Bud Break and Heartbreak

The impact of global warming is widespread in the wine industry. Wine maker Rodolfo Bastida from Rioja’s Ramón Bilbao told me that on average he’s picking 20 days earlier now than his predecessors did 50 years ago. In Champagne, on the northern fringe of the region conducive to growing wine grapes, picking is earlier and ripeness is greater (thus, alcohol is higher) than ever before. These stories can be found in every wine region of the world, including the south of England where a viable wine industry is growing where grapes couldn’t be grown 50 years ago.

 Alsatian winemaker Olivier Humbrecht posted these photos on his Instagram page with the comment, "what a difference two weeks makes." Frost devastated some of Humbrecht's top vineyards in late April.

Alsatian winemaker Olivier Humbrecht posted these photos on his Instagram page with the comment, "what a difference two weeks makes." Frost devastated some of Humbrecht's top vineyards in late April.

A Visit from Jacques Frost

And recently we’ve had a dramatic illustration of just how fickle Mother Nature can be when cold weather settled in over France and other countries in Northern Europe. Bud Break is one of the great harbingers of Spring – the moment the vine visibly returns to life and begins sending out shoots and leaves to capture sunlight and warmth. Olivier Humbrecht said bud break occurred in early April in his vineyards in Alsace, and last week a significant amount of his potential crop was lost when a night of temperatures below zero Celsius killed off many of those tender buds. 

A week later, on the night of April 26-27, another wave of frost struck further south in France and hit Bordeaux. Logging temperatures of -3°C, Bordeaux’ Right Bank, home to Pomerol and Saint Émilion, struck vines that were well past bud break thanks to an early Spring. The result? Estimates vary depending on region, but across France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland some vineyards are reporting they will lose up to 70% of their crop in 2017, and more than a few areas are saying the frost was so severe they won’t just lose this year’s crop but will probably lose entire blocs of vines.

 In England growers lit smudge pots and small fires to warm their vineyards. PHOTO: Julia Claxton: International Garden Photographer of the Year/Royal Photographic Society Silver Medallist.

In England growers lit smudge pots and small fires to warm their vineyards. PHOTO: Julia Claxton: International Garden Photographer of the Year/Royal Photographic Society Silver Medallist.

Are growers powerless in the face of a sudden blast of cold, what many consider the worst frost in a quarter century? Large producers can employ some methods ranging from expensive (hiring helicopters to circulate the air above the vines) to somewhat more affordable like burning smoke pots to provide some protection, but for small growers even those methods can be expensive. In an age when we drinkers seek more and more “craft” producers, we are seeking out the wines that can least afford encounters with bad weather.

Does vintage really matter? On the one hand, we consumers have an ever-expanding universe of wine available and if the production in one region dips there are plenty of others lining up to fill our needs. But a frost like this one will impact some unique wines – Champagne, for example, which may see a 30% reduction in output in 2017. Prices will rise and, as much as I like Prosecco and Cava, they don’t really replace Champagne. With technology helping small wineries around the world make very good wine, it’s important to remember that a winemaker still needs grapes to put bottles on our tables. All the winemaking technology in the world can’t remedy a lack of fruit.