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?!

An Anxious Time

Looking out of my window onto a bright Bristol spring day, I am aware that this is always an exciting but anxious time of the year for vineyard owners wherever they are in the world. 

In the Southern Hemisphere, summer is already drawing to a close and, depending on the local climate and the weather this year, the grape harvest is either imminent, has just started or, in the warmest areas, has already finished.  For those in the last category, worrying about the vagaries of the weather are behind them and they are now sitting smugly, watching the grapes gently ferment in the winery.  The next group, those that have started to harvest, are fervently hoping that they can complete the job before any rain – or worse, hail – arrives that might damage the grapes still left on the vines. In the coolest areas, harvest won’t yet have started and growers there have the key decision on whether to leave the grapes on the vine a week or two longer so that they will ripen just that bit more or whether to pick now and avoid any chance of the weather turning for the worse.

In the Northern Hemisphere, things for growers at this time of year are equally problematic; the challenges here are different, although they still surround the unpredictable weather.  Spring is the time of the year when the first buds appear on the vines from which the new shoots will grow.  A warm spring, like the one we are currently enjoying, will encourage budding but growers will worry about late frosts which can kill off the young shoots.  This would reduce considerably the quantity of grapes produced later in the year.  On the other hand, a cooler spring would mean that the whole process is delayed so that the grapes may not have time to ripen for an autumn harvest.

So, if you pick up a glass of wine this weekend, think about how it is made and thank those whose hard work and judgement results in your pleasure.

Rotten Grapes make Great Wine!

Ask a wine lover to name a sweet wine and chances are the reply will be ‘Sauternes’. This golden nectar is made from a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes (with occasionally a little Muscadelle as well) in a tiny area 6 miles long by barely 4 miles wide a short drive south of Bordeaux. Both the location and the grape varieties are vital to making Sauternes the wine it is.

Sauvignon Blanc is a naturally high acid variety and so adds refreshing ‘lift’ to the wine which, without it, could be dull and cloying. But it’s the Semillon that holds the real key. It is a very thin-skinned variety and, as such, is very susceptible to rot. Rot is normally an enemy to winemakers, introducing off flavours into wine, but in certain circumstances, a particular type of rot becomes a friend. And in the warm, damp, humid conditions often occurring during a Bordeaux autumn, this so-called ‘noble’ rot (or botrytis) can be found most years.

Botrytis works in a strange way. It attacks the berries and makes dozens of pin-prick holes in them. Add a little sunshine and, as the grapes are warmed, the moisture inside them starts to evaporate through the holes, concentrating the sweetness in the berries so that, when they’re picked and sent to the winery for fermentation, the yeast struggles to cope with all the sugar. It converts some to alcohol, but plenty remains to give a wonderful, luscious sweet wine.

Sauternes Ch FilhotThe most famous name of Sauternes, Château d’Yquem, sells for hundreds of £s a bottle, but the Château Filhot (pictured) is a remarkably good, elegant and affordable alternative, available quite widely including from Grape and Grind of Bristol for £12.99 a half bottle. Enjoy with desserts, of course (tarte tatin is a great match), but also with some blue cheese – Roquefort would be the traditional choice, but St Agur or the creaminess of a Dolcelatte would go well too.

Wine Glass Almost Empty!

Glass almost emptyAn almost empty wine glass – not the way I usually head my Bristol Wine Blog! – but that was my first thought when I read recent newspaper reports that a global wine shortage is in prospect.

Research carried out by Morgan Stanley suggests that wine lovers worldwide will soon be drinking more wine each year than is produced, resulting in shortages. They blame increased wine consumption, particularly in China and the United States, coupled with some poor harvests in several of the major wine producing countries in 2012 and 2013.

Just 10 years ago, things were very different. Over 7000 million bottles of wine a year were remaining unsold. Not surprisingly, producers cut back in an attempt to shift their surplus stock and some growers would have decided that their vineyards just weren’t economic any longer. As a result, output fell by almost 10% – and that was before the poor weather that has reduced crops in many parts of Europe this year and last.

At the same time, demand for wine in China has risen at a remarkable rate, quadrupling in just the last 5 years (albeit from quite a low starting point) – a trend that is almost certain to continue. And in the United States, too, wine drinking is becoming much more widespread.

But, read on! Things are not as bad as the headline would lead you to believe – are they ever?

There may be a few short-term problems as the historic surpluses disappear and we depend more on wines from the 2012 and 2013 vintages; prices are almost certain to rise a little. But those two poor years are very much the exception. If the weather in 2014 is better and normal levels of production resume across Europe and countries like South Africa and Chile continue to plant new vineyards, we’ll very soon forget any talk of a shortage.

And I’ve only mentioned China in terms of the population consuming rapidly increasing amounts of wine. The country is also becoming a very significant producer. Indeed from almost nothing 20 years ago, China is now thought to be No5 in the world. Not much is seen outside China yet, but, within the next few years, I expect that to change.

So, yes, we may find some of our favourite wines missing from the shelves for a little while; personally, I’d take that as an opportunity to try something different. But longer term, I see a rosier picture: my wine glass being half full – at least!