Five stars: Northern hemisphere vintage report

Simon Woods

25 January 2016

Once again, the middle year of the decade has been a good one for the northern hemisphere. Simon Woods takes a look at how 2015 looks set to deliver good wines almost without exception from Monterey to the Mosel

Do you remember the 1991 Chas ‘n’ Dave inspired classic ‘It’s lucky for Spurs when the year ends in one’? Apologies for planting a worm in the ears of those over a certain age, but the gist of the ditty was how the football team enjoyed success throughout the 20th century whenever the year ended in one.

Well, you could write a similar song about the quality of vintages in most wine-growing parts of Europe. For 2015 looks to be the latest in a series dating back to 1985 where Mother Nature has smiled on producers throughout the continent in every year ending in five (and in fact in every year divisible by five). Perhaps you could say that it’s lucky for spur pruners when the year ends in five…

A fine spring and very hot, dry summer, with welcome rain just prior to harvest, has delivered high-class wines throughout the country. This appears to be a year when you won’t have to look only to the very top vineyards and producers for high quality, so while prices of the top wines may rise, there should still be plenty of excitement at less stratospheric levels.

Warm, dry conditions led to an early harvest, and while yields were below average, they were higher than producers had expected prior to the late summer rainfall. ‘The harvest was very easy, the grapes were healthy and there was no rot,’ says Domaine Zind-Humbrecht’s Olivier Humbrecht. While this won’t be a vintage for sweeter styles, the dry wines will be concentrated and rich.

Drought in summer and sporadic rain around harvest may have prevented this being a stellar vintage, but the Bordelais are happy, thanks to a harvest that delivered both quality and quantity. Gavin Quinney of Château Bauduc described ‘a fine vintage, marked by some of the cleanest fruit I’ve seen, both for reds and whites’. While botrytis was absent from dry wines, there was enough for Sauternes producers to be optimistic. Expect price rises by the top 5% of châteaux but not the rest of the region.

Good news, quality; bad news, quantity. After what Jasper Morris MW describes as a ‘relatively carefree growing season’, the driest and second hottest summer in the last 50 years was rescued from frazzledom by late August rains, leading to a small crop of ripe wines with lower than normal acidities. At this very early stage, whites look good, but may lack the freshness of a great vintage, while reds are potentially superb, providing they didn’t shrivel in the heat. But with quantities down, especially in those parts of Chablis that were hit by an early September hailstorm, prices are likely to rise. The smart buy will be Beaujolais, with Laurent Chevalier of Domaine Henry Fessy describing 2015 as ‘the best [vintage] I have ever seen’.

‘We must wait for the tastings of vins clairs before we can tell,’ says Dominique Demarville of Veuve Clicquot, ‘but quality looks great, close to long-lived vintages such as 2002 and 1989’. Henri Abelé’s chef de cave Franck Nicaise agrees with the assessment of the quality of 2015, but compares it to 1990 and even 1959. And he singles out Pinot Noir for having ‘a fruit personality and a complexity level that we have rarely experienced before’.

A rich and ripe harvest throughout the Loire, with the only downsides being reduced quantities and (because of late summer rains) a little rot in Muscadet and other zones. The whites will be fleshy but seem to have sufficient balancing acidity, while the reds, from both Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, look very promising.

Rhône and Provence
Early signs are of an excellent vintage in both the north and south. Relief from the summer heat came in the form of cool nights and well-timed rains, leading to wines that some growers are comparing to legendary vintages of the past. Quantities are average or just below, so the quality hike may lead to higher prices.

Italy looks to have regained the title of the world’s largest wine producer from France in 2015. The early summer heatwave caused heat stress in many vineyards (emergency irrigation was permitted in some regions) but rain in August refreshed the vines, leading to a reasonably sized harvest of good to excellent wines, with very few problems for growers. As with France, quality will extend a long way down the price spectrum.

According to Andrea Costanti of Conti Constanti, there was ‘extraordinary quality throughout Montalcino. The wines have a fantastic alcohol content plus amazing acidity and tannin levels, the best ever.’ Elsewhere in Tuscany, Ornellaia’s estate director and oenologist Axel Heinz called it ‘an exceptional harvest, a middle ground between the vintages of 2012 and 2007’.

In Piedmont, where quantities are higher than in 2014 but slightly below average, many echo the view of Barolo’s Giuseppe Vajra: ‘Overall quality is gorgeous; this vintage could create wines for the long term with incredible sense of place and tension.’

To the east, it was a good year for prosecco, although the increase in production may still be insufficient to cater for rising demand. Further south, again the early summer was hot, but the absence of the Sirocco wind blowing from the Sahara meant that there was sufficient humidity to provide relief for the vines. The result is great optimism for both quantity and quality.

This was the earliest vintage on record for Rioja. Harvesting is usually in full flow near the feast of Our Lady of The Pillar on 12 October, but in 2015, virtually all of the grapes had been picked by then. Good weather throughout the year and a lack of diseases led to a trouble-free harvest of full-flavoured grapes that were slightly smaller than normal, thanks to the early summer heat. Expect wines with intensity and slightly higher than normal alcohol, and don’t be surprised if many of the best come from the cooler, higher vineyards.

