Spain has witnessed a challenging year for vine growers in 2023, marked by an unprecedented spring drought and autumn storms that disrupted grape harvests across the country. We caught up with some Caballeros and other figures in the Spanish wine industry to hear their take on it.

Caballero Guillermo de Aranzabal, CEO of La Rioja Alta, S.A gives his impressions of the 2023 vintage:  “Of the 36 years I’ve been at the winery, this has been one of the most challenging years yet, especially in Rioja. High temperatures, untimely rains, intense storms, etc., have resulted in large bunches and over-sized grapes, and excessively high production. This led to wines with low acidity, little colour, and high alcohol content. In the Rioja Alta region, it doesn’t seem that they will be suitable for ageing wines, perhaps only for Crianzas and young wines.”

However, conditions in Galicia and Castilla y León were much more favourable, as Guillermo explains: “Luckily this wasn’t universal. In our Lagar de Cervera winery (Rías Baixas), the quality has been very high, as well as in ASTER (Ribera del Duero), with appropriate yields. In Torre de Oña, SA (Rioja Alavesa), we’ve also had a very good harvest, especially in what we call “Viñedos Artesanales,” which are vineyards over 50 years old, cultivated in goblet style in the Sierra de Cantabria. These old vineyards have endured the inclement weather better than the young ones on trellises.”

From drought to DANA

According to La Semana Vitivinícola, the total Spanish production is expected around the 32 million hectolitre mark, compared to 41 million hectolitres in 2022. A considerable drop, in fact, this is one of the lowest harvests ever recorded. The primary culprit behind this reduction is drought. Spain recorded its driest start to a year since records began in the 1960s. The arid conditions were particularly severe in Andalusia in the south and Catalonia in the northeast. The largest region of all in volume terms, Castilla-La Mancha, also saw production down by around 21%.

The other key meteorological condition that had a catastrophic effect on this year’s harvest is the phenomenon known by the abbreviation DANA in Spanish. Translated as a “cold drop” in English, it is an isolated depression at high levels of the atmosphere that causes torrential rain. Spain saw two such weather events during the first and third week of September, with particularly severe flooding across Madrid and Castilla-La Mancha during the former.

Further adverse weather events, such as spring frosts and hailstorms in DO Ribera del Duero and flooding in the east, mean that this is also a record year in terms of insurance pay-outs to vine growers who saw their crops reduced or even lost altogether.

Challenges in the east

Caballero Norrel Robertson MW a.k.a. El Escocés Volante details the weather conditions that affected his vineyards in Aragón, North East Spain:

“We had a very dry start to 2023. After a few showers in the first half of December 2022, we continued in drought mode until June 2023. Like many parts of Mediterranean and continental Spain, we had barely one drop of water for six months.

The growth and phenological cycle followed a traditional pattern in Calatayud and most of Aragón, with budburst of Garnacha occurring around the first week of April. Whilst April and May were not as warm as in 2022, shoot growth was quick to start. Flowering and fruit set were staggered due to some deficiencies caused by lack of water, namely potassium and phosphorus: some vineyards started to show red patches on the leaves, confirming the inability of the vine to absorb potassium because of the absence of water.

June brought some respite with up to 100mm to 150mm falling in 10-15 days, mainly in storms. This was make-or-break for many vineyards in Aragón. Without the rain, many vineyards would have dried out and died (as witnessed in much of Penedès, which did not receive the same amount of rain and where shoot growth did not extend past June).

July brought a short heatwave from the 15th to 20th, but events in August were even more severe with a run of 35ºC+ over many days. Storms over the 1st to 3rd of September brought some more respite and we received up to another 70mm in the run up to harvest. More unfortunate producers from Toledo south of Madrid towards the east received catastrophic levels of rain and wind that laid waste to many vineyards.

We started picking our first grapes from the 7th of September. The late rains helped us to reach better phenolic maturity and finish off the ripening period. Normally, harvest would start 45 to 60 days after envero (veraison). With envero beginning the second week of July and the heat stress lasting up until the end of August, we are talking about 50 days of quite extreme conditions.

2023 is not a year for high alcohol, as warm summers and vintages sometimes dictate. Most of our Macabeos and Garnacha Blancas we ready to pick with 12.5 to 13.0% alcohol. Our reds are similarly fresh with alcohols between 13.0 and 14 in most cases. Wineries looking for higher alcohol levels or chasing the myth of more ripeness were left picking sun-affected and dried-out bunches as temperatures rose once more at the end of September and start of October. 

As with 2022, in 2023 we eschewed pigeage and favoured light pump-overs of the cap for gentle extractions on the reds. The paradox of the year is the slightly higher pH in the finished wines despite the inaccessibility of potassium due to drought. Malolactic fermentation has taken place quickly. I think we can characterize the style of many 2023 reds as being low in alcohol, quite forward and perfumed with monte bajo / garrigue notes probably as the result of a very hot and dry August .I don’t think we are talking about the longest-lived vintage but we have made some pretty wines.” 

Barcelona-based Caballero Ferran Centelles explains the issues faced in Catalonia, where DO Penedès was particularly badly effected with a 40% loss compared to the 2022 vintage:

“Here we had a short and warm harvest. High temperatures and a lack of water have resulted in grapes that are less fleshy and juicy than normal.  Ripening is becoming increasingly uneven, with the heat in mid-summer causing ripening to stop. This leads to a growing imbalance between phenolic and technological maturity.

However, the wines I have had the chance to taste are concentrated and flavourful. It may not be a refined vintage, but we will find flavourful wines. The challenge for the producers lies in achieving a balance between alcohol, acidity, and ripe flavours.”

