Topsy-turvy weather leaves winemakers in a spin
The conditions for making wine in large parts of France and in England have rarely been as tough as they have been this year.
Mon, Sep 10, 2012 at 09:31 AM
Vines need water to grow and produce fruit. A drought causes the vines to stop photosynthesizing. But rain, particularly at the wrong moment, can disrupt the vegetative cycle and open the door to ravaging vine disease. (Photo: AFP)
Record rainfall, cold snaps, hail storms and rampant vine disease: The conditions for making wine in large parts of France and in England have rarely been as tough as they have been this year.
Yet winemakers on both sides of the Channel are defiantly optimistic that 2012 could still turn out to be a vintage to remember for its quality as well as for the financially devastating impact of low yields.
"Some growers don't have a thing, others only have 30 percent of their normal yields," said James Dodson of Vine-Works, a consultancy based in Sussex, southern England.
"We had record amounts of rain in April, May and June. Our flowering happens over Wimbledon weekend (late June), when we had rain and high winds. It was terrible. Then in July, more rain and cool temperatures."
Water is key to viticulture and the wet stuff was at the heart of challenges faced by vintners this year.
Vines need water to grow and produce fruit. A drought causes the vines to stop photosynthesizing. But rain, particularly at the wrong moment, can disrupt the vegetative cycle and open the door to ravaging vine disease.
"Water pretty much governs everything," says Jon Bowen, owner of Domaine Sainte Croix in the Haute Corbieres region of southern France.
While in vastly different climates, both Dodson and Bowen - as well as growers in Champagne and Burgundy have been plagued this year by a condition called millerandage, which occurs when bad weather interrupts and lengthens the vine's flowering period.
That produces grapes of different sizes that ripen at different times, resulting in lower yields.
The English growers, mainly producing bubbly on chalky soil similar to that of the Champagne region, suffered even more acutely due to last year's bout with millerandage.
"Millerandage leads to fewer buds the following year, so we expected lower yields this year. But now we have the same thing again, so it's a compounded problem," said Dodson.
Yields were further reduced by rain in July, which spread downy and powdery mildew.
It was the same story in Champagne with the added complication of powerful hail storms.
"We had frost in April that froze 10 percent of the buds," reported Thibault Le Mailloux of the Champagne wine board.
"Then we had bad weather during flowering, which took place over four weeks rather than a few days and led to millerandage.
"In the spring and early summer, rain brought mildew, hail hit 1,000 hectares [2,500 acres]. Some growers were hit by frost, hail and mildew."
Burgundy was struck by the same triple whammy.
"We have had a succession of problems in the vineyards," said Alain Serveau, the technical director of winegrower-merchant Albert Bichot.
"It's rare to have all of these phenomena together. In 2012, this will certainly be a vintage where you have to be both a good winegrower and a good winemaker."
The unfavourable weather has been particuarly challenging for organic growers, some of whom have seen the viability of their businesses threatened.
But the clouds have been laced with a silver lining.
"A good thing with millerandage is that you have big berries and small berries," explained Dodson.
"The small berries don't have seeds, but they have good concentration and you can get a high quality wine. Last year, we had millerandage and exceptional quality."
With the harvest still to be completed in much of France, downpours when the grapes are plump with sugar could yet spell disaster however.
"We could get storms just before harvest, and then rot," warned Burgundy-based Serveau. "That is always a risk, but today, right now, there is no question mark hanging over the quality. We could produce an interesting vintage this year."
Interesting and expensive, at least for wines at the top of the scale. "We are at one third of our normal yield," added Serveau. "We might not have enough wine to meet demand. Demand from Asia is strong, and this will be the third vintage in a row with low yields. There will certainly be a lack of wine, and some appellations will be very rare."
Copyright 2012 AFP Global Edition