The Dashing of Dreams
Many people have the romantic dream that when they win the lotto, make a fortune in business, are recipients of an inheritance or just plan to run away from life, they will buy a vineyard and live happily ever after. The idea seems so bucolic, cultured, and attractive that this alternative lifestyle is like Nirvana.
The year 2017 should disabuse anyone with these dreams from rushing in headlong.
The viticultural world is currently in the middle of the perfect storm, almost worldwide. Nature has been particularly cruel this year, whether it was frost, hail, drought, flood, earthquake or fire. The vignerons and winemakers in so many regions have had a nightmare in the past few months. Global warming is certainly one of the major factors in these catastrophes.
To give an example, some years ago in June, I stood in the bright sunshine, after a copious and fairly long Champagne lunch, with a jolly group from Dublin. We were on a hill overlooking the village of Verzenay, just outside Reims, marvelling at the healthy vineyard. We spotted their fresh young greenery just coming into flower, promising an abundant vintage some three months ahead.
As we stood there, behind the famous windmill from which General Foch and other “big brass”oversaw the bitter fighting of the Battle of the Marne in WW1. The ugly grey clouds loomed on the horizon. Lightening zig-zagged across the very vines and women who spent days on their knees for the same reason, picked the crop while shells flew overhead. The family still needed a harvest to eat, war or no war.
It was match day between France and Italy! With an eye on the likely late night ahead, we decided a little siesta back at the hotel would be a sane and sensible thing. While we snoozed, that looming grey cloud turned into a vicious hail storm. On waking, we were told that it had hit the Grand Cru vineyards of Verzenay particularly badly.
Next morning our vineyard visits took us past the windmill at Verzenay and you could be forgiven for thinking that there had been a re-run of the Battle of the Marne. Those gorgeous rows of vines had been reduced to fields of stalks, stripped of all foliage and left stark and bare. The vignerons of the village saw their income for the year wiped out in fifteen minutes.
Most of viticultural Europe in 2017 was hit by a spectacular frost at the end of April. It is normal to be nervous until at least May 10th, of a late frost, but this year, it was the worst for decades. It was compounded by the fact that a mild winter had brought on bud-burst sometimes three weeks early, so the vines were already in full throttle. The frost was so intense that it burned the delicate buds and shoots and left devastation in its wake.
There can sometimes be a second budding, never of the same quality, which will reduce yields drastically, but produce at least some wine. However, even where this happened, drought impeded the recovery this year.
In most of Europe the summer was extremely hot and dry, referred to as “Lucifer”, and already stressed vines were stressed even further. The result will be a shortage of wine with most regions reporting shortfalls in the harvest of between 15% and up to 70%. Some unfortunate farmers lost everything. This quirk of nature, all happening at the same time, will mean a shortage of wine for the coming year. Big companies can manage their existing stocks to cover the shortfall, but the small producers, who work from vintage to vintage will be badly hit.
Add to this, the devastating fires that consumed Portugal and California this year, and the issue is exacerbated. Even where fire did not wreck the vineyard, the smoke damage on neighbouring properties would have a deleterious effect on the grapes.
But those who work in the vineyards and toil in the wineries to make that wine that you so happily consume live constantly in the shadow of nature. They deserve our thoughts and support. Unfortunately, this state of affairs will no doubt impact the price of wine in the coming year. The pending alcohol legislation will add to this.
The good news is that the wine that has been produced from these reduced crops, from those producers who escaped, will, in most but not all cases, be of a high quality. Small is beautiful they say!
By Monica Murphy