supply. Harvest started a week to two weeks early, and both quantity and quality look good, according to Stephen Cronk, owner of Domaine Mirabeau not far from St-Tropez. Rain at the right time saved the day.

Rhône Valley
Top winemaker Laurent Combier of Domaine Combier in Crozes-Hermitage says he started picking white grapes on Aug. 24, and has never started that early, even in scorching 2003. He predicts “a totally exceptional year. … We will make less, but good.” In terms of non-whites, César Perrin of Château de Beaucastel adds that syrah reds will be well balanced, with nice density and alcohol levels around 13%. Expect deep, rich, concentrated wines.

The dry, hot growing season has been good for vineyards, according to top producer Egon Müller, who’ll start picking on Sept. 19 and expects a crop of healthy grapes and high quality. With similar weather conditions in all regions, the country is a winner in 2022.

The good news from the German Wine Institute is that red varieties such as pinot noir will be more full-bodied and intensely colored than usual.

In Tuscany, summer’s triple-digit heat and drought resulted in some burned grapes. To hold moisture in vines, some winemakers applied white clay to the leaves. Then came late August storms, but “the 2022 harvest is far more positive than anticipated,” writes Cristina Mariani-May, owner of wine company Banfi, which has vineyards in Montalcino and the Maremma. Axel Heinz, director of the famous Ornellaia estate, says the vintage has high-profile potential. But Michele Manelli of Salcheto winery in Montepulciano is worried about unbalanced ripening.

In top prosecco zone Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, rain in mid-August saved quality, but quantity will be down about 10% to 15%, according to the area’s consortium, while in Barolo 20% to 30% less wine is likely, says Giovanni Gaja, whose family owns the celebrated eponymous brand.

In the Douro Valley, the amount of rain from January to the end of July was what normally falls in one winter month, and July temperatures soared above the 30-year average. “We are on course for one of the lowest-yielding harvests ever in the Douro,” emailed Harry Symington. His family’s estates still expect to produce very good, dense ports.

In Alentejo, where the harvest is half finished, the story is similar.

Wineries in Rioja usually don’t pick before mid-September. Maria Urrutia Ybarra of CVNE explains that 2022 is extremely unusual and the harvest started around Sept. 2. The grapes are healthy, but the team is most concerned about lower acidity because of the heat. The sherry region started harvest on July 28!

Southern England is now the center of burgeoning sparkling wine production, and 2022’s long, hot summer has been good for the vines, says Bella Spurrier, owner of Bride Valley in Dorset. “The quality seems very good, and the quantity is OK, too.”

For Jon Pollard, chief vineyard manager for Gusbourne, the lack of rain wasn’t a problem, as the chalk-based soil in Sussex is like “a great sponge that holds just the right amount of water to keep vines going.” He expects harvest to start in mid-September.

Willamette Valley was hit with the most widespread spring frost since 1980, followed by a wet, cold spring that slowed vine growth. So, the harvest is later than last year. The Nicolas-Jay winery’s Instagram page referred to 2022 as “a lesson in patience.” Despite frost, it’s ended up with one of the highest-yielding vintages in years.

First pick for Brianne Day of Day Wines was gamay. Domaine Roy estimates it’ll start on chardonnay on Sept. 25, and many others see the end of September for whites and into October for pinot noir. The grapes look good, but fingers are crossed that wildfires and hazy smoke don’t affect quality.

Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles
An all-over-the-place picture in California. Sparkling wine maker Pauline Lhote of Domaine Chandon, who started picking around midnight on Aug. 4, predicted high quality with bright acidity and plenty of flavor. On Spring Mountain, also in Napa, Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone says his chardonnay will be good, but down 25% to 30%.

The Sonoma Coast is an outlier this year, cold and windy, with grapes one-third the normal size and crops down 60% to 70%. The saving grace is the quality, says Jamie Kutch, whose eponymous winery is known for its Sonoma Coast pinot noirs. They’ll be more concentrated and less aromatic than last year, he says.

Contrast that with what happened in Napa and inland Sonoma after nature threw a curveball of a week of 115F temperatures starting on Labor Day weekend, causing a rush to pick before grapes cooked. That intense heat will define the character of the vintage, with low yields and some dehydrated grapes, even though the following week’s lower temperatures brought relief.

“It caused damage to vines and grapes,” says Napa winemaker Aaron Pott, who consults for wineries in different parts of the valley, “Quality is good but not great, and it’s really location dependent.”

Hold that thought. In Paso Robles, on the Central Coast, Jason Haas of Tablas Creek winery wrote on his blog: “We’re feeling cautiously optimistic.” In one week of “cellar madness,” the team brought in an astonishing 135 tons of red and white grapes in two days that “looked incredible.”

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