Can Europe's Wine Industry Weather The Weather?

Posted: May 29, 2017

A recent warm spell has thrown wine commentator Chris Losh out of kilter. But, if you think he's got problems, consider what these weather blips do for Europe's wine producers.

It's the end of the day. I'm sitting in my garden, wearing a tee-shirt and drinking a gin and tonic. The air is warm and balmy. The flowers are in full bloom. It's a typical suburban summer scene. Except that this is not summer - it's the first weekend in April; June has come to the UK three months early.

In a burst of optimism, I put my winter wardrobe up in the loft. Three weeks later, I retrieve the lot as Siberian blasts bring snow flurries that play havoc with unrealistically-scheduled barbecues.

For me, these events were mild curiosities; evidence of what seems to be a shift in climate that includes milder winters and more turbulent summers. For wine producers, though, they're the stuff of profit or ruin. And, never more so than this year, when the plummeting mercury across Europe at the tail end of last month played havoc with dozens of the continent's wine regions.

Chablis, still reeling from last year's frost-and-hail double whammy, has already lost 20% of its vines this year before the vines had even flowered. In the Loire, yet again, they're talking about wholesale destruction. One grower reckons that there have been 11 frost-affected vintages in Touraine since 1991, compared to maybe half a dozen in the 50 years before that.

It may, of course, be sheer coincidence – just like the growing number of "warmest year since…" statistics that we are accumulating. But, it seems more likely to be a part of climate change, and, therefore, representative of a new reality.

If that's the case, then it's bad news for winegrowers across the continent.

The danger of these milder winters is that vines become active far earlier than normal, making them vulnerable to any subsequent cold snap – particularly in the colder reaches of the wine world. So, it's perhaps no surprise that sparkling wine regions have been especially badly hit over the last few weeks.

The nascent English sparkling wine industry, which has thus far been a five-year success story, has been stopped in its tracks this year. As always with frost, the damage varies from 'everything' to 'nothing'. But, coming as it does on the back of a reduced-volume 2016 harvest, there will be some anxious conversations with Kent and Sussex bank managers over the next few months.

In Italy, 30% of Franciacorta and Prosecco vineyards alike are estimated to have been hit. Given the demand for the latter, this sounds serious, although one grower I spoke to was phlegmatic. "We've planted everywhere over the last five years – in the bottom of valleys, in the flatlands towards the sea," he said. "There are still a lot of vineyards unaffected and, with such an increase in area, we can get through this."

Whether – or, more accurately, how – Champagne does is another matter.

Overall, the loss doesn't seem as great as for Prosecco – official estimates currently put it down by around 25% - though things are worse for the (earlier-ripening) Chardonnay variety and the (warmer) Cote des Bars, both of which seem to have borne the brunt of the cold snap.

Champagne, of course, is a cold region and has in-built strategies for coping with the chilly problems that Mother Nature can throw at it. Yields, for instance, are famously elastic, designed to match supply with demand year after year, while houses can be permitted to release a certain amount of their reserves from blocage to make up for any shortfall in vintage volumes.

In normal circumstances, these work well – Champagne is one of the more stable regions in the world, where both growers and houses seem to be generally growing rich together. However, neither is foolproof – and they may not be enough this year.

Setting higher yields earlier in the year is very good in theory, but nature can render it meaningless. Last year, for instance, the yield was set at 10,700kg of grapes per hectare (including over 1,000kg/ha of stock wine). Hailstorms and mildew, however, meant that the regional average was closer to 8,000kg/ha. And, the early loss of 25% of the vines this year may well make it difficult to make up the difference.

Nor does blocage look like being the solution. A lot of producers dug deep into their stocks last year, with the expectation that they would be able to replenish again in 2017.

"We used a large part of wine from blocage to make the blends from the base year 2016," said one winemaker in the Cote des Bars. "If we have a very small harvest this year, it could perhaps be necessary to decrease the quantity of bottling in 2018."

All in all, it looks reasonable to assume that we can expect lower volumes and higher prices from the region in the next year or so. The region needs that particular combination like a hole in the head.

The last set of sales figures would have made for uneasy reading for the Champenois. In the 12 months of last year, value and volume sales were both down – domestically and abroad – and three of their top-ten markets (the UK - 2nd, Belgium - 6th and Australia - 7th) are in some trouble. The latter two dropped around 8% and 9% respectively last year, while the UK did even worse. It's Champagne's biggest export market by volume, so a drop of 9% there is bad news.

But, the 14% fall in value is even more concerning, suggesting that the volume drop is not merely consumers migrating away from cheap Champagne to more premium expressions (which is the story the Champenois like to peddle), but exiting the category altogether.

Demand for Prosecco is strong globally. The segment will recover and, should it raise its prices by 10% - as some producers have been suggesting for a few years now – it's likely that consumers will go with them.

Champagne houses, however, have voluntarily raised their prices significantly over the last decade, and there are signs already that they are leaving some key markets behind, even before you factor in impending supply-related rises.

The Siberian blast at the end of last month will be remembered by Europe's growers for all the wrong reasons. But, it could be sending a chill down the spine of the Champenois for years to come.

By Chris Losh
May 12, 2017
Source: Just Drinks

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