GRAPEVINE

KATHRYN McWHIRTER ON THE CLASS OF '95
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The Independent Culture
THIS was the year when the weather got lost and landed on the wrong bits of Europe. In 1995 severe May frosts killed the vine buds in parts of Spain and Portugal; Italy's summer of '95 was a cool wash- out from top to toe, while in England the vines really ripened for once, in a summer-long, autumn-long heatwave.

Well, we did have some rain in the first two or three weeks of September, as did the rest of Europe (except for the seriously drought-stricken south of Spain). That's a crucial time for grapes in the northern hemisphere, just when they have softened and are approaching ripeness. A modest drop of rain on ripening vines can be good news, but too much can engorge the grapes with water, diluting the sugar and flavour, and perhaps making the grapes split and rot. For some of Europe's winemakers, the hot summer had ripened the grapes so early that they had picked, or nearly picked, them by the time the rain arrived. Others harvested in panic as the rot set in. Some hung on and picked later, when the Indian summer dried up the rot and ripened the grapes to perfection.

It was the Italians who had most cause to curse the rain clouds. All down the country except on the islands, says the Association of Italian Winemakers, many grapes were high in acid and low in sugar. Crops were small. It was the smallest vintage of the last 30 years, and the most mixed in quality. "In the north the weather was cool and wet at flowering time in May and June," says Mauro Mascarello, who makes some of the greatest Barolo. "Many flowers failed to set into fruit, so the quantity was bound to be small. July was hot, then the weather turned cool, and it rained off and on throughout August and the first weeks of September. I lost 65 per cent of the grapes of one vineyard with hail in August. Some varieties, Dolcetto and Barbera, didn't ripen well. But October was very fine, and the Nebbiolo grapes that make the Barolo ripened beautifully." The worst- hit area was Tuscany, where the Chianti Classico crop was only half the normal. Down south, the rain didn't start until 13 August but hung on doggedly until 20 September.

The Spaniards would have loved a share of that rain. Spain is suffering from the worst drought for 100 years. The sherry country of Jerez in the south-west has had no rain for three years, and this year brought in "the smallest harvest in living memory", way under half the norm. (It is forbidden in Europe - for fear of overproduction - to irrigate vines, even though most of the New World's finest vineyards are judiciously watered.) For Jerez, a short vintage was no bad thing: sherry is currently far from popular, and stocks were already running high.

The drought is serious but less severe further north. Here, from Madrid's central plateau upwards and outwards, it was shock frosts in early June that reduced harvests in many areas. Frost killed the embryonic grape bunches in the prestigious Ribera del Duero region north of Madrid, source of some of Spain's finest and most expensive reds. The vines sent out new shoots, flowered again and made up for lost time in the hot summer, but these secondary bunches were less abundant. Small crops tend to ripen better, however, as all the goodness and flavour pours into a smaller volume of fruit. Growers announce "tremendous quality". Rioja, which largely escaped the frost and made respectable quantities, is claiming a "vintage of the century", comparable with the great 1964 and 1970. Navarra and the Penedes have "superb quality".

The French are happy, too. Of the main regions only Alsace seems to have suffered really badly from the spring frosts and September rain. Elsewhere, the previous three vintages had been really dogged by rain. But in 1995 the hot sun returned on 20 September, dried up the rot on grapes that still remained unpicked, and got down to some serious ripening. Bordeaux, unexciting since 1990, is this year proclaiming "rich, concentrated, aromatic wines with lovely colour, ripe, balanced and subtle".

Laurent Vonderheyden, who owns and makes the wines at Chateau Monbrison in Margaux, says: "I'm really, really happy. The wines are remarkable. To my knowledge there was no frost around here. It was the hottest, driest summer for a decade and the grapes ripened early. It rained from 7-19 September, but by that time the grapes were at the peak of ripeness. We started to pick the Merlot in the last days of the rain, then waited a week for the Cabernets to reach perfect maturity." The rain was a god- send for Sauternes, which relies upon a damp, early autumn to set off the botrytis or "noble rot".

It was the earliest Sauternes vintage since 1972, all finished by the second week in October. In most years, Sauternes growers have not even started picking by then, and when they do they have to pick and repick the vineyards several times, snipping off just the "nobly" shrivelled grapes.

This year, though, the grapes shrivelled nobly almost all at once. Two picks sufficed, and growers are now likening the wines to the fine vintages of 1988, 1989 and 1990, while their red wine counterparts tend to hark back to the excellent but not quite so classy vintages of 1983 and 1985.

Burgundy, too, announces some good reds and whites as a result of the hot summer, and healthy grapes despite the September rain. It was one of the earliest vintages in the last 20 years. Chablis claims higher than average quality, Beaujolais some big, super-ripe cru wines. Champagne producers will decide in the coming spring whether to make 1995 one of the privileged years to be bottled as vintage.

Rhones are reported to be very good. Producers of Loire whites such as Sancerre and Muscadet are declaring a "great vintage", while producers of the often thin and under-ripe Loire reds are declaring this "the year of the Cabernet". Drought-stricken grapes in the south of France were in places diluted and rotted by the September rains, but growers still report "big, dark, ripe, concentrated reds" in places like the Minervois, Corbieres and St-Chinian. Even in Alsace, where spring frosts and September rain caused the worst damage, the latest ripening grapes, Riesling and Tokay Pinot Gris, are said to have made "exceptionally ripe and rich wines" thanks to the October sun.

Across the border in Germany, the hot summer was also dashed by rain in late August and September. It was a smallish vintage of fairly basic wines. Most areas had already picked by the time the glorious October weather arrived. It was only the cooler Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region, which is always late to pick, that could really benefit from the autumn sun. The late-picked Riesling is said to be truly wonderful.

England also appears to have made some excellent, late-picked wines, though frosts just after Easter cut quantities drastically. "Two weeks after budburst, when the little shoots were about six inches long, the frost just wiped them out," says Keith Bown, the winemaker at England's largest wine estate, Denbies, which has 265 acres on the North Downs near Dorking. "We'd have been struggling very badly if it hadn't been for the wonderful summer."

The vines did eventually catch up, but Bown ended up picking about 45 per cent of his normal crop. "When the rain started in September," he says, "everyone here was sweating and urging me to pick, but I refused. We didn't start until 13 September for the earliest-ripening varieties. We had to pick selectively, and discard some mouldy grapes - but it paid off. Then everything dried up for October. It was a glorious autumn, and perfect botrytis weather - wonderful misty mornings and bright, sunny afternoons."

Apart from several sweet, nobly rotten wines, Denbies produced barrel- fermented "Australian-style" Chardonnay, really ripe Pinot Noir grapes which Bown intends to age for a year or so in oak, and a ripe, dry Riesling. "Everyone claimed that Riesling would never ripen here," he says.

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