Thanks to cool nights even in the hottest of years, Ribera del Duero weathers heat well, and the region looks to have had a great 2015. ‘I think it’s going to be one of the great Ribera del Duero vintages due mainly to a perfect ripening process,’ says Enrique Pascual García, president of the Ribera del Duero Consejo Regulador. ‘The wines are showing a perfect balance between alcohol, tannin and acidity. The tannins are powerful but soft due to the extended ripening process.’

In Galicia, home of most of Spain’s Albariño, the lack of rainfall and hot weather means a reduced crop of white wines that will be concentrated but may lack the acidity of a great year. Conditions were similar in the north-east, so expect bold, fleshy Priorat and cava that will be rich in flavour but may lack freshness.

The Douro experienced a seesaw vintage of temperature extremes. Spring and early summer were the warmest and driest for 36 years, but from mid-July the temperature dropped, allowing the grapes to mature in mild but dry conditions. Harvest began in early September and although cyclone Henry dumped a hefty amount of rain in the middle of the month, dry weather returned, and strong winds dried out the grapes.

According to John E Fells’ Charlotte Symington, ‘the 2015 ports are deep, rich and well structured. However they are currently no more than six weeks old and the coming cold weather is essential to stabilise the wines and to allow us to properly assess them. But everything indicates, at this very early stage, that we have excellent ports for the long term. We had a very successful harvest on the Douro DOC front too – healthy grapes, good maturity and tannins, great colour and acidity as well.’

A warm vintage with dry conditions has led to a slightly smaller than average harvest of very promising grapes. In the Mosel, Dr Loosen’s Erni Loosen described it as ‘a very easy-going vintage. We had dry weather during the harvest and so we got beautiful healthy grapes with some extraordinary, well-shrivelled botrytis which made some beautiful noble sweet wines.’

Konstantin Guntrum from Weingut Louis Guntrum in the Rheinhessen highlights another issue: ‘The Kirschessigfliege (Drosophila Suzukii), which had caused significant damage in red grapes in 2014, did not show up at all, because the weather was too hot and too dry for the fly to develop and survive.’ So while the 2014 reds were generally dismal, those from 2015 could be among the best Germany has ever produced.

The weather picture for the UK differed from other parts of Europe, with the early part of the growing season being warm and dry but not so severe as to be a problem. August and September were cooler than normal, leading to a late harvest, but grapes were able to ripen steadily during the Indian summer. There are high hopes for both quality and quantity at this early stage, with Corinne Seely of Exton Park in Hampshire talking about ‘some of the best fruit I have seen at Exton’.

After a rather dismal 2014, Austrian growers had more to smile about in 2015. Or at least those who avoided the hail at the beginning of May that hit vineyards in Kremstal, Kamptal and Wagram. Heat stress was an issue throughout the country, especially in vineyards on shallow soils or with young vines, but mid-August rains came just in time, rescuing the vintage and delivering an average-sized crop of ripe, friendly wines.

A combination of bad weather at flowering in spring and severe drought throughout much of summer led to a small harvest of powerful, full-flavoured wines for California’s vintners. The heat meant that sugars often developed faster than flavours, especially in early ripening varieties, but producers seem generally upbeat about their wines, even if quantities are reduced. A few vineyards in Lake County and the Sierra Foothills were caught up in the mid-September bushfires but the damage doesn’t look like being as widespread as initially feared.

In Oregon, Rudy Marchesi of Montinore Winery in the Willamette Valley is one of many growers grinning wildly. ‘This has been one of those all-too-rare vintages where you get high yields and exceptional quality. We had near perfect weather, and we were able to hang the fruit until it was as close to perfect as possible.’ Expect some excellent Pinot Noir.

Further north, Washington State experienced a very hot vintage, which in turn led to an early harvest, according to Bob Betz MW of Betz Family Winery. ‘For the first time in our history we harvested grapes in August; 25 August was our first harvest date and our final fruit was harvested on 25 September. Normally we bring in 50-60% of our grapes in October.’ However, thanks to prudent use of irrigation (necessary in what is essentially a desert) and cool September weather, the grapes weren’t especially high in sugar, and retained some acidity. Early signs for both reds and whites are promising.


Great year
Rhône: The stuff of legends, especially in the north.
Champagne: Reims and Epernay are awash with unnaturally wide grins.
Beaujolais: If this vintage won’t convert consumers to the Bojo cause, nothing will.
Tuscany: Already being spoken of as one of the great vintages.
Ribera del Duero: Hot vintage, but also hot wines, thanks to cool nights.
Oregon: Warm, dry, trouble-free, and with above average yields – what’s not to like?
German dry wines: Both white and red should shine in 2015.
UK: The best vintage ever for many of the new wave of UK sparkling vineyards.

Good year
Bordeaux: The best vintage since 2010 – cue the hype…
Alsace: A bit too hot for finesse, but certainly good for concentration.
Piedmont: Another fine year in an excellent run, and could turn out better than ‘good’.
Port/Douro table wines: Maybe too warm for greatness, but should still be a success.

Middle of the road
Move along please – not much to see here in what has been a fine vintage in most regions.

So-so year
Volumes: Crops are down in many regions thanks to early summer droughts.

Bad year
Drosophila Suzukii: It was too dry for the pesky fly that blighted many vineyards in 2014.
Sorting tables: They were hardly needed in this vintage.
Red Burgundy prices: If they don’t rise, I will only eat andouillette for a week.

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