A Depressing Vintage

As the calendar ticks over into September, vineyard owners across Europe would traditionally be returning from their August holiday and thinking about when they should be harvesting their grapes.  They would know there’s a narrow window when there’s enough sugar in the berries to provide the flavour and alcohol needed but the grapes still retain some acidity ensuring that their wine is vibrant and refreshing.  Too soon or too late – it’s always a tricky call, sometimes made more difficult by forecasts of rain which can dilute the juice or introduce off-flavours through rot or, worse, hailstorms that can damage the vines as well as the crop.

But not this year!  The record-breaking temperatures have given producers a different – and possibly more challenging – problem.  In some places the grapes have ripened weeks earlier than usual and with worryingly low acidity levels.  As a result, many European growers have already finished their harvests – some in the south of France starting to pick as early as the last week of July.  Even the normally relatively cool Bordeaux region will begin harvesting its reds within the next couple of weeks, rather than in early October.  And growers there will be hoping that the impact of the recent forest fires will be less disastrous than was at one time feared.

Elsewhere the extreme heat accompanied by severe drought has simply caused the vines to shut down to protect themselves, leaving very little to harvest. 

So, with all these problems, what can we expect from the 2022 vintage?  I think a lot is going to depend on the producer, when exactly they are picking and the condition of the grapes at the time.  The dangers are, on the one hand, ‘cooked’ flavours and high levels of alcohol and (for the reds) high levels of tannin, too.  The alternative, for those who have picked very early, is under-ripe, thin wines with little character.  Either way, volumes will be lower than usual and prices will be higher.  Not a happy outlook for wine lovers.

And, if that isn’t depressing enough, global warming means this situation is likely to become more common for future vintages.  What’s that old expression about driving one to drink?!

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Action, not Words

As I write this, many of the world’s leaders and their support teams are meeting in Glasgow at the COP26 Conference to discuss climate change and what can be done to limit its impact on our planet.  Although undoubtedly a serious problem for us, it’s one that, without urgent action, could prove catastrophic to the generations that follow us.  It will be interesting to see how those attending face up to their enormous responsibility.

The problem isn’t new and many parts of the world have already been badly affected by climate change.  The wine industry hasn’t escaped, of course; wildfires in the USA and Australia and serious flooding in Germany have affected vineyards and wineries and these are just a few of the most serious examples. 

But, for more than 2 decades now, many vineyard owners have noticed changes; their grapes are ripe enough to harvest weeks earlier than they used to be.  As a result, in some of the world’s warmer vine growing areas, producers are looking to plant at higher altitudes to benefit from the cooler conditions that may be available there.  Elsewhere, drought is causing real problems and may result in some vineyards, particularly those that rely on irrigation, becoming unviable; at the very least, different, more heat- and drought-resistant varieties will need to be introduced, as Bordeaux, for example, have already decided to do.

Conversely, areas like Germany and Britain, who, in the past have struggled to ripen grapes sufficiently for quality wine, are now finding perfect conditions.  How long before northern Canada and Scandinavia become centres of vine growing excellence?

But the wine industry must also look at itself.  The fermentation process that creates wine releases Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere (admittedly, in relatively small quantities) and its use of bottles – sometimes unnecessarily heavy bottles – and their transportation around the world clearly has an impact.

For the sake of the planet and, especially, for future generations, I hope that something positive comes out of the Conference and not just words. Any promises must be followed by real action.  I have to say, sadly, that I’m not confident.