2022 Sherry Harvest Report – Another Challenging Year for the Region

While the city of Jerez de la Frontera is still fully submerged in the festivities of the Fiestas de la Vendimia, the actual harvest campaign in most of the famous pagos and vineyard plots all over the territory ended a few weeks back. This time, the extreme heat and scarce rainfall both accelerated and shortened the duration of the harvest. Without any doubt, 2022 has been another challenging and complicated year for the entire area. Not only the summer months were extraordinarily hot, as expected, but numerous unfavorable events throughout the annual cycle constantly tested the skills and expertise of growers, winemakers, and wineries who restlessly tried to keep the soils, vines, and crops at an optimal state. Wild climate swings, intense heat weaves, and insufficient rainfall—mostly concentrated in the months of December and March—have all left a mark in the 2022 regional chronicle.

The warm Mediterranean climate experienced in the low-altitude Marco de Jerez, somewhat tempered by the influence of the Atlantic Ocean, rarely prevents the region from obtaining adequate levels of ripeness in the grapes.

As expected, the maturity of the grapes will establish the start of the harvest. Toward the end of the growing season, ongoing analysis of maturation, acidity levels, and sugar content—among others—allow the wineries to estimate when the big job of picking the grapes may begin, but the precise dates are almost always unpredictable. Around this time last year, we wrote an article outlining some of the important factors influencing such a decision. You can read it here.

Sherry harvest report: Setting records, again

In 2021, the harvest started on August 2nd when the House of Lustau began collecting grapes at their northernly located Pago Montegilillo—setting the earliest date on record. This year, on August 1st there were four grape-crushing facilities in the municipalities of Jerez de la Frontera, Chipiona, and Lebrija already working at full capacity! That means this was the first time in history that the harvest kicked off during the month of July, according to the data shared by the Consejo Regulador. By August 24th, 29 out of the 33 grape-processing centers spread all over the land had already finished their assignment of tasks, with only some parts in the towns of Chiclana and Puerto Real still operating.

Sergio Martínez, chief winemaker at the House of Lustau defines this year as “atypical”. The long-lasting heat wave, that kept most of the Iberian Peninsula at abnormally steady high temperatures, had a dramatic effect on the grapes’ ripening process. Jerez was particularly hit. Frequent maximum temperatures north of 111°F along with lows hardly going below 59°F, plus the impact of high Levante winds, drove the maturation process out of control. The results? A very unusual season, nonetheless, showing great quality. Martínez tells us: “This year, the grapes have reached their phenolic ripeness in a very bizarre way, concentrating sugars and exceeding 11º Baumé units exceptionally early, with very generous alcohol potential levels on dates never seen before. Despite this, the health status of the different grape varieties has been very positive, and we are very happy with the quality across the board.” He continues: “On the other hand, we are anticipating that the conditions experienced during this period will contribute to producing base wines of an average greater structure and body, putting more pressure on capatazes when it comes to correctly classifying their stocks and assigning them to the right solerajes (solera systems), thus the wines fit nicely into the initial styles, from the lighter finos and manzanillas to the more robust olorosos.”

From Harvest 2021 to this year’s harvest temperatures have been slightly higher and rainfall never reached the average 600mm (or 600 l/m2)

The much less-present Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez grape varieties have not suffered nearly as much as the Palomino.

Lustau owns two separate vineyards showing rather opposite characteristics: Monteguilillo, far inland on the northern end of the Denomination of Origin, and the coastal Las Cruces in Chipiona. The former is a hotter site planted with Palomino in classic Albariza-Tosca Cerrada soils of great purity and concentration. The latter is a vineyard with thermal shifts softened by the Atlantic, where more diversity of soils is found and with the three authorized grape varieties planted. These both play an important role in the diversity of the Lustau collection of wines.

Compared to Palomino, Moscatel de Alejandría is a longer-cycle variety with a later maturation process that is typically grown in the sandier areas along the coast (see Lustau Las Cruces vineyard above). In these ocean-influenced vineyards, the temperature swings are usually less extreme than those found inland, and the damper atmosphere in the early mornings helps maintain a cooler environment. As Martínez explains, the effects of the acute drought and scorching heat are curbed by the proximity to the Atlantic. During the early days when his team was focused on promptly picking the Palomino in the Pago Montegilillo, the Muscat down the coast was still quite unripe. “Exceptionally, there have been no significant variations in the harvest times of both Moscatel de Alejandría and Palomino found in our coastal Las Cruces vineyard”.

Along the same lines, no noteworthy difficulties have been reported as far as the ripening of the sparsely planted Pedro Ximénez. A different story has been the “asoleo” practice performed to concentrate the sugars. Despite the overall hot conditions across the region, due to some rainfall events in late August and the regular moisture setting overnight, the sun-drying process this year has been less pronounced, forcing the workers to extend the sun-exposing period, something that brings potential problems like fungal infections and rot that need to be carefully monitored.

Asoleo is the sun-drying process by which the grapes are laid out outdoors for a few days. The exposure to the sun gradually evaporates the water in the berries shooting up their levels of sugar and turning them into raisins.

The same debate continues

The above-mentioned scenario has sparked once again the debate that’s arisen among locals in recent times. Climate change and the steady increase in temperatures are pushing the vines to calibrate and advance their annual cycle, triggering substantial alterations to their inner ecosystems. The added issue: the resulting lower yields that the vines are putting out year after year aggravate the whole situation.

“As mentioned before, the quality obtained from this vintage shouldn’t be underestimated, but the quantity/yields are a big topic of concern.” Says Martínez. “We have stayed watchful over the singular evolution of the grapes’ buildup, keeping ourselves on guard to readily act and try to address potential upcoming problems. Despite all efforts, we have ended up with about 20% less production than in the previous vintage.”

Because this is the new concern in 2022; being off by between 30 to 40% in total production compared to 2021 (which already was rated as an extremely low-yielding season) will for sure further stress the already short supply of wine needed to feed the aging systems every year, something that the authorities will have to address without hesitation. As mentioned in a similar report from last year, by both César Saldaña, President of the Consejo Regulador de las DDOO Jerez-Xérèz-Sherry y Manzanilla-Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and Luis Mateos, founder of the vineyard management consulting firm Vara y Pulgar and Lustau adviser, everyone in Jerez has started adjusting to the climate situation for some time now. Several techniques like compacting the soil to minimize water evaporation, the use of pre-grafted plants that are better suited to the faster rates of maturation, speeding up the renewal of the vineyards with younger vines more capable of coping with the longer periods of drought and severe heat, as well as some other initiatives involving the latest trends in sustainability and climate change are all being considered and /or applied.

The sherry country is facing uncertain changes ahead of it, some of them will arrive sooner than others, but the region is wrestling to quickly adapt to this new reality that alters the profile of the crop and its timelines. Everyone is involved, from growers to the big houses, with one objective in mind, reacting fast based on what we know today to ensure a smooth transition into the unexplored future.

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