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Hot Weather Equals Great Vintage?
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed August 18, 2003. For more information go to

The hottest summer in Europe for more than a century has sent grape pickers into vineyards across the Continent earlier than ever in history, amid a rising chorus of excitement about the potential for great and memorable wines in Vintage 2003.

At the noble Chateau Haut-Brion, for instance, the white-grape harvest began last Wednesday, two days earlier than the previous record...set 110 years ago in 1893! Similar reports are coming in from across France, as well as in Northeastern Italy and in Spain's sparkling-wine ("cava") regions, where searing temperatures in late July and August have promoted unusually early ripening.

But is this really good news? On the surface, it might seem so. The conventional wisdom holds that exceptionally hot summers yield exceptional wines. In relatively recent history in Bordeaux, for instance, the delicious vintages of 2000, 1989 and 1982 all followed long, hot summers. Ditto for 1947, another memorable year.

But despite the affection of some critics for big, overripe wines, the assumption that the riper the grape, the better the wine, is far from universal. Many experts point out that very ripe grapes end up with too much sugar, which ferments into objectionably strong and unbalanced wines.

A more complicated, technical issue also hovers over the vineyards this super-heated summer: In much of Europe, the season started cool and moist, only turning hot later. This matters because of an obscure viticultural issue: Until "veraison" - the point when the green grapes on the vines suddenly start showing their mature color - most of the vine's energy goes into its roots and leaves. Only after the grapes turn color do they begin maturing.

Now, this year, with cool weather early in the season, veraison did not come particularly early. As a result, the intense heat of the past month or so has caused exceptionally rapid ripening. Many experts argue that grapes that ripen too fast don't have time to develop desirable "physiological maturity" that's needed for high-quality, complex and aromatic wines. In vineyard jargon, grapes that lack insufficient "hang time" on the vines before picking may yield ripe but simple, uninteresting wine.

Moreover, in some parts of France - particularly the Languedoc - hot weather has been accompanied by drought conditions, a situation that can put stress on the vines and limit the potential quality of the grapes.

Finally, bear in mind that at this point only some varieties of white grapes are being picked. Even if the slower-maturing red grapes are also harvested early, there is still the potential for such vineyard disasters as damaging storms, hail, or simply cooler, rainy weather that could turn things around overnight.

No matter what the public-relations agencies report, it's still too early to know for sure how the rest of the season will go. The one thing we can take for granted is that the winemakers in Europe - and around the Northern Hemisphere - are crossing their fingers and praying for continued good weather.

It should also be noted that the fiery summer in Europe does not extend around the world. In California, for instance, a cool, rainy spring and variable summer is resulting in predictions of a small harvest - an outcome that would not hurt the feelings of many in the industry there, which is facing a glut of wine that's forcing prices down.

To sum all this up, there's only one sure way to be positive about the quality of a vintage, and that's to wait until the wine is bottled and ready for tasting.


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