The extreme conditions led to DOCa Rioja facing a challenging, stop-start vintage. Harvesting began on August 10th with Tempranillo Blanco in Aldeanueva de Ebro, slightly later than the previous year due to cooler nights. However, heavy rainfall at the start of September, especially in the eastern half of the region, brought harvesting activities to a halt. The combination of wet yet warm weather, with temperatures reaching up to 30°C, created favourable conditions for botrytis, compounded by hail in some areas, further damaging the grapes and raising concerns about both quantity and quality.

In neighbouring Navarra, Ochoa said “the 2023 harvest has been the earliest in our history and we’ve been making wine since 1845. “

The year started with a rainy month of January, which compensated for the lack of rainfall in 2022. The rest of the winter and spring were dry however. Fortunately, rainfall in June saved the vintage.

Ochoa believes that the organic management of the vineyard together with the good drainage offered by stony soils were key to the resilience of the vines, even after a bout of hail on the 7th of July.

High temperatures in August slowed down ripening and harvest started with Muscat on the 22nd August.  Rains at the start of September led to disease pressure and the harvest was staggered over seven weeks with a selection of the best fruit. Ochoa describes the newly fermented wines as “fresh with great aromatic richness.”

In terms of sparkling wines, the DO Cava experienced one of its earliest vintages ever, commencing at the end of July. Due to the scarce rainfall, the grapes are noticeably small in size with minimal pulp and volumes are small. Hydric stress made it necessary to sacrifice of a portion of the crop to ensure the remainder could ripen.

Survival in the South

Despite the low rainfall, the DO Jerez fared better than perhaps could have been expected. Although only 425 – 480 l/m2 of rainfall fell, compared to 600l/m2 on average, and there was some damage due to summer hailstorms in Trebujena and Lebrija, the harvest was completed on the 15th September with 50 million kg of grapes, 12% more than the previous year, which was particularly hot. The results are testimony to the water-retention capabilities of the typical albariza soil.

Moderation in the North

Despite the winter drought, wine-producing regions in the north, particularly those influenced by the Atlantic Ocean and the Cantabrian Sea, saw more moderate yet varied conditions. Almudena Alberca MW, Head Winemaker at Bodegas Viña Mayor in DO Ribera del Duero and Caserío de Dueñas in DO Rueda, explains what conditions were like in these areas:

“We had a very dry winter with unusually warm temperatures. March was then very cold, with frost that damaged some of the buds across Ribera del Duero. In this region a further widespread frost occurred in May, damaging the shoots, which were 20cm long by that point.

Then we saw a cycle of warm temperatures of 21ºC, rising to 28ºC to be followed by heavy thunderstorms and hail. Half the average annual rainfall – approximately 150-200L – fell in many parts from May to June in heavy downpours.  This was positive in terms of recovering water reserves that had been depleted by the dry winter, but adversely affected flowering and led to mildew.

In July and early August, conditions were more “normal” with heat and sunshine during the day but cooler temperatures at night.  In mid-July, temperatures rose as high as 38ºC but then cooled to 15-20ºC at night.  This is habitual for this time of year and cooler than last year when we saw temperatures of 40ºC during the day and 22-25ºC at night over a sustained period.”

The harvest in the DO Ribera del Duero commenced on September 18th. While this timing aligns with last year’s historic dates, increased rainfall and slightly milder temperatures compared to 2022 facilitated grape ripening. Despite the various hailstorms, frosts and periods of drought, 117 million kilos of grapes were harvested, compared with the short vintage of 2022 of 105 million kilos.

The harvest in the DO Rueda started as early as the 15th August, with the Sauvignon Blanc grapes picked first to retain their acidity. The spring’s intense heat, with night temperatures above 25°C, was counterbalanced by more moderate summer temperatures, leading to wines with perfectly balanced acidity and alcohol. 130 million kg were harvested, compared to 163 million kg the previous year.

In Galicia, the harvest was also early, with 70 per cent completed by September 19th. Due to the addition of new hectares of vineyard, and the more favourable conditions in this Atlantic region, the harvest reached 75 million kilos, the highest in a decade and 7% more than 2022. The DO Rías Baixas saw its largest ever vintage, with 44 million kilos.

Climate change and sustainability

When asked if he thinks Spain’s vineyards are being adversely affected by climate change, Guillermo de Aranzabal responded in the affirmative:

“When I entered the winery in 1987, the alcohol content we aimed for was 12.5%. Today, there are no wines with less than 14% abv. The weather has also changed a lot, with more prolonged droughts, more frequent storms, much higher temperatures… we are planting new vines on much higher terrain, between 750 and 820 meters in altitude, with the hope of producing grapes with a better balance between alcohol and acidity.”

Almudena Alberca MW agrees: “Over the past 10 years, we’ve experienced very varied conditions in our vineyards – from heavy snowfall and a cool spring in 2021 to drought and heat in 2022 and the varied conditions of this year. This makes it very difficult to adapt but we know that strong healthy vines are most resistant to changing temperatures. This is why sustainability is such a key factor.”

Norrel Robertson MW explains the steps that he is taking to ensure the long-term resilience of his vines: “As we own 40 hectares of dry grown vineyards in an area with only 250 to 200 mm of rain a year with soils sometimes lacking in organic content, we joined the Regenerative Association in Spain this year and our focus is on certifying our production as regenerative. Like most journeys, the application of processes is possibly more important than certification itself, especially in a changing climate.

Most of our focus in the last 14 months has been to produce our own Biochar from vine and other cuttings to apply in the vineyards, helping us to improve soil microbiology, water retention and general soil function.”

Spanish Wine Vintage 2023: One of the most challenging in living memory