The cycle of winemaking is as much in the hands of Mother Nature as in those of winegrowers. The timing of the harvesting of grapes ultimately can make the difference between a spectacular, unique wine and a bland, pedestrian wine; a bountiful harvest or a low-yielding, unprofitable crop.
In a number of previous columns, I expounded on a time-honored and well-worn axiom in the wine industry: 90 percent of a wine is made in the vineyard. This implies that the characteristics of a wine are primarily under the influence of nature, not man. It is the harvested grapes that contain the elements for a great or poor wine, not a winemaker’s talents.
Some say it is the influence of Mother Nature that dominates all of man’s efforts. In one fell swoop, nature can salvage a poor growing season with nourishing warm weather and/or a late rain to drench parched grapes struggling to mature on the vine. Nature may also lay waste to a burgeoning crop with adverse weather conditions.
I reported on devastating weather in western Europe during April that severely impacted the potential yield of 2017 grape crops. Throughout France and Italy, 20 to 50 percent of this year’s potential crop seemed lost. This devastation took place unexpectedly and quickly. In only two days, in just a few morning hours, frost hit the affected vineyards, wreaking havoc on emerging vine shoots and buds. Earlier in the month, hailstorms, lasting mere minutes, exacted similar damage in several regions, including the Champagne and Burgundy regions of France.
Fast forward to this week. Reports of the 2017 harvest are beginning to come in from vineyards across the wine-producing world. Did the devastating weather patterns of the spring wreak the feared havoc on grape harvests?
It appears that nature, with the same fickleness that decimated large swaths of vineyards across Europe, so too has blessed a number of these regions with life-resuscitating rains and fair weather. While a number of affected regions were unable to recover from the spring frost and hailstorms, others rebounded and are enjoying bountiful and high quality harvests.
Here are a few examples.
In France, early reports vary from region to region. In Bordeaux, crop yields are 40 to 50 percent less that last year, a 45-year low. In Burgundy, crop yields are surprisingly high, even higher than last year; alternating cool and warm summer weather patterns coddled ravaged grapevines and grapes, nurturing them to rebound and even flourish.
Not so in the Loire Valley and Alsace regions. An exceptionally dry and hot summer aggravated the spring conditions, placing greater stress on vines. Crop yields are estimated to drop 20 percent from the 2016 harvest. The reduced harvest could have been substantially worse but for the ingenuity of French winemakers to combat the effects of frost and hailstorms with fires and cloud-seeding, which stemmed the further loss of vines and young fruit.
In Italy, quantity is lower but quality is higher in a number of regions. The beginnings of the 2017 harvest point to a 25 percent drop from 2016, to the lowest levels in 60 years. The smaller crops point to more concentrated fruit, and therefore, higher demand for fewer bottles.
In the United States, harvest results are mixed. In northern California, a heat wave stunted grape growth and shriveled grapes on the vine as harvest was approaching. But then cooler winds came to the rescue of the ripening fruit. The quantity and quality of this year’s harvest now seem very favorable. In Oregon, it remains unclear if the massive wild fires prevalent at the beginning of the harvest will affect the quality and aromas of the ultimate wines.
The next time you open a bottle of wine, take a moment to reflect on the agricultural aspects of winemaking, for it is foremost an agrarian industry. The successful grape growers and winemakers are those who understand this and are able to develop a symbiotic relationship with nature.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.