Wine Opinion: Europe's grape harvest shortfall

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 November, 2012, 9:38am

Most European winemakers are ready to make a prognosis on the quality of the 2012 vintage that, just a few months ago was still hanging on the vine, and which is now tucked in their cellars. Some white and rosé producers have begun bottling their early examples of the year - as of course have Beaujolais Nouveau producers, who finished their annual sales day just a week ago.

So what are the initial thoughts on 2012? The main headlines so far have been less about quality, and more about quantity - specifically the lack of it. The International Organisation of Vine and Wine has published figures indicating that wine output across the globe this year will be at the lowest levels since 1975. Volume globally is expected to be about 248.2 million hectolitres. France is almost 20 per cent down on last year, and in Hungary (where the sweet wine Tokaj is produced) volumes are 32 per cent lower.

The low figure is partly due to the vine grubbing programme, where producers have been encouraged to pull up uneconomic vines in recent years. This year has seen various extreme weather patterns. Across Europe, rain, mildew and poor fruit set (development) reduced quantities in the Loire, Chablis and Bordeaux regions, among others. Hail or frost affected Burgundy, Champagne and Austria.

In contrast, excessive heat and drought-like conditions reduced the harvest in Tuscany, Hungary, Portugal and northern Spain. In fact, among the EU wine-producing countries, only the production forecasts of Portugal and Greece are up - this is only in comparison to their very low 2011 output. Germany is only 3 per cent down.

Let's start off with rain. When it fell, there was lots of it, which caused the rampant spread of mildew across many vineyards. This has meant some vineyards announcing they will make no wine in 2012 - among them Nyetimber, the leading sparkling producer in England, cru bourgeois Chateau Hourtin-Ducasse in Bordeaux, and Jean Foillard with his Beaujolais Nouveau.

Most producers in these regions have managed to get their grapes to the cellar - and indeed many can expect to make excellent wine, as long as they have been attentive during the growing season and careful while picking. The rest depends on what happens in the cellars.

The Burgundy Wine Board called the final results "a happy ending to this unusual year", while Bordeaux producers are reporting particularly good results with the merlot grape because it is picked earlier than cabernet sauvignon, and so suffered less from the October rainfall.

A few places escaped unscathed - both the Mosel and Rheinshessen in Germany are reporting excellent quality wines, with grapes given concentration by an Indian summer that lasted well into October, but still with the all-important acidity from a relatively cool summer. The Rhone Valley, especially the southern parts, seems to have enjoyed one of the best vintages for years.

Denis Dubourdieu, oenology professor at Bordeaux University and consultant for wineries across France, Spain, Italy and Hungary, says success was all about small adjustments, and common sense. "The pinot in Burgundy responded like the merlot in Bordeaux - that is, it has ripened well despite the small quantity, and there are going to be some excellent examples. But generally, the small yields will have an effect on prices of generic wines across Europe. The difficult harvest coupled with the grubbing up of vines have meant we are simply unable to produce enough wine to meet demand, and when that happens the general price of wines tends to rise. I don't mean specific prices of big-name chateaux - those are affected by a different economic cycle, which has its own pressure at the moment - but generic wine from European regions may have to be priced a little higher."

It's not perfect for drinkers, perhaps, but it's not bad for small producers who are faced with one of the smallest crops for decades.