Continuing just-drinks' series of updates on this year's wine harvests, Chris Losh reports on the 2004 vintages in Spanish wine regions including Rioja, Penedes and Navarra.

Spain in general saw atypical weather this year: cooler and wetter, with a later harvest, likely to result in wines with less weight and more aromatics.

RIOJA

Like many European wine regions, Rioja is facing a vintage with huge quality variations from vineyard to vineyard and from sub-region to sub-region. The summer began promisingly, with a warm, but not stiflingly hot June and July. But August was very wet and cold, leaving vineyards susceptible to botrytis, particularly for vineyards that had striven to make up for the small production of 2003 with a big volume vintage.

"If we had harvested at the end of August it would have been a disaster," said Luis Valentin, of Valencisco. "But as it is the grapes are mostly dry and healthy, especially in vineyards where people were not greedy and the yields were moderate."

Key to the region's success, as well as yield levels and general attentiveness in the vineyard, will be the ability to select the grapes as they come in (so smaller producers with tables de trie should fare well) and also the date of harvest.

From the start of September, the region saw six weeks of weather that was dry and warmer than average, allowing the grapes to recover, and the longer they were left out on the vines, generally speaking the better they got. In Rioja, this favoured the cooler, later-ripening zones such as Rioja Alta, which may well yield some very good mid-weight wines of elegance and class. In the earlier ripening areas in Rioja Baja (which harvested in mid-September) quality is likely to be less good and even more heavily dependent on the professional integrity of the grower.

"It's not a big-flavoured year like 2001 or 1995," said Valentin. "But it's better than average and should age well. Certainly better than we expected after the summer." Production levels, meanwhile, are high ­ and even with yields set at the maximum, some growers are expected to have to declassify some of their crop.

RIBERA DEL DUERO

The 2004 harvest began towards the end of September, and was hailed as being one of "historic quality" according to Francisco Uña, head of the local regulatory council. Quantity was expected to be similar to the 76m kg of grapes harvested the previous year.

PENEDES

A twin-track vintage for the Catlunyan wine region, which fell prey to the dismal August. After rain every day for 10 days, the early-ripening white varietals, usually harvested around the start of September, were barely ripe. But with botrytis threatening to wipe out their entire white crop, some picked before the grapes reached full maturity.

The likes of Chardonnay, Macabeo and Sauvignon Blanc are unlikely to be of high quality this year, though later whites such as Riesling and Parellada fared better. This was because, after September 10, the weather changed, with four weeks without any rain at all. Miguel Torres describes the year as "memorable" for reds, and the varietal character of the wines as "simply extraordinary".
 
With a lot of growers dropping crop to remove botrytised bunches and help the grapes attain ripeness following the dismal summer, yields are below average, and prices about the same as last year.

NAVARRA

It appears to have been a vintage of two halves in Navarra. Rain moved in down the Ebro Valley throughout August, hitting the south of the region, but leaving the north largely untouched.

"It will either be very good or very poor, depending on where you are in Navarra," said Antonio Barrero of Principe de Viana. "In the north the Chardonnays are excellent, and the reds look like the best for a few years. The cool summer has given us a long maturation and unlike last year we've had cool nights as well."

RIAS BAIXAS

It has been a difficult year for this north-eastern wine region. While a northerly wind managed to repair some of the damage caused by the rains of August, botrytis was not uncommon. By the time harvest started, conditions had improved, with heat and sun raising the grapes' maturity, improving bunch health and lowering acidity.

CASTILLA LA MANCHA

Probably the worst-hit region in Spain. The dreadful (and utterly atypical) weather over the summer left huge numbers of growers with grapes devastated by rot. In some regions 50% of the crop was written off by mildew and the total volume is expected to be smaller even than last year's.