The 2016 Argentinian varietal harvest has only recently been completed - more than one month late in certain parts of the country. The harvest was delayed due to heavy rains just before harvest, as well as poor weather all year round, resulting in longer time for grapes to mature.
While good and bad years (vintages) are part and parcel of wine production in the European Old World region, this is uncommon for Argentina. In fact, there has only ever been one notably bad vintage in the quarter century history of modern wine production in Argentina - and that was way back in 1999. Yet the 2016 vintage looks set to surpass even 1999 with wineries and oenologists already fearing the worst.
What Was So Bad About the 2016 Harvest?
The semi-arid, desert-like climate of Argentina’s wine producing regions is normally consistent and predictable. This year, unfortunately, was remarkably inconsistent and unpredictable. The 2016 season took a turn for the worst back in spring when heavy rain and unseasonal hailstorms damaged important parts of vines necessary for growth and grape production.
After spring, the year continued badly right up to the harvest time at the end of February. As record weather patterns drowned the world in erratic climate and weather changes, lower than normal summer temperatures and greater fluctuations in temperature also affected Argentina by putting unfavorable stress on grapes.
Then came the worst news possible - heavy rains at harvest time.
Why Rain During Harvest is Undesirable
There are various reasons why heavy rains close to harvest are completely undesirable. Firstly, grapes that are ready to be harvested absorb rainwater, and their flavor consequently becomes much more diluted and results in a poor quality wine.
Secondly, rainfall in hot summer conditions creates humidity. A humid environment encourages the growth of various fungi - including the infamous botrytis - that are deadly to grapes. Whole harvests can be lost. In instances where some grapes can be saved, all bunches must be painstakingly checked to ensure no rotten grapes make it into the wine.
Finally, heavy rains produce the worst conditions for picking grapes. If a vineyard or estate still employs workers to pick grapes by hand, the work rate will slow because of bad conditions. There is always the added risk that workers might refuse to work if they are not duly compensated for the poor working conditions. If a vineyard harvests using machinery and rain is particularly heavy, it is likely that mud and conditions on the ground might make it impossible to operate heavy machinery.
During the final days of February in Mendoza, a staggering year’s worth of rain fell in just four days. Speaking shortly afterwards, Alejandro Marianetti of the Institute of Winemaking in Argentina (INV) confirmed that botrytis had been registered in vineyards across Mendoza. While it was difficult at the time to know what extent, “the damage had been done” he conceded.
More than one month later, early estimates on the loss of grapes in the 2016 harvest are emerging from studies carried out by the INV. Their figures suggest a reduction of anywhere between 25% to 40% of production in Mendoza compared to 2015.
The Successful Wines of the 2016 Vintage
While most of the grape varieties that are grown in Argentina can be found in Mendoza, it is the biggest and best producer of Argentine reds. With Mendoza being the region worst effected by the bad weather, it’s safe to assume the 2016 vintage will not be a good one for Argentine reds in general.
But what about the whites, especially those grown in other regions?
In the North of the country, in Salta and Jujuy, the Argentine white Torrontés variety is king. The warmer climate here was more consistent over the year, and we can expect typical Torrontés' from the 2016 vintage; these are whites that are expressive and fruity in aroma with good all round acidity on the palate. These wines are ideal to be consumed while still young (within one or two years of bottling). With less focus on Argentine reds, perhaps 2016 will be the year that Torrontés receives the attention many feel it deserves.
Further south from Salta and Jujuy, but still north of Mendoza, is San Juan. Conditions here are generally warmer than Mendoza, and the region was lucky enough to escape a lot of the rainfall that Mendoza experienced. San Juan produces reds and whites of equally good quality. If it is an Argentine red that you are still looking for from the 2016 vintage, you should be looking for a wine containing grapes grown in this region. Chances are it will be a much better wine and also cheaper than anything Mendoza has to offer.
Finally, and most excitingly, are the more acidic white grape varieties - Sauvignon Blanc, the various varieties used for the bases of sparkling wines and certain Chardonnays. The year’s conditions were perfect for producing interesting whites containing less tropical fruit notes than are usually present in Argentine whites and more mineral and fresh vegetable aromas. With less sunlight and heat throughout the year to ripen the grapes, these naturally acidic varieties should produce something much more Old World in style - particularly from those grapes grown in Rio Negro, the coldest and most southerly wine region.
What Economic Effects Will the 2016 Season Have?
The most obvious impact the loss of harvest will have on the Argentine wine market will be increased prices. Not only will wineries and producers have to cover the grapes they lost, they are also fighting alarmingly high inflation.
Amalia Manresca from Costa de Araujo, Mendoza, is one of Argentina’s wine producers already feeling the effects of the bad harvest and even tougher economy:
“Workers are now demanding ARS$45 - ARS$50 (around $3 usd) per quintal, whereas I will only be paid ARS$100 for each quintal. What’s more, I don’t get paid until the wine is ready in over a year's time. in a country with 38% inflation this means that I am effectively running at a loss.”
Another additional cost to the wine producers this year were the chemicals used to fight off botrytis and other fungi in grapes. Historically, this has never been a problem for Mendoza or Argentina in general, and therefore, has never factored into the cost of making wine.
Future Climate of Argentina's Wine Regions
While the 2016 harvest was subject to weather that, to this point, has never occurred more than once every 15 years, it is still reason for producers to worry. If it is not just a freak vintage, and instead is a sign of global warming and changing climates, wineries must begin to make careful decisions if they wish to succeed.
Classical Argentine red varieties, such as Malbec, require good sunlight, heat and most importantly consistency. Producers might need to start thinking about whether they want to take a gamble on the weather, or whether they need to change the principal varieties of grapes that they grow. Of course, dramatic changes such as these would be a good few years down the line, but the change itself takes time - time with no income and a business to run.
In the meantime, we sit and wait in anticipation for the Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Sparkling that this very strange but very interesting 2016 has to offer.