2012 harvest across Europe

First published SCMP, November 2012

As November creeps towards December, most European winemakers are ready to make a prognosis on the quality of the 2012 vintage that, just a few months ago was still hanging on the vine in the form of grapes, and which is now fledging wine, tucked in their cellars. Some white and rosé producers have even begun bottling their early examples of the year – as of course have Beaujolais Nouveau producers, who have just finished their annual sales day on November 15th.  

So what are the initial thoughts on 2012? The main headlines so far have been less about quality, and more about quantity – specifically the lack of it. The International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) has published figures indicating that wine output across the globe this year will be at the lowest levels since 1975. Expected volume globally is due to come in at around 248.2 million hectoliters. France is almost 20% down on last year, and Hungary (where the sweet wine Tokaj is produced) a full 32% lower.

The low figure is partly due to the success of the European vine grubbing programme, where uneconomic vines have been encouraged to be pulled up over the past few years. Unfortunately, this was accompanied in 2012 by various extreme weather patterns. At a quick glance across Europe, we have rain, mildew and poor fruit set reducing quantities in the Loire, Chablis, Bordeaux and others. Add in hail or frost to that mix in Burgundy, Champagne and Austria to even further whittle down the pile.

In contrast, excessive heat and drought-like conditions reduced the size of the grape harvest in Tuscany, Hungary, Portugal and northern Spain. In fact, among the EU wine producing countries, only the 2012 production forecasts of Portugal and Greece are up – and this only in comparison to their very small 2011 output. Germany is only 3% down, so can rest fairly easy.

To take a closer look at the problems, let’s start off with rain. When it fell, there was lots of it, which has caused the rampant spread of mildew across many vineyards. Difficulties arising from this has meant some vineyards announcing that they are to make no wine in 2012 – among them Nyetimber, the leading sparkling producer in England, cru bourgeois Chateau Hourtin-Ducasse in Bordeaux, and Jean Foillard with his Beaujolais Nouveau.

Most producers in these regions have still managed to successfully navigate their grapes from the vines to the cellar – and indeed many can expect to make excellent wine, as long as they have been attentive in the vineyards during the growing season, and have exercised careful sorting at picking, and careful winemaking techniques in the cellars. The Burgundy Wine Board called the final results ‘a happy ending to this unusual year’, while Bordeaux producers are reporting particularly good results with the merlot grape (that means largely Right Bank wines, although merlot is planted all over the region) because it is picked earlier than cabernet sauvignon, and so suffered less from the October rainfall.

A few places did escape unscathed – both the Mosel and Rheinshessen in Germany are reporting excellent quality wines, with grapes given concentration by an extended Indian summer that lasted well into October, but still with the all-important acidity that kicked in from a relatively cool summer. Equally the Rhone Valley, particularly the southern parts, seems to have enjoyed one of the best vintages for years – it is being compared with 2007, a year when once again the Rhone escaped many of the difficulties that befell other parts of France.

What is certainly true that in vintages such as 2012, the awards and the praise should go to consultants, oenologists, weather forecasters, the armies of vineyard workers, the small groups standing round sorting tables in the cellars… the long list of often unseen people whose job it is to make the constant small adjustments that make the difference between awful, good and great.

Denis Dubourdieu, oenology professor at Bordeaux University and consultant for wineries across France, Spain, Italy and Hungary, says success was all about small adjustments, and common sense. ‘The pinot in Burgundy responded like the merlot in Bordeaux – that is, it has ripened well despite the small quantity, and there are going to be some excellent examples. But generally, the small yields will have an effect on prices of generic wines across Europe. The difficult harvest coupled with the grubbing up of vines have meant we are simply unable to produce enough wine to meet demand, and when that happens, the general price of wines tends to rise. I don’t mean specific prices of big-name chateaux – those are affected by a different economic cycle, which has its own pressure at the moment – but generic wine from European regions may have to be priced a little higher.’

Not perfect for drinkers, perhaps, but no bad thing for small producers who are faced with one of the smallest crops for decades.