This week as we look at Spain and Italy we find further evidence that this has been a winemakers' vintage, with outcomes varying widely region to region. Olly Wehring and Chris Brook-Carter report on two more sun scorched countries.

The excessive heat of June, July and August, followed by cooler, wetter weather from mid-September onwards has left Spain with something of a curate's egg of a vintage. It is potentially very good for some, awful for others and with plenty of variation within regions as well as across the country.

In Rioja the year started well, with a wet winter and no frost damage, but as the heat and dryness started in the summer, vines began to show signs of stress and grapes became over-ripe. Lower-lying areas had no option but to pick in early-September, giving wines with high alcohol, low acidity and variable phenolic ripeness.

But on the higher, cooler lands of Rioja Alta and, particularly, Rioja Alavesa, the grapes matured more slowly, and most producers were able to hold off harvesting until the end of September or October. As a result, the vines benefited from the spell of cooler weather, allowing for a slower final maturation. For these wines, the potential is promising, with good colour and alcohol levels, plus improved polyphenols, though acidity remains low, and correction is likely to be widespread.

"It was an atypical year that needed selective harvesting," said Gabriela Rezola at La Rioja Alta.

Following the miniscule 2002 harvest, the region expects to return to normal crop levels this year with around 450m kg of grapes.

Penedes was a similar story, with a vintage that turned around at the last minute. "A harvest that promised to be early, has turned out to be almost late," said Miguel Torres.

Nonetheless, the rains came too late to rescue some early-ripening white varietals which were harvested as early as mid-August - and these wines showed great ripeness, but little structure or aromatics. Some reds, by contrast, were not picked until around the middle of October!

Although some grapes split when berries swelled during the rain, in general the overall health of the grapes coming into the winery was encouraging.
In Rueda, Ribera del Duero and Toro quality was equally patchy, with Rueda, as a white wine DO, suffering more than the other two. Younger vines suffered badly from hydric stress, and the raisining which can give concentration to reds did little favours to the region's Verdejo and Sauvignon Blanc. It was a vintage low in malic acid - a key component in the region's aromatics - and only those who carried out vigorous green harvesting will bring in wines of high quality.

"Maceration time will be crucial, as will use of yeasts that don't attack malic acid," said Pablo del Villar of Hermanos del Villar.

Conscientious producers machine-picked at night and trucked grapes to the winery straight away. Less technologically advanced growers without these facilities will have struggled to bring in anything drinkable.

Rias Baixas, normally one of the coolest, wettest regions, enjoyed sugar levels rarely before seen. "The temperatures in Riax Baixas were very high in August, but not sufficiently to affect the quality of the grapes, which arrived in our winery in excellent condition," said a spokesman for Lagar de Cervera. 'The resulting musts are very balanced, perhaps with a bit less acidity than usual, but with higher alcohol levels.'

With three months of almost uninterrupted heat, the Italian wine industry has had a battle on its hands this summer. The temperature did not drop below 30 degrees and often hovered around 40, with almost no rain between the beginning of June and the end of August. Consequently, quantity will be down by between 10-15% on a normal vintage. The harvest for both red and white grapes began up to four weeks early, with some winemakers picking at night.

One interesting upshot of the hot summer is that the alcohol content will be stronger for this year's wines. Less water pushes the alcohol content up, in this case by up to one-and-a-half percentage points.

Northern Italy suffered the same fate as the rest of northern Europe following an extremely dry and hot summer. As Damian Carrington, marketing manager at Enotria, explains: "The vines just shut down in the heat. The storks and pips failed to ripen. Consequently, the grapes didn't receive the nutrients they needed." In the regions of Piedmont, Veneto, Alto-Adige and Friuli yields for both red and white wine will be down. A lack of acidity in these yields means that wines will be richer and better suited to early drinking.

Although conditions in the north of Italy were good for the harvest, further south in Tuscany storms at harvest time did not help. In central and southern Italy the quality looks acceptable, but the quantity will be markedly lower than the rest of the country.

Sicily, however, proved the exception. "Ironically, the summer wasn't as hot as usual on Sicily," said Carrington. With the weather being a little cooler than usual, the Sicilian harvest looks like being quite a good one.

A future concern, according to Geoff Owen of Giustivini, is that the Italians may look at increasing prices as a result of the low yield. "The Italians tend to ignore the bigger picture when it comes to pricing their wines," he said. "Will they see the light come December when they set their prices?"