GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – The weather gods have been good. The 2015 grape harvest is officially underway in many areas and we can now say it: very good to great wine grape quality in most parts of Switzerland, with a slight dip in quantity. The sun has been shining, the evenings have been cool, the rain has held off. In short, it’s turning out to be close to a wine producer’s dream year, which is good news for wine-lovers, too.
But. The harvest isn’t in yet, for the most part, and wine producers, remember, are farmers. Don’t expect them to get excited just yet. Things could still go wrong. Rains could suddenly drive hard and rot the grapes before they can be rushed to the cellar, the biggest worry at this point.
Still. The grapes are beautiful and abundant without excess. Regional news reports from the three largest wine-producing cantons of Valais, Vaud and Geneva carry interviews with cantonal grape experts and their reports are rosy.
Review of the 2015 grape year
Here’s what happened right in 2015, at crucial points in the grapevine’s season:
Flowering – We had enough rain but not big storms, no major frost. Just as for fruit trees, this is a critical moment. If there is too little water at this point, there are fewer and smaller berries. Gilles Cornut from Cave Cidis/Uvavin, who is also head of the Vaud growers association, told Le Temps at the end of August that the lower rainfall in the spring means the quantity of grapes is 15-20% down. Producers with whom I spoke last weekend at the Vinea wine fair in Sierre confirmed that quantities are lower in Vaud, but not to the same extent as in Vaud and Geneva.
Quotas – Cantons set quotas, part of the programme to limit yields (fewer grapes on a vine generally mean better quality grapes) and maintain decent wine stocks without flooding the market with lesser wines. Vaud, for example, said at the start of the season that the La Côte region could slightly increase its yields for red wines, Gamay excepted, and Chablais could go up a bit for Chasselas, compared to 2014. But in the end the quotas are not an issue this year because nature reduced the yields for the growers.
One square metre of vines should be giving under 1 litre, except for simpler vin du pays wines, and the precise amount depends on the grape variety and the region.
June-July vine growing – We had unusually warm temperatures, which speeded up vine growth and by the end of July we were hearing musings, not yet predictions, about a very early harvest. What the rest of us noticed was not just the heat, but the dryness, with beaches and gardens looking sadly thirsty. Vines have very deep roots, often several metres down, and dryness is usually not a major problem. Raymond Paccot at La Colombe in Féchy, Vaud, puts it in perspective, noting that for older vines, especially those treated biodynamically, the dry spell wasn’t a problem, for they can find the water. The younger vines, planted in soil that drains well, had to be watered, to avoid their younger, smaller roots from drying out.
Veraison – The point at which grapes begin to change colour and take on their final tones, a process of several days. The hard skins begin to soften. The summer’s heat was suddenly replaced for a week or so by cool temperatures and heavy rainfall in many areas, causing the vines to suddenly put more energy into their shoots, which is not what the grower wants at this point. The energy should be going into the grapes. Happily, the heavy rains were short-lived, allowing growers to put up protective netting, for this is the time when birds and wasps begin take a great interest in grapes, which are now easy for them to pierce.
Pre-harvest – The moment when we all want sunshine and warm days; for a grower this means the grapes are ripening, with the sugar level rising and acidity falling. Cool nights allow the vines a moment’s respite. The goal is balance, and in 2015, this is what we are getting, so far. “The perfect programme for grapes to ripen,” says Joel Briguet from Cave La Romaine in Flanthey, Valais. As one sunny day moves into another and the grapes look and taste good, we can finally say that 2015 is a very good year. “Not quite as good as 2003, also a very warm year”, I’ve had several growers say – remember, they are farmers, a cautious group – “but still very, very good.”
Bonuses in 2015 – The plague of Suzukii beetles that caused trouble in 2014 and promised more for 2015 apparently didn’t like the hot, dry weather, and it failed to cause much damage. Neuchatel was hit by hail, but otherwise most areas were spared major hailstorms. Powdery mildew was kept to a minimum. Many producers were able to use fewer disease-control treatments on their vines. The grape bunches are mostly healthy, as a result.
Philippe Bovet in Givrins, Vaud, is very upbeat. After the massively destructive hailstorms in 2013, which destroyed much of his vineyard, the vines are producing happily again, and stocks are getting back to normal. “I’ll have wines again for those people who were disappointed, and that’s great, really great!”
Winemakers from Valais, Vaud, Ticino, told me they’re happy about the 2015 harvest.
The harvest – Switzerland’s now 30-year-old drive for top quality wines is partly responsible for a shift in harvest times. Growers have more freedom to decide themselves, based on several factors, mainly the full ripeness of the fruit. Grapes in Switzerland have three “periods”, so that some, such as Pinot Noir, ripen before others, and each vine parcel has its own micro-climate, with its own ripening schedule.
Managing this well in addition to scheduling and having housing ready for grape-pickers, who often work the harvest in other areas or countries, is tricky. The harvest this year runs from early September to November or late December or possibly even later for the sweet late-harvest wines, where grapes are left to wither on the vines but harvested before they are hit by freezing weather.
The rest of September and October will be a busy time on back roads throughout Switzerland, where 15,000 hectares are devoted to vineyards. Use care on the roads and be patient, because tractors aren’t speedy, and there are a lot of people out there working the vines.
You’ll be thanked, come spring, when the first new wines are uncorked, and Switzerland’s drive to make top quality wines will be on display with yet another fine vintage. Wait a few months longer and you’ll be able to sip the 2015 reds – personally, I’m saving up now to stock the cellar.