I admit that the picture exaggerates the situation, but there’s no doubt that Rioja needs rain. Rainfall in the region in the last eleven months has been267 liters per square meter, 28% less than the average. It hasn’t rained since July.
The drought, along with higher than average temperatures in July, August and September, is having a negative impact on the 2011 grape harvest in Rioja.
Technically speaking, farmers look at two measurements to decide when to pick grapes: the amount of sugar in the grapes – a measurement of the potential alcoholic strength of the wine – and phenolic ripeness, that is, the amount of color and the ripeness of the tannins in the skins. Ideally, grapes should be picked when both of these measurements of ripeness are at their optimum level.
The problem this year is that sugar levels are high while the tannins are still green. Should farmers pick early or wait for ripe tannins and extremely sweet grapes? Neither alternative is good. Amador Escudero, owner of Bodegas Escudero in Rioja Alta hits the nail on the head when he asks, “What’s the point in having a chemist, a winemaker and an agronomist engineer on the payroll if they can’t agree on when to pick?”
An additional problem is the stress on the vines due to lack of rain. Some farmers and winery owners point their fingers at the rule approved by the Rioja Regulatory Council that forbids watering the vines after véraison when the skin of the grapes changes color. This rule is meant to discourage watering to increase production but it penalizes vineyards in drought years. The Regulatory Council counters that it’s possible to request permission to water under extraordinary circumstances but the fact is that most Rioja vineyards don’t have easy access to water.
Most farmers think that the 2011 harvest will be smaller than last year’s. They also hope that a shortage of supply will push grape and wine prices above their current levels, in the opinion of most, below production costs.
In the meantime, the president of the Council says that the harvest will be excellent.
Time will tell. We’ll keep you posted.