Additional issues arose throughout the year, including high temperatures and either too much or too little rain, depending on where you were. In England, which is not exactly the most consistent wine producing region, it has been a near disaster of a vintage with the most important winery, Nyetimber, opting to skip the vintage entirely.
Fortunately for many regions, rain, more moderate temperatures and an Indian summer were able to rescue many vines. Still, many early harvested varieties were not able to shake the character imparted by the hot, dry summer growing season. Of course, there are different conditions and opinions regarding the quality we can expect from the top regions in Europe. In all likelihood, most of the opinions are based as much on hunch as on fact. We’ll have to wait until the wines are made and have a chance to settle down before we will really know what they’ll be like. For the sake of argument, here's a look at the early line on some of the most important regions.
Harvested Grapes image via Shutterstock
It was a very warm summer in Tuscany, on par with the scorcher that was 2003, but the wines may not much resemble those benchmarks in ripeness. Two significant differences distinguish 2012 from 2003. The first is water reserves, which were significant in 2003 and significantly lacking in 2012 after a dry winter and a rain free summer.
The lack of water has slowed the vigor of many vines and will result in a shorter crop. Whether the fruit harvested will exhibit the roasted qualities of 2003 or not is left to be seen. They do have one factor working in their favor, the heat of 2012 was daytime heat, with cooler nights allowing the vines to recover from the stresses of the days. This was an advantage missing from much of 2003's summer.
Rain in September has refreshed the vines in many cases, but it is doubtful than anything can be done to fundamentally change the character of the vintage. The early line is that the wines will be far better structured than the 2003 wines but will share the traits of high alcohol and dark roasted flavors with that vintage.
Piedmont, like much of Italy, saw a damp spring rich with rain and cool temperatures. Fortunately, the ensuing summer was quite warm, with several producers noting that this seems to be the new normal for the region. Surprisingly though, the late summer and early fall returned to a classic pattern of cool nights and warm days, sprinkled with rain here and there.
Early season varieties, such as Dolcetto, show more signs of the stresses of the vintage. The rains and cooler temperatures that arrived in August and September were able to refresh the late harvest varieties such as Barbera and Nebbiolo. The return of typical autumnal weather allowed these varieties to benefit from extended hang time in the vineyards, which in turn promises to produce a crop of rich, powerful wines that retain freshness and balanced, ripe structural elements. In short, it looks likely to be another high quality vintage that straddles the line between classical and modern flavor profiles.
There is enthusiastic talk of the 2012 harvest coming from Germany. Producers seem excited about the prospects warm days and cool nights have created. This is in stark contrast to early reports of cold, wet conditions of the spring and early summer and the problems with flower set and mildew they created.
Volumes are down slightly, but the quality is very high with aromatic and fruit-driven wines seeming to define the style of the vintage. Of course not all the grapes are in yet, though the grapes harvested have seen some of the best sugar levels in about a decade, promising a bumper crop of high quality sweet wines in 2012.
Burgundy experienced one of the most depressing starts to a season in recent years. Temperatures remained below normal and were accompanied by relentless wet weather from late spring through early summer. The season retarded the vegetative cycle of the vine and promoted mildew and fungal problems. Compounding the impact of this slow start was significant hail damage in the Cote de Beaune during the summer.
The season was turned around with exceptional warm, sunny and dry weather from about the middle of July through the harvest. Quantities are down, severely so in those regions most affected by the hail. In Volnay, hail further reduced the already modest crops, originally impacted by the bad weather of flowering. Yet, early reports are that the fruit is ripe, concentrated yet fresh, and showing fine balance. This promises to be another vintage that will have a significant impact on the marketplace. With such modest quantities and great quality, there will be further pressure to drive up prices of fine Burgundy. The high prices of today for the best 2011 and 2010 wines may well turn out to be bargains.
The story in Bordeaux mirrors that told across much of Europe. The start of the season was delayed by a cool, damp spring and a late arrival of the warmth of summer, but when summer did finally arrive, it was on! Summer temperatures were above average and the weather was dry, resulting in regional stress of the vines and a relatively slow development. This remained true right through the season, with harvest delayed by one to three weeks across the region by late arriving rains towards the end of September. Producers have been optimistic that these late rains helped return some balance to the fruit on the vines and that an Indian summer can propel the grapes over some of the hurdles on the way to high quality, mature fruit.
When the fruit did approach maturity, there were distinct issues with physiological ripeness landing some of the technical indicators. Harvest was further extended with some late ripening varieties still on the vine. Late harvest vines of Sauternes and other sweet wines are still to be harvested. It's too early to tell where the quality of the wines of 2012 will end up, as there are equal choruses of “great vintage" and "winemaker’s vintage” emanating from the region. Bordeaux is expert at talking up its wines, but time is important here. My gut is that this is, in fact, a winemaker's vintage and that time will show who truly understood the vintage. I expect quality to be above average but uneven.