The words climate change and global warming have been used lots in the past few years. Bordeaux and Burgundy rely heavily on stable weather conditions and haven’t had an easy time since the duplet of top class vintages seen in 2009 and 2010. Erratic weather conditions and the introduction of new pests and diseases from foreign parts have made the average vigneron’s job very difficult. This has had repercussions on quality and prices which have seen an upward spiral in recent months. But while the better known regions are going through trying times, the emerging areas on the outer edges are gaining ground and producing wines of ever increasing quality. Is 2014 going to give the classic areas a raison d’être again or see further issues with supply and quality?
The past assumption that global warming meant everyone got warmer weather has been melting away like the snow on the polar icecaps. Erratic weather has become normal in regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy. They are having massive problems with mid summer hailstorms and rain at harvest and veraison. On a visit to Pommard in Burgundy last year Aubert Lefas of Domaine Lejeune told me about the despair that winemakers feel when the clouds gather and their vines are subsequently shredded by hailstones the size of golf balls. The producers there have formed a union and installed silver nitrate rockets to fire into oncoming hail clouds, which breaks down the hail slightly and causes it to fall before it reaches the vineyards. This war on hail is not as expensive as it sounds with Aubert estimating costs of around €10 per ha per hailstorm. When comparing this to insurance costs of about 3-5% of capital, this makes a lot of sense. The efficacy of these rockets is not however failsafe and fruit is still lost to the storms. Sean Allison at Chateau du Seuil lost 4ha of Sauvignon Blanc in 2011 when a hailstorm hit at the end of a hot sunny day. This year however he is happier with progress:
“The harvest is actually going really well which is a big surprise after August almost finished us off with rain and sun and rain and sun and rain. We have been extremely lucky in September with dry sunshine allowing us to get the grapes to a good point. The dry whites are done and dusted so ferments are happening right now. We will be picking merlot next week and I have to say the phenolic potential is similar to 2010 on the stats. Potential alc is around 13% so not too high..which looks good and a big relief after the 2013 vintage.”
Instead of a good cold winter killing off any hibernating generations of pests, the winters have been relatively mild allowing pests from warmer climates to over-winter in cooler areas and make their ways into more Northerly parts. Last weekend I was in Franken, Germany; the most talked about point was the damage that the fruit fly Drosophila suzukii is doing to the ripe grapes. Never before have they been a problem this far north and their spread is rapid with one fly laying 8 larvae in a berry and these maturing within 10 days to restart the cycle. Benedict Baltes at Weingut Stadt Klingenberg lost 70% of his Portugeiser crop to these flies. Is there not a control you ask? Not strictly, unless you want to spray every week, something impossible this close to harvest. Benedict sends experienced workers amongst his vines where they painstakingly pick out damaged berries. The only selection they do at Klingenberg is in the vineyard and wow; is this labour intensive!
These elements together culminate in lower yields and with less wine to sell and production costs rising, prices are rising. A recent article in Decanter looked at the Burgundy model and pointed out that it has already lost some of the more longstanding followers thanks to an upward curve in release prices. It’s not all bad news though, reports from Burgundy this year state that despite hail storms mid season the harvest is looking bigger than recent vintages, yet such low yields from the past 3 years means that any easing of the prices won’t be obvious this year.
So is it time for the emerging areas to capture some of the limelight? We have seen increased press coverage of England with not only their Sparkling wines winning awards and mention. I myself was amazed by the quality of a rose sparkling made by a fellow MW student Emma Rice at Hattingley Valley in Hampshire. The palate was magnificent with perfect balance and a sumptuous evolving finish. Another classmate from the MW program Eran Pick of Tzora Winery in Israel makes world class wines on the Judean Hills. He sent me an update on their vintage over there (of particular note is the cold winter; reminiscent of regions like Burgundy):
“2014 is quite a unique year in the Judean Hills area. We experienced a very cold weather during December with a severe snow storm in the vineyards, an unusual event in our vineyards. Then, a dry Jan + Feb, followed by two important rain events in March and May which helped the growth of shoots and good ripening conditions. Summer was quite calm with no special events and no heat waves. Overall looks like a very good year with good ripening conditions.”
So what can we take from all this? Are we going to be tucking into rich reds from Wales or aromatic whites from Wexford in years to come or is this wave of unpredictable vintages a momentary blip to be looked back on in years to come? One things for sure the wine world will keep us guessing. There was talk in 2010 of the increase in incidence of top quality vintages highlighted by the Bordelais.. worry was a foot that they would become the norm. Now the worry is that we won’t see another amazing year. What is the future? Who knows! I for one am looking forward to a long life of finding out.