This year in the vineyard has been another interesting year, to say the least. We didn’t suffer the dramatic freezing temperatures and stunning snowy scenes that we did in January 2021, but drama did materialise in a different form.
Vintage 2022 report in a nutshell by Norrel Robertson MW
2022 was the first year in Aragon where the future became the present in my 20 years of working in Spain. Off the back of a winter where essentially there was no rain in the winter months, a few storms in March and April brought a little respite to the vineyards. Bud burst followed typical dates, but from May onwards Calatayud and Aragon witnessed abnormally high temperatures with very little rain for the rest of the growing season. The upside was the complete absence of any kind of disease pressure.
Many growers struggled to perform the cultural practices of shoot thinning & trimming in time due to vegetative growth which became hard to handle. Dry and warm conditions in June resulted in exceptional flowering and fruit set, with bunch numbers way in excess of previous vintages. Whilst many growers looked forward to a bumper crop, the ensuing drought during berry growth in July and August meant that yields were kept in check with a resulting low juice to skin ratio which could be felt in the way many winemakers needed to adapt their maceration and fermentation strategies.
In July, a Dutch company that sells carbon offsetting credits to other companies to fund reforestation programmes (and thereby offset carbon emissions from their everyday practices) managed to start wild fires whilst working with machinery in +40ºc heat. The ensuing flames consumed 14.000 ha of land in Calatayud and flames reached within metres of many of our old vineyards. A clear sign that climate change is a real phenomenon. Thankfully, this took place pre veraison and so there was no risk of smoke taint. Whilst we are moving to regenerative viticulture, the debate over cover crops versus cultivated soils becomes more relevant. The reality is that many vineyards acted as fire breaks where there was no combustible material between the vines.
Our harvest started on the 6th of September (10 to 15 days earlier than the norm) and we had all our vineyards picked by 1st of October, starting from 650 metres above sea level moving up to 1000m. The clear signal was that the older vineyards handled the difficult conditions of 2022 extremely well. Our yields were slightly up on 2021 and the wines are looking very well balanced . Malic acid was low on Garnachas – sometimes less than 0,5 grams per litre after alcoholic fermentation. With regards to the lower juice yield to skin ratio we moved away from punching down in 2022 to avoid too much tannin extraction and favoured gentle pump overs, gently wetting the cap.
Dry grown viticulture is more demanding than ever and the focus now is on using our own natural resources to manage drought and plant health. All in all, given our experiences since 2020, we reckon the Mad Max scenario is already here.
And a little bit more detail…
Our work in the vineyards
In January, we carried out the pruning as normal, with Julio Prieto once again overseeing our team training, to ensure optimal vascular health of the vines and therefore their lifespan. We have both bush trained, spur-pruned vines and vertical single staked, spur-pruned wines. Pruning is one of the most important tasks we carry out in the vineyard, particularly given that we are custodians of vines up to 115 years old, and having well-trained staff is vital.
After bud-burst in April and the warmer than normal May, we had an intense 2-3 weeks of activity doing shoot thinning. This is essentially where you define you shoot position, bunch numbers and bunch positioning – all key for vine health and the evolution of the plant.
To protect the vines we continued with our annual practice of distributing pheromone dispensers around the vineyards to cause sexual confusion in the grapevine moth: these pheromones make it difficult for the male to locate his mate and thereby limit reproduction of this moth that attacks the vine in various different ways.
Regenerative viticulture is a new(ish) movement that, in reality, encompasses many old practices and essentially aims to foment sustainability and respect for the land, restoring soil fertility and biodiversity.
With this in mind, over the past few months, we have started to produce biochar from vine cuttings, and other sources (eg almond trees) to aid with water retention in the soil and CO2 sequestration and thereby, in a small way, contribute to combatting climate change. As we’ve said, this is an old practice but it is new to us. We had a fantastic day training with Javier from Carbon Vivo and the very next day put our newfound knowledge into practice. We’re adding 2 litres of biochar to every vine, as you can see in the video, and we’ll keep you updated on the results. Javier shared research that biochar improves composting and that will be our next project.
Our fabulous, custom-made, biochar kiln was made for us by Kon Tiki and you can find more info about biochar in this link.
