Heatwave Brings on Germany’s Earliest Harvest in History

The 2018 grape harvest season started unusually early in Germany, with the first grapes for ‘Federweißer’ picked on August 6 – the earliest start-date on record – in Germany’s largest wine-growing region, Rheinhessen.

Germany experienced a warm spring and a very hot summer, causing grapes to ripen early across all 13 official wine-growing regions, including the northernmost region of Saale-Unstrut. The main harvest is forecasted to start later in August or early September. Later ripening varieties such as Riesling or Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) are already expected to be ready for harvest in mid-September, while Riesling grapes aren’t typically picked until late September or early October. As one of the world’s most northerly wine-growing nations, Germany has seen harvests extend even into November.

This year’s rapid growing season was initiated by the warmest April on record in Germany, marked by early flowering. High temperatures and long hours of sunshine during the summer further accelerated ripening. In some regions, vine growth is three weeks ahead of the long-term average. The previous record for earliest harvest was August 8, set in 2007 and repeated in 2011 and 2014. Last year, the first grapes for Federweisser were picked on August 16.

While rising temperatures are a concern for other farmers in Germany, winemakers feel confident that the conditions are good for the 2018 vintage. Quality of wines, particularly red wines, has improved over the years due to weather changes, and grapes are in excellent health and in good quantity. However, the vines will need rain soon or leaves could wither and hurt the quality of the wine, and a lot can change by the time the main harvest is underway.

At this point, a prolonged 8-week drought has not yet damaged older vines. The roots of older vines can reach twelve meters into the ground, which enables them to tap into water reserves well beneath the subsoil. These reserves are unreachable by younger vines or by vines in shallow soil, both of which require irrigation.

The quality of the vintage is largely determined by weather conditions at the time of harvest, so vintners are hopeful for widespread, abundant rain as soon as possible, with dry conditions in late summer at the time of the main harvest, ideally with warm days and cool nights.

Until then, locals enjoy chilled Federweisser in the heat. Each season, the first grapes harvested are used to make Federweisser, or “young wine,” a partially fermented beverage described as halfway between grape juice and wine. The popular seasonal specialty is offered all around Germany but not typically exported.

For more, watch these videos showing the two methods of harvesting grapes: by hand and by machine. Winemakers often must harvest by hand on steep slopes, like those in the Mosel. On flatter vineyards, mechanical harvesting is extremely efficient, and just as gentle and precise as hand-harvesting.