A few weeks ago, I blogged about the record high summer temperatures across much of Europe and how these might lead to the same problems growers experienced in the heatwave year of 2003. Then, many wines tasted ‘cooked’ and lacked freshness and most were past their best much sooner than expected. But, the reports I’ve seen recently suggest that my worries may have been misplaced. In fact, the word is that, so far, the grapes harvested this year have shown excellent levels of ripeness and volumes are up on 2017.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that there have been no challenges during the growing season; many have noted that, as the heat was accompanied by humidity, vine diseases, notably mildew which attacks both leaves and berries, have been a major problem. And harvesting has had to be careful and painstaking as pickers are often finding healthy grapes and shrivelled, dried out berries in the same bunches.
But the 2018 harvest is only part way through and, where later ripening varieties are involved, things are still uncertain. Take Bordeaux as an example: there, the white grapes were all gathered in by the end of August and are now safely in the fermentation tanks. Now, thoughts are turning to the Merlot, which, in most places will be reaching full ripeness. I’ve not heard that the storms that affected the UK last week had an impact on Bordeaux to any great extent and, hopefully, that variety will be soon be picked and it, too, will no longer be subject to the vagaries of our autumn weather.
More problematic is the Cabernet Sauvignon which some growers are insisting needs at least another three weeks of dry, warm weather to fully ripen. Will they get it? There will certainly be nervous eyes looking at the skies for rain clouds. The decision of when to pick is such a crucial one; too early means the grapes are short of peak ripeness and the wine will taste thin and green but waiting may risk rain, rot and a ruined crop.
The challenges of being a winemaker!
As the year draws to an end, it’s natural to want to look back on the highs and lows. Sadly, for 2017, I suspect that there are few connected with the wine industry who will remember the year with any great pleasure or affection. I’m thinking particularly of those growers in California, central Portugal and the Galicia and Asturias regions of northern Spain, all of whom have suffered such catastrophic fires in the last few weeks and months. I’m sure all Bristol Wine Blog readers will want to join with me in saying to those affected that our thoughts and good wishes for the future are with you.
But the year’s problems began months earlier. Damaging spring frosts then severe summer droughts reduced crop yields by almost a quarter in Italy and a fifth in France. And it was the same picture across much of Europe. Further afield, Argentina, though improving on 2016’s dreadful El Niño-affected harvest, still produced far less than its long-term average and Chile suffered a 2nd successive drop. Other major countries such as South Africa and, despite the recent fires, the USA look to have turned out quantities roughly in line with expectations. But, among the wine world’s top 10 producers, only Australia are really celebrating with their highest output since 2005.
As a result, based on current estimates, the volume of wine produced worldwide in 2017 is expected to be the lowest seen since the 1960s. So, should we expect prices to go up? Some rises are inevitable particularly where there are shortages of popular wines but it’s worth looking at the wider picture:
Overall, just about enough wine has been made this year so that, together with reserves that are already in stock, most of our demands should be satisfied. And, hopefully, 2018 will prove to be a happier year for both producers and drinkers alike.
The year moves into November, the leaves are falling and, across the northern hemisphere, most of the grape harvests are over. So what can we expect from Europe and North America’s 2015 wines? We’re not going to see many of them on our shelves for a while (with the exception of Beaujolais Nouveau, which I’ll be blogging about in a couple of weeks), but a look at the harvest reports gives us a clue. And the news, almost without exception is good.
Let’s start in France. Burgundy and the Rhône enjoyed 2 hot, dry months in June and July and, following a slightly cooler August, were picking healthy, ripe grapes in September. Bordeaux was similar – sunnier and drier than usual – and harvests there began in mid-September with most producers very upbeat about the outcome. In Spain, they’re already talking about the best vintage since 2005 and across in Portugal the crop looks good enough for us to see the first general declaration of a port vintage since the marvellous 2011 as well as some great wines.
Much of Italy suffered from record breaking July temperatures and lower than average rainfall, resulting in lower yields and smaller grapes, so, not a bumper year for volumes but the flip side of this is that producers are saying that there’s a really good concentration of flavours in the grapes suggesting high quality wines.
Over in California, the harvest was also a small one with reports of crops often 20% less than normal. Again, drought and high temperatures were the causes and many growers completed picking by the end of September – remarkably early. Nevertheless, most are fermenting good, fully ripe fruit with the expectation of excellent wines.
Of course, we can’t know how the wines will turn out until we taste them, but with generally favourable weather conditions right across Europe and North America, it looks very hopeful that the wines from 2015 will be well worth waiting for when they start appearing on our shelves in the New Year.