We also attended a great course on keyline design for landscaping our vineyards to maximise use of the water resources. We learnt all the mistakes we’ve made but also what we’ve done correctly, thanks to Julio Prieto and our wonderful vineyard manager Ruben Palacín, and we learnt how to rectify mistakes. Water management is going to be key for us going forward. Many thanks to Sustraiak for helping us to embark upon this journey.
In June, we attended a three day biodynamic agriculture course. We found things of interest and other elements we are somewhat sceptical of. We went with open minds and continue to keep our minds open to any practices that make us think more carefully about the Earth and our interaction with it. We met a great group of people and remain firmly committed to pursuing organic farming practices. We have been organic for a number of years and now just need to find the time to submit the paperwork to get certification!
Climate change is very real and this summer’s heatwave caused chaos in agriculture across Europe with crops failing and fires destroying huge swathes of land. Here in Calatayud, we experienced wildfires first hand, with 14,000 hectares – including fruit trees and warehouses – destroyed. The flames reached the village of Villarroya de la Sierra, where we have most of our vineyards and we experienced a few tense hours as we watched the flames advance. Our wonderful team went to the vineyards on their own initiative and were able to put out flames around one of our plots and in our neighbours’ plot but the firefighters wouldn’t allow them to go further into the fire zone to access our 105 year old vineyard. We spent the night believing that we had lost that historic vineyard, but awoke to great news the following morning: the flames had reached the very edge of the vineyard but had halted there and not a single vine was lost.
Seeing such familiar landscapes burning was a truly shocking sight: we felt so impotent in the face of the ferocious flames and the high winds, seeing smoke billow across the landscape and villages, seeing the ash fall, inhaling the acrid smell of burning, seeing people being evacuated from their homes… it was surreal and nightmarish. But seeing all the farmers out there, working together to protect their livelihoods and those of their neighbours, was also heartwarming and very emotional.
We received messages of support from all over the world, for which we are extremely grateful, and many people have commented that they believe that we ultimately didn’t suffer any fire damage because we had tilled the land. We do have a cover crop during the winter months but we plough as the summer months approach. Planning for wildfires is something that we have talked about in the past but we didn’t seriously believe would be necessary. Now we know that it is a very real threat and, as Elizabeth Gabay MW commented, there is a very real “fear that this is going to be something that will happen again”.
This is happening in so many parts of Spain and our hearts go out to others who have not been as lucky as us and have lost vineyards and even their lives.
A few people asked us if smoke taint could be a problem: we consulted with experts and were reassured that we wouldn’t be affected because the fires occurred relatively early in the vegetative cycle. The Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) has carried out pioneering research on this subject and the latest research can be found here.
The lack of rain and high temperatures this year has been an ongoing concern as can be appreciated in these graphs from Meteoblue.com
From May onwards, as in many parts of Europe, we saw soaring temperatures and very little rainfall. All of our vineyards are currently dry grown and, whilst our old vines – stoic old veterans that they are – have held up up amazingly well, our younger plantings needed some tender loving care meaning that our vineyard team had the laborious task of watering each individual vine directly, making sure that the water went directly to the roots of the vine, thereby not wasting a drop of this precious commodity.
Just prior to vintage, water reserves across Spain were down to 38%, with Aragon at around 48%. (Source: www.embalses.net)
In 2013, Norrel tweeted concern about the heat and lack of rain both in that year and in 2003: this year has outdone those years with a far more extended period of high temperatures and drought stress. That said, as can be appreciated in these temperature graphs, the diurnal change in temperatures is quite something, with overnight temperatures getting quite cool at times. That is the beauty of having vineyards at such high altitudes. Also to be taken into account is that Garnacha is a wonderfully adaptable variety that generally responds well to drought conditions.
In the third week of August, there was finally some rainfall in the area which, for us, saved the harvest. Unfortunately, some of the storms brought hail to neighbouring villages and friends have suffered damage to varying degrees.
So, ultimately, we had a harvest that was significantly more successful than the year had led us to believe it would be. We’re really happy with the wines, both white and red and we’ll be releasing another single parcel wine very shortly. We’re continuing to learn and expand our knowledge in the vineyard and hope that you feel, as we do, that our wines are a true reflection of their terroir.