So far, the 2017 growing season in wine regions across Europe has definitely come with some ups and downs. Late April saw a bitter frost in many of the continent’s most celebrated appellations, followed by severe hailstorms, which badly damaged fragile shoots and buds. And now, following an extremely hot and dry summer, the harvest season is already upon us… 2 weeks early. Chalk it up to global climate change or simply blame the erratic personality of Mother Nature, one thing is for certain: 2017 will be a year of quality over quantity for many wineries in France, Italy and Spain.
Extreme Weather Reduces Yields
All across the European continent, the 2017 growing season will be remembered for the extreme weather conditions in spring and the reduced yields in which they resulted. In Bordeaux, a deadly frost of -2 ºC to -4 °C hit the vines hard in the early hours of Thursday, April 27, following an already very cold morning the day before. The extreme weather ravaged the fragile shoots and the buds, which had already appeared somewhat prematurely during the mild days of March. Although many wineries attempted to lessen the impact of this blow by positioning burning oil drums between rows of vines and blowing warm air around with giant fans, in many cases the defence against Mother Nature proved a futile endeavour. Sources say that the Bordeaux wine industry will suffer a 40% loss in yield, with some wineries – in the Saint-Emilion appellation, for example – seeing over 80% loss.
The frost also hit hard the north-eastern Alsace region, Champagne and the Loire Valley, and Burgundy endured damaging hail. The French agricultural ministry has estimated an output of 37.2 million hectolitres, which is 18% less than that of 2016 and 17% less than the average output of the past 5 years. France faces the smallest output of wine since 1945.
The rest of Europe also suffered harsh climates in the spring of 2017. Severe frosts also wreaked havoc in the vineyards of northern Spain – including Rioja, Bierzo, Ribera del Duero and Galicia. For example, around 30-40% of vineyards were affected in Bierzo and over 70% in Galicia. In Italy, a violent storm on April 15 brought heavy hail to the Langhe area of Piedmont, while frost in the last week of April killed buds in the low-lying vineyards of Barolo, Barbaresco, Alba and Langhe. The damage was estimated to be around 20%. In the relatively new wine-producing regions of Southern England, the sub-zero temperatures resulted in some English wine producers losing more than half of their yield.
While reduced quantity does not necessarily affect the quality of the remaining grapes, it does put pressure on certain wineries to salvage as much as possible. To many wine producers this means the difference between having a 2017 vintage and erasing this season from their history altogether.
Following the damaging weather conditions of spring came a summer characterised by extremely high temperatures, which brought the earliest harvest that many regions have ever seen. The date set for picking is almost everywhere is France 15 days earlier than expected. This means the end of July for wineries in the Pyrenees-Orientales department and the first Wednesday of August for the Var department in Provence, for example. The earliest harvest these regions had recently seen was in 1991, when the picking began on August 15th. It has been more than 30 years since it began any earlier than that.
Up north in the Champagne region, harvest began on August 26th in the Montgueux region of the l’Aube, marking one of the top 5 earliest harvests in the history of the appellation. Earlier still was the harvest of the Alsace region. The Association of Winegrowers of Alsace (AVA) began indicated August 24th as the beginning of harvest for the Cremant d’Alsace and August 30th for their still wines. The phenomenon of early harvest seems to be the result of a combination of climatic factors, including mild temperatures early in the spring, frost and hail in April and May and very dry and hot weather during the summer, which accelerated the ripening of the berries but also caused them to be smaller in size. After noting optimal mature wineries rushed to harvest, liked Chateau Chantegrive in the Graves region of Bordeaux did on August 23rd and Domaine Abbatucci on the island of Corsica did on August 14th.
In the drought-hit vineyards of Italy the situation is even more shocking. The prestigious Barolo appellation of Piedmont is best known for its late-ripening Nebbiolo grape varietal. Now, even this noblest of grapes are being harvested in September, rather than in the region’s characteristic November fog after which the grape was named. The Lucifer heatwave hitting Italy in the summer of 2017 has brought early maturity to grapes and expedited the picking process in the Piedmont (where the harvest of whites began in July) and in Franciacorta (where harvest officially began on August 3rd).
Likewise, wineries in northern Spain began harvesting for sparkling wines on August 3rd, which is the earliest in the history of many vineyards. Cava producers in the Penedes region of Catalunya tend to harvest after August 15th, making this year’s harvest almost 2 weeks early.
Quality over Quantity
While the yield of the 2017 harvest is expected to be significantly lower in many of Europe’s most prominent wine regions, the quality of grapes has not seemed to have suffered too much. Although they have reached optimal ripeness ahead of schedule and they tend to be a bit smaller in size, the grapes are reported to be powerful and highly concentrated. They have maintained the level of acidity required by wines that are meant to be aged. Grapes that have developed early have also avoided common vine diseases. From the early testimony of winemakers across Europe it can be concluded that the 2017 vintage will be one of quality over quantity.