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Dark times in Europe

Finding silver linings in a disastrous 2023 vintage.

THE LIFE OF A WINE GROWER IS NOT EASY. Never mind changing trends, fickle critics, cut-price competition, medical authority scare-mongering about alcohol consumption, and countless other possible calamities that lie outside a producer’s control. No, the real disaster starts at home, in the vineyard, with a nervous glance at the sky.

Vintners in Europe this past summer had plenty to dread. They’re the canaries in the coal mine of climate change. For many, 2023 will go down as a vintage to forget. And I don’t mean forget in the
cellar, I mean just forget.

I saw first-hand the devastation wrought by baseball-sized mid-summer hail in northeastern Italy. Vineyards on the plains of Friuli and the Veneto in the path of devastation were smashed to organic pieces. One-hundred-percent crop loss, and a few dead vines for insult.

When the rain started in the North Italian region of Emilia-Romagna in early May, there was relief at first, a reprieve from a prolonged drought. But euphoria soon turned to despair as six months’ worth of rain fell over a two-week span. And then, another six months’ worth of rain fell, this time in 36 hours.

Other catastrophes were more continental in scope. An entire swath of southern Europe, for example, faced unrelenting heat in the hottest July ever recorded. France experienced its hottest day ever recorded, in the second half of August.

Extreme heat is particularly stressful for grapes, especially late season, causing shrivelling through water loss and a reduction in harvest volumes. Quality suffers. Vines shut down in extreme heat. Photosynthesis is interrupted and sugar accumulation slows. Intense UV light can also burn berries, degrading colour pigments and leading to premature browning and an increase in raisined bitter flavours.

One grower in the Languedoc I visited in late September just shook his head when I asked about the harvest volume from his drought-stricken, heat-afflicted organic vineyards. “I had to buy 50 percent of my needs,” he said.

The scorching heat also triggered wildfires that burned nearly half a million hectares and sometimes engulfed vineyards, especially in Sicily, Rhodes and the Canary Islands.

Even grapes not touched directly by fire were tainted by smoke, causing a noticeable charred, campfire-like taste in wines.

But perhaps the biggest cautionary tale of vintage 2023 in Europe was the volume- and quality-ravaging effects of peronospora — downy mildew — a fungal disease that attacks grapevines, infecting leaves, generating a white cottony film on their undersides, reducing photosynthesis and shrivelling berries. Downy mildew thrives in hot, wet conditions, and 2023 served up a perfect storm.

In Bordeaux on France’s Atlantic coast, for example, vineyards without the means to regularly spray vines with antifungals are reporting near 100-percent crop losses. Some 90 percent of Bordeaux vineyards were affected by mildew. But downy mildew affected vineyards throughout Europe, from Portugal to Hungary, with organically farmed vineyards especially hard hit.

These are just a few random examples of the dark times experienced this summer in Europe, plucked from a sea of misfortunes. All told, wine production in Italy is estimated to slide 14 percent, though central and southern regions have lost up to 50 percent. Spanish wine production is estimated to have fallen by 20 percent.

So, where are the silver linings? Though not much solace to individual growers, lower production in Italy, Spain and France, the world’s three largest producers, will help ease a glut that has prompted the EU to allow crisis distillation of surplus wine. European winemakers are dealing with a drop in consumption on the back of inflation, anti-alcohol lobbies and ample supplies after a good 2022 harvest and a buildup of stocks during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Fortunes also varied geographically. Portugal, for example, nestled next to the Atlantic, largely avoided the worst of this summer’s heat waves. And while southern France and Italy have little to be thankful for, northern regions, more accustomed to dealing with downy mildew and less affected by heat waves, are reporting near-normal, or above-normal, crops. In Piedmont, home to Barolo and Barbaresco wines, production has dropped just 2 percent, while the volume from the Veneto, home to Valpolicella, Soave and Prosecco, will rise 5 percent. Burgundy is up over 8 percent on the previous vintage — excellent news for buyers frustrated by recent tiny volumes and stratospheric prices.

Quality will be highly heterogeneous overall but will be good at the top estates.

As the French say, it’s truly an “année du vigneron” — a year of the grower. Mounting experience with extreme weather over the last couple of decades has better-prepared growers for vintages like 2023. “It’s precisely in such strange years that all technical and scientific knowledge has to be applied to mitigate the damage of an increasingly crazy climate,” says Riccardo Cotarella, head of Assoenologi, Italy’s association of oenologists.

Diligent producers who stayed on top of disease pressure harvested high-quality, ripe fruit. And those with more means can deal with uneven quality. As I toured top left- and right-bank Bordeaux châteauxin the middle of harvest this September, I saw armies of sorters on hand to remove mildew-damaged or heat-shrivelled berries along conveyor tables before they reached the press. There were over 100 in action at first-growth Château Latour in Pauillac alone.

Well-heeled producers are also equipped with technologies like optical sorting machines, which use a series of lights and sensors to evaluate shape, colour and even chemical composition of passing berries to discard imperfect ones and allow only perfectly healthy, ripe berries through.

So, while 2023 will go down as a vintage to forget for most European wine growers, there will be some laudable results. As you’re perusing the shelves in years to come and see the 2023 vintage on the label, spare a thought for those vulnerable artisans, understand their challenges, and glance up at the sky and hope for a semblance of normal.

By John Szabo, MS

Illustration by Graham Roumieu.