Kicking off just-drinks' 2006 harvest reports from northern hemisphere wine regions, Chris Losh takes a look at the contrasting fortunes experienced this year by Spanish and Portuguese wine producers.

SPAIN

Rioja

This was a tricky vintage for Spain's principal growing region, with alternating periods of hot and cool weather leading to uneven ripening and a protracted harvest. The Consejo Regulador's harvest bulletin in early-October admitted that "the irregular maturation has put heavy emphasis on the importance of finding the right time to pick each parcel."

The problem was high sugar ripeness, but low phenolic ripeness, combined with quite high levels of acidity. The intermittent September rains also led to some botrytis. Those who had the courage to wait benefited from an Indian summer and should have been able to pick healthy grapes.

Volumes were high - the 282m kilograms was 3% up on last year's 274m kg, and seems to have been achieved more through new plantings coming on line than through the kind of high yields that blighted the reputation of the 2000 vintage.

Though no-one is unequivocally trumpeting the quality of 2006, it seems to have turned out better than many thought it might in September, and those with big orders to fill are likely to be happy with the increased volumes on offer.

Ribera del Duero

The 2006 vintage has been met by much rejoicing in Ribera del Duero, which has clocked up its biggest ever vintage at 98m kg. The harvest confounded all the gloomy mid-summer predictions. The size is explicable both by crop from new plantings and the mid-summer rains, which increased bunch weights.

Yields were typically low at 4,500kg/ha (28hl/ha) - and a further 6m kg of grapes were sold to wineries outside the DO and declassified into Vino de la Tierra.

"It's been a quality harvest, with colour, alcohol and hardly any problems with grape health," said Castilla's Insititute of Agricultural Technology (ITACYL). "In spite of the rains, botrytis hardly made an appearance."

Rueda

Rueda recorded its largest ever harvest this year. Unusually for this region, there was no springtime frost, giving maximum yields, and the 42m kg of white grapes this year is 25% up on 2005. Of the total, 29m kg are Verdejo, 8m kg Viura and 4.5m Sauvignon Blanc.

Picking started at the end of August, and, with uniform ripening, was completed very quickly. There were high temperatures throughout September and most of the harvesting was carried out at night. There were some rains and fogs, but the DO claims that these have not affected the quality of the wines, and the grapes are in "immaculate health".

Rias Baixas

They were cracking open bottles of celebratory fizz in Galicia this year. "This was a vintage without parallel, both in quality and quantity," said the region's Consejo Regulador. "The vintage surprised us all with its size, the weight of the bunches and the high yield of the musts."

Again, an unusual lack of rain in the summer and during the harvest itself, along with high temperatures, led to dry, healthy grapes with good fruit concentration.

The 30m kg was a record, and much needed, coming on top of the dismally small 2005 crop. Of the 30m kg picked, 28m were Albariño.

La Mancha

This year could be characterised a year of extremes for La Mancha. Drought throughout the winter, without even any snow, was followed by a lot of rain in May and lower temperatures than normal. The summer 'infierno' gave way to a cooler spell in August with (unusually) some rain to keep the vines going before a hot end to the year. Hot weather during the vintage meant that grapes were picked in good health, but quality may be affected.

Penedes

A warm year led to an early vintage in the Penedes region. Picking started in the middle of August and was finished by the second week of October. The heat is unlikely to have done many favours to aromatic grape varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, though more full-bodied grapes such as Garnacha Blanca and Chardonnay are reckoned to have performed well.

Vine stress caused by the heat and lack of water affected yields, and the overall crop was below average, but still better than the tiny 2005.

PORTUGAL

Douro

After three good years for wine and port producers in the Douro, reality bit in 2006. It started well, with winter rains doing their bit to replenish vines after two years of drought. But spring saw strong, cold winds in April, heavily reducing the fruit set, particularly in higher vineyards.

This was followed by the hottest May for 40 years, with an astonishing six days averaging over 25°C. The heat wave continued into June, before coming to an abrupt end with severe hailstorms in the middle of the month sweeping the valley. Some vineyards lost a third of their crop in 20 minutes.

The hot weather then continued into July, and in the upper reaches of the Cima Corgo, temperatures regularly peaked at over 40°C. Crop levels at this stage were very small.

In August, temperatures were atypically low, and there was even some rain which threw a much-needed lifeline to the struggling vines, before the heat returned once more in September. There was, inevitably, some raisining of bunches and a further reduction in crop levels.

Weather during the actual harvesting was very unsettled, with a lot of threatening clouds, but very little actual rain, and dry winds which simultaneously kept away any rot and lowered temperatures.

Alas, this cool spell at the end of the year stopped some grapes from reaching full maturity, with the late-ripening Touriga Franca particularly affected.

Total production of Port is expected to be 9.5m cases, 900,000 cases less than this year's estimated sales, and prices are expected to rise as a result.

The worst affected vineyards for both quality and quantity were those in the highest-altitude areas of the Cima Corgo, so it is not likely that there will be many declarations from 2006.

Other Portuguese regions

The heat and drought that hit Spain's volumes had the same effect in Portugal. The country's total production is expected to be 6.9m hl, down from both the 7.2m hl of 2005 and the three-year average of 7.3m hl.

Producers are talking about higher alcohols and lower acidity. Generally, the indigenous grape varieties seem to have fared rather better than the international ones.