“It has been very intense”. So said a wine making colleague here in the Pfalz, Germany in the week after the harvest ended. A delicate yet broad understatement I thought.

Just a week prior to the start of the harvest I heard from a friend whose regular cellarhand had taken a fall, resulting in a broken wrist.

So I made apologies to my expected employer, (who was in a position where I could leave him at short notice,) and agreed to travel over to another village for the duration.

This has been an unusual growing season, the outcome being a series of unusual challenges.

I hear mixed reviews coming out of the UK so this was perhaps a northern European set of circumstances. Several events occurred here that gave rise to our problems.

Whilst the jury is still out regarding the impact from varying management strategies, nature came in with circumstances that on occasions gave rise to insurmountable difficulties. In places these troubles were widespread.

In the middle of summer, just after flowering had run its course, there were several weeks of wet and warm weather patterns sweeping through the region. Naturally this gave rise to some difficulties for vineyard managers, but it also was an excellent period for initial berry growth. This set one of the stages for future problems – massive yields.

This is a region of mixed field vegetable growing, and across a range of crops including those summer harvest salad type crops. Whilst you might not think that these crops give rise to potential ‘cross over’ issues to vines, they very probably harbour early generations of fruit fly populations. I’ve seen this previously whilst working in a winery adjacent to outside, field grown tomatoes, but I wasn’t expecting problems here.

Heavy fruit set in grapes also gives rise to the increased incidence of one bunch lying directly on another. Sometimes with a leaf or two between them. Disasterous where rots are inevitable.

The soil had retained enough moisture so come veraison the berries swelled up and perhaps way beyond that which is normal. Whilst a double size of crop might sound beneficial to those that only seek high yields, the problems quickly started to multiply. In some varieties more than others, but in general all around.

The weather was incredibly warm – day and night. In simple terms this was heading towards large crops, but very low sugar levels – ripening across all varieties came upon us very fast. Surprisingly given the size of most crops the acid level was low (possibly a result of warm nights). Then the rot set in.

Surprisingly in general the leaves were in good condition, but perhaps any productive functioning from the leaves was beginning to be ‘too little-too late’. I have never experienced sour rot like this, but we all knew that there is not much you can do once the influence of this vinegar taint gets into the cellar.

Such are the mixed joys of mechanical harvesting.

Warmth and sufficient moisture in the canopy between the bunches, being a perfect breeding ground for the vinegar fly.

Some of the earlier varieties developed a high proportion of bunches that simply rotted out. That is to say that whilst they looked like a complete bunch of grapes, a light tan brown tint to the skin colour indicated that the berries were simply empty. Our management policy here was to cut them off, and preferably the day before the harvester arrived.

Not so easy to see in early ripening ‘gris’ coloured varieties like Grauburgunder.

And so it was that I went to the cellar in the morning and did a little work, and then headed out to the soon to be harvested block for tomorrow. Here I joined the father of the present winemaker and we raced up and down the rows cutting free this rancid mess, all the while I listened to him mutter “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life”. He is 88 years old.

And then back to the cellar…

And then back to the vines…

We got some of the grapes in quite quickly and early, and given that their natural acid was not too high these gave some chance to on sell some of the juice to the large company Sekt makers. However they quickly had too much to wish for more.

So our assessment for the remaining, (and we started with 12ha,) had to consider the ‘worst of the evils’.

Interestingly differing varieties suffered from differing ailments, where, for example, the Muller-Thurgau quickly got a lot of late season Oidium around some of the bunches, where Oidium, in any form, is very undesirable in the grape juice.

Ortega was riddled with Botrytis, and was very heavy cropped. Somehow the vine was able to decide which bunch’s it was simply going to abandon and ripen no further, so there were also whole bunch’s with wickedly high acid levels, and a horrible taste.

Other varieties developed a form of ‘shanking’ where the bottom third of some bunches developed dry, wizened lifeless stalks resulting in a bunch with a proportion of unworkable grapes; not to be picked. This might in part have stemmed from a magnesium limitation, and this could possibly have been influenced by rootstock choice.

Nowhere were any of the red varieties ever going to get to a level of ripeness where a red wine was possible.

Yes a few smaller batch of rose were made, along with a lot of ‘Blanc de Noir’. Out of close to a dozen varieties we got down to the difficult decision…which blocks to simply abandon.

This was the expected good result from a warm year… Yet all was not impossible and as we know, what is a little low ripeness where a bag of crystal sunshine can brighten our evenings.

Even with alarming rises in the price of sugar, sales were high, and the resulting wines can be hoped to be presentable enough. Certainly I’m pleased with some of the Riesling, Muskateller, and even a tank of Sauvignon.

However like my friend indicated, it was tiring, very very tiring; but I learnt a lot and all is well.