Few French winegrowers will remember 2021 fondly. This year France recorded its smallest wine grape harvest since 1957. And it was just one of many nations that produced less wine this year thanks to challenges across much of Europe that included late-spring frost, hail, drought, vine disease and wildfire.
Speaking from Paris last week about the wine world's 2021 crop, Pau Roca, the general director of the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV), delivered a mixed bag of news. In addition to France's no-good, very bad year, the crops in Spain and Italy both dipped 9 percent. "The year 2021 proved to be very unfortunate for the three largest wine-producing countries in the E.U.—Italy, Spain and France, which account for 45 percent of the world's production," said Roca. Global wine production was below average for the third year in a row.
But that's no reason to run to your corner wine store and start panic buying. The Southern Hemisphere enjoyed a bumper harvest, and other regions did just fine. And winegrowers around the globe do not see price increases coming. They'll simply need to be more creative with distribution.
But one note of anxiety does linger: Many of the crises that hit regions this year can be traced back to climate change. Roca and others believe the time for vintners to adapt and evolve is already here, unless they want this year's small crop to become the new normal.
A brutal year for Europe's biggest producers
In the Northern Hemisphere, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Austria, Croatia and Slovenia all suffered lower yields in 2021. It is too early to determine the economic fallout for the affected growers, but it could well be dramatic and heartbreaking.
In Italy, where frost struck on April 7, Marchesi Antinori reported a 15 percent drop in yields. "2021 has been an outstanding vintage in terms of quality, while yields were slightly lower than average," Alessia Antinori, vice president of Marchesi Antinori, told Wine Spectator. They farm in enough places that not all were impacted. Some of their vines in Chianti Classico and Bolgheri were spared "thanks to the altitude in Tignanello and the proximity of the Mediterranean Sea in Bolgheri."
In France, Alsace was ravaged by weather-related disease. "We had anticipated a decent crop, with Alsace seemingly spared by the severe frost this past April," said Jean Frédéric Hugel, 13th-generation vintner at Hugel et Fils. "But the damp spring and early summer caused most of the damage, with mildew ravaging the vineyards." The mildew was followed by a three-month drought. This made for "extremely good quality and a very sound harvest, but unfortunately further lower crop," said Hugel. He said their yields are down 55 percent compared with 2020’s.
But other European Union countries, such as Germany, Hungary and Romania enjoyed better weather and bumper crops. Europe will still supply 58 percent of the world's 2021 vintage.
The Southern Hemisphere, with the exception of New Zealand, recorded its highest yield ever following relatively favorable climatic conditions. Nearly a quarter of the world's 2021 vintage will come from the Southern Hemisphere.
Meanwhile, structural changes in China are skewing global figures. China came roaring onto the wine scene over a decade ago, showing every indication that its ambition was to dominate global wine production. But since 2016, the Chinese government has overseen production cuts of more than 50 percent—from 1.32 billion liters (equal to 147 million cases) in 2016 to 660 million liters (73 million cases) in 2020. Figures for 2021 are not yet available. This is a political and economic decision, and the trend is unlikely to change course unless Beijing decides otherwise.
Should we stock up now?
No. This is a problem for the trade, not consumers. "Vintages like this happen every now and then and are unpredictable," said Antinori. "On our side, we will do our best, distribution-wise."
Some wines might be scarce, depending on their inventory and distribution choices. "I think that, more than any other sector, viticulture has always been very resilient; it's in every farmer's nature. Especially in our case, given the very long history and tradition handed down generation after generation, we are used to deal with these kind of situations and therefore to handle a variation of 15 percent to 20 percent is part of the game," said Antinori.
Vintners Wine Spectator spoke with are far more worried about previous vintages getting to market. Supply-chain disruptions and reduced business related to the pandemic continue to plague the wine sector, with containers unloaded at ports, a dearth of truck drivers and limping hospitality sectors. The cost of making wine will increase due to the scarce crop for some and rising prices of transport, energy and other goods for everyone.
The impact on consumers will be limited, said Hugel, "since no producer is considering making up for the lost turnover through price increase." In the U.S., even as inflation pushed overall prices up 6 percent in October, alcohol prices actually went down slightly.
While the worst of the pandemic is hopefully behind us, the same cannot be said for the planet's weather. According to a recent report by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), climate change has made extreme weather events more likely. This means business disruption, crop failures, displaced populations and damaged ecosystems wrought by heat waves, drought, extreme rainfall, flash floods, wildfires and pests. Growing wine grapes is no exception.
"The provisional WMO State of the Global Climate 2021 report draws from the latest scientific evidence to show how our planet is changing before our eyes,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres at COP26. “From the ocean depths to mountaintops, from melting glaciers to relentless extreme weather events, ecosystems and communities around the globe are being devastated. COP26 must be a turning point for people and planet."
While COP26 may or may not be a turning point for political leaders, many in the wine trade have already begun the pivot to a sustainable future. "The sector will have to adapt. It is adapting, it is resilient," said Roca.
Clonal selection, disease and drought-resistant grape varieties—these are just a handful of the ways scientists and vintners are adapting. "The plant is so adaptable, we have so many varieties and genetic diversity," said Roca.
Grapegrowers have introduced experimental, more resilient varieties into commercial production. Producers are building cellars with compacted earth, trying experimental building designs, experimenting with carbon capture and rescuing old varieties.
European growers also have a new platform at their disposal, called Med-Gold. With help from the E.U. satellite Copernicus, the program uses big data and AI to help growers "anticipate and reduce adverse effects" of climate change. The program is funded by the E.U.'s research and innovation program, and provides climate services like short- and long-term predictions on weather specific to a grower’s location. "It's an enormous quantity of data," said Roca. "We have to be open to all solutions."
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