Story by Manos Angelakis
2017 Grape Harvest Report
2017 is a harvest that European vintners will dread for years to come.
Spring frost, isolated hailstorms and an extreme heat wave during harvest left the world's three largest wine producing countries with one of the smallest harvests.
France is facing the smallest harvest since 1945. Some producers have seen a reduction of about 10% while many others saw almost 40% to 50% less grapes. Bordeaux’s Right Bank and parts of the Loire and Alsace were among the hardest hit in terms of yields. The bitter cold struck twice in April, ravaging the fragile shoots and buds that had emerged prematurely after mild temperatures in March. It is interesting to note though that some Bordeaux producers that I spoke with during tastings in NYC see a silver lining to the debacle and thought that the lower yields will allow them to retain their high wine prices for another few years. In Southern Rhône, the regional wine body, InterRhône, said quality levels should outshine a “relatively modest” crop caused by an exceptionally dry summer – even with previously reported difficulties with coulure in some areas of the region.
In Italy, Tuscany, Sicily, Puglia, Umbria and Abbruzzo have fared worse overall in terms of yields, down by at least 30% versus last year, with things looking slightly more optimistic in northern Italy. Piedmont, Veneto, and Friuli were collectively predicted to see a harvest only 15% smaller than 2016. And it is not only the number of bunches that each vine produces low, it is also the actual size of the grapes that are so much smaller.
Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Hungary also experienced frost this year that could diminish harvests by 30% and even up to 60% in some areas.
In Germany, grapes ripened two weeks earlier than usual thanks to a summer of warm, sunny days and cool nights. Growers were picking Riesling mid-October, which typically isn’t ready until late October or November. So far it looks like an exciting vintage that will make fresh, fruity, complex wines. But spring frost took its toll on quantity.
In Spain, Catalonia and Aragon have also seen low yields, not as bad as Italy and France, but low enough to worry many of the smaller producers. Unfortunately, Ribera del Duero is down 60 percent in some vineyards, even though the quality looks good. Whites from usually cool spots, such as Rias Baixas, may be flabby this year because of the hot harvest temperatures and high sugar content.
Winemakers across Northern California are guardedly optimistic about the 2017 vintage, after a very wet and cool winter and spring. Harvest dates — along with grape yields — are off to a slow start, inching back closer to normal from record early starts and lighter loads in the previous two vintages. In Sonoma County, pinot noir grapes were harvested Aug. 6, while Green Valley’s Iron Horse Vineyards picked their pinot noir for sparkling wine the next day.
In the Santa Cruz Mountains, grapes in many vineyards were still going through veraison in mid-August, when the hard green grapes become softer and turn color, from green to either pale yellow or golden for white wine or purple for red wine. Winemakers want grapes to stay dry throughout the four-month harvest season from August through November. Rain could mean mildew growing on the fruit.
Earlier this summer, the Napa Valley was on track to be one of the world’s luckiest wine regions having escaped everything from hail to fires to grape-devouring wild boar. Then a scorching, record-breaking heat wave with temperatures up to 117 degrees Fahrenheit swept in and stuck around Labor Day weekend, upending vintners’ expectations. In its wake, winemakers were left with plenty of shriveled grapes and worries about both quality and quantity, despite a later cool spell slowing the harvest. Wildfires affected grapes in California’s Mendocino and Santa Barbara counties and left a smoky blanket over vines in parts of Washington State and Oregon.
The Southern Hemisphere thought that the early 2017 harvest would allow them to improve their worldwide standing with higher yields and inexpensive wines. Unfortunately, this year their yields were also lower and even though the wine quality is high, the quantity is still below last year for Chile, Argentina and Brazil.
Australia and New Zealand seem to have avoided the rest of the world’s wine woes with the 2017 harvest being, on average, higher than 2016. The white grape tonnage from the cool and temperate regions increased by 9% but in general white grape production decreased by 2% for the entire region. For red grapes the increase is estimated at 12%. Generally, it was a very wet winter and spring followed by a mild summer in many areas, often punctuated by violent storms. For example, on 11 November 2016, there was a large hail storm that cut a path across the Riverland and Murray Darling regions. The impact of this event is hard to assess, since some vineyards were devastated, while nearby ones were left virtually untouched.
It seems this is becoming the wine’s new normal: extreme weather events. They influenced this year’s harvest everywhere from Germany and France to Italy and Chile in the spring as well as Napa and Sonoma. How much fruit vintners will have to throw away is going to be very site-and-grape specific.
To your health!
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