A provocative question!
First things first: We are definitely no fans of hasty reviews of a winegrowing year. Time plays a crucial role in the production of sekt, and it often takes many years of maturation and lees contact to determine whether any given harvest vintage can be defined as “very good.” Especially for sekt! The next several weeks leading into harvest will perhaps be decisive in determining the fate of the 2021s.
Yet we’re willing to pose the question, provocative as it is! And give an entirely subjective answer, without any claim to definitive proof!
Do wet years follow dry ones?
The 2018, 2019, and 2020 vintages were all shaped by constant high temperatures and extreme dryness. The trend toward ever-earlier blossoming and harvests continued to accelerate, such that in 2020 we found ourselves starting the grape harvest as early as August 24. We could see that nature was craving a bit more rain as the water reserves in the soil slowly dried up.
And nature got her wish. Perhaps a bit too strongly? Frost, rain, and then the catastrophic floods in the Ahr Valley—the 2021 vintage dawned under anything but a happy sign, and the fallout affected all of us, either directly or at an emotional level. But might the year still turn things around?
2021—A volatile year!
Delayed bud break
Back around Easter, there was a general feeling that bud break could arrive at any moment. But moderate temperatures instead kept us waiting. To be more precise, bud break occurred almost 3 weeks later than the year prior.
From the moment bud break arrived, however, we then experienced a stretch of warm weather that included several days above 30 degrees Celsius, and the fears of yet another hot year became more concrete. The high temperatures promoted such quick growth of the shoots that we struggled to keep up with the canopy work in the vineyard.
Delayed blossoming in June
Blossoming marks a milestone after which winegrowers would prefer plenty of sun and minimal rain. In this vintage, however, things took a sudden turn to the wet and inconsistent. Flörsheim-Dalsheim, Bockenheim, and Hohen-Sülzen were fortunately all spared local frost. Temperatures were moderate, and as in May and June, everything once again pointed towards a late date for harvest. The rain was plentiful and constant, with only a few days of respite. The soils were saturated and it was clear that they couldn’t take on any more water.
Even in Rheinhessen, we had to deal with heavy rainfall and downpours. While Flörsheim-Dalsheim—situated in the rain shadow of the Donnersberg—is in one of the most rain-poor regions of Germany, we saw one day in June with 60 liters of rainfall—a huge amount for us, yet a minor inconvenience compared with the situation in some towns in the Pfalz and along the Ahr. The conditions put organic winegrowers in a tough spot, since we couldn’t spray any chemicals to protect our vines. Our only option were so-called ‘contact agents.’ And they were no sooner applied than another round of rain would arrive and wash them away.
2021 certainly put the viticultural skills of Germany’s winegrowers to the test. Can we hope for a more promising final stretch?
Cool nights “bring” acidity
It took a tremendous amount of blood, sweat, and tears, but we managed to restore our vineyards to outstanding conditions shortly before the grape harvest.
Several factors are crucial when making high-quality sekts. Volatile weather with mild temperatures as seen in this vintage put the focus on two in particular:
An early harvest of the grapes
When making sekt, Champagne, and other sparkling wines, sufficient acid levels are essential to achieving good quality. The acidity in the grape diminishes as the fruit matures.
Sekt produced using traditional bottle fermentation involves two alcoholic fermentation events: first in the stainless steel tank or wooden barrel, and then again in the bottle. To ensure that the final alcohol content doesn’t climb too high, we look to achieve an early grape harvest before the must weight of the grapes rises too much.
Healthy, ripe grapes
The grapes should ideally be as ripe as possible at the time of harvest, with optimal sugar levels, balanced acidity, and low phenolics. This results in outstanding aromatics that ultimately shape the final sekt.
In particular, warmer evenings lead to a quicker dissipation of the acid that keeps the sekt lively and fresh. In the regions where people like to travel on vacation because it’s lovely and warm even into the early hours of the evening, the wines tend to be less acidic than from regions where the nights are cooler. We as winegrowers are thus perhaps happiest when we have to spend our evenings on the terrace wrapped in a thick blanket. This year, you can count the nights without a thick blanket on one hand.
A long ripening promotes aromatics
Every sekt maker thus hopes for a long ripening period between blossoming and harvest. The more moderate the temperatures, the slower the ripening. This results in a longer ripening period, allowing the grapes to develop outstanding aromatics. Together with somewhat cooler nights, the acids remain intact and, presuming the winegrower works meticulously during harvest and afterward in the cellar, lend themselves to the creation of outstanding sekts.
What lies ahead for 2021?
Our (!) gut feeling: 2021 could optimally fulfill several of these requirements: cool nights, a long ripening period, and—at present—still healthy grapes (combined with a bit of luck and industriousness in the vineyard throughout this rainy summer).
But: this race will definitely be determined in the final stretch. During that final ripening phase before harvest, the weather conditions are crucial for the quality of the vintage. Ideally it should be dry, with a beautiful and long-lasting ‘golden autumn.’
To that end: cross your fingers and say your prayers.
SolidA(H)Rity with Ahr winegrowers
Unfortunately not all winegrowers could share these positive perspectives. For some winegrowers, 2021 will forever be remembered as the year of catastrophe. The floods of mid-July destroyed more than just estate buildings and warehouse stock. They also ruined almost ten percent of the region’s 563 hectares under vine. It may well spell the tragic end to the viticultural dreams of many growers on the Ahr. We are and remain deeply shocked by the horrific consequences for our beloved colleagues along the Ahr.
Beyond labor and materials—which we and the rest of the winegrowing community are providing in plenty—what’s needed right now is monetary support. Which is why we appeal to you: please, please join in the effort and donate to the Ahr flood victims!
The VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter) has created a charitable fund which we encourage you to use:
Der VDP.Adler hilft e.V.
IBAN: DE 21 5109 1500 0000 2045 28
Reference: Solidarität Ahr Weinbau
or via PayPal:
Reference: Solidarität Ahr Weinbau
The Ahr is and will forever be a wonderful and unique winegrowing region!