Rioja harvests have been extremely good in the last eight years. Since 2004, the classification of the vintages has been either very good or excellent:
2006: Very good
2007: Very good
2008: Very good
2009: Very good
This string of very good or excellent vintages is unprecedented in the history of the Regulatory Council (http://es.riojawine.com/en/14-vintages.html) and is not the product of political decisions made within the Council as some suspect, but rather the result of a complicated formula based on the scores young wines are given by a tasting committee made up of winemakers from the region who taste the samples blind.
I think another factor influencing the quality of these vintages has been global warming. In recent years, winter rain has been abundant (except for 2011 and 2012), budbreak has taken place with no spring frosts, and warmer than average weather throughout spring and summer has caused the grapes to ripen earlier than usual and the harvest to end before the weather turns cold at the end of October.
2012 has been a tough year. Rioja has been hit by a severe drought that began last year, a violent hailstorm raced through part of Rioja Alavesa from Baños de Ebro to Elciego this summer, July, August and September temperatures were abnormally high and October has been rainy, delaying picking by as long as a week. These circumstances have come together to create a vintage that locals obliquely call “complicated”.
I recall many vintages affected by hail and frost, one particularly bad one (1993) where the first half of the harvest was fine but the second half ruined by constant torrential rain and one (2003) when it was so hot that many vines were on the verge of dying.
This year, the talk of the region centered around the state of the vines that benefitted from drip irrigation (in good shape) and those not watered (pretty grim). Some have wondered why more farmers didn’t invest in providing water when prices and profits were high.
This year, the harvest started earlier than usual – around August 20 in Rioja Baja. It ended last week. This is also very early. In the past, the harvest usually reached a full head of steam on or near October 12, a national holiday, when entire families spent the weekend in their vineyards picking. Many harvests have ended around All Saints’ Day (November 1) in the highest vineyards, most of which are in the west of the region, but some in Rioja Baja on the uppermost slopes of Mount Yerga. This year, by October 20, the harvest was over.
Winemakers are upbeat about quality with their comments centering on the health (read ‘absence of mildew’) of the grapes. Some winemakers I’ve talked to mention the high pH (or low acidity) of the young wine and problems with extracting color.The quality of 2012 Rioja will consequently be determined in the winery rather than in the vineyard.
The real buzz in the region is about the size of the harvest – the smallest since 2002, expected to be about 360 million kilos, 7% smaller than 2011. White grapes are in very short supply (23 or 24 million kg when production at 100% of yield is 34).
In the absence of supply, grape prices are expected to go up. One producer has already signed a contract for red grapes at 80 euro cents a kilo. This is about 20-25% higher than the average price paid in 2011. As I’ve explained on these pages, the market for young wine sold by coops to large wineries will ultimately determine the price of grapes, because most wineries buy grapes without a specified price, with this determined in spring 2013 by the average price for young wine sold by the big coops.
This opaque practice of buying without a transaction price, long criticized by farmers, is about to change. The Ministry of Agriculture has recently announced its intention to pass a law requiring that all transactions of agricultural products require a price, a contract and a payment schedule. In general, farmers applaud this change as a means of making the grape market more transparent, but the wineries have been silent.
As far as the quality of the 2012 vintage and price transparency are concerned, I defer to the comment of the great New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over till it’s over”.