Northern Hemisphere Vintage Update:
By Richard Siddle
Welcome to a series of articles looking at how the 2020 vintage is unfolding in different key countries across the northern hemisphere.
Here we continue our update on how harvests are shaping up across the northern hemisphere with this round up of the latest news in France, with a particular focus on the situation in Bordeaux from the perspective of local winemaker Gavin Quinney of Chateau Bauduc.
This year’s French wine production is on track to be bigger than last year’s with the harvest already underway thanks to warm weather across the country, according to the country’s farm ministry. In fact its biggest concern is more around curbing output in some of its more premium regions in order to stabilise prices.
In a report containing its first forecast for 2020, the ministry last week projected output to be in the region of 44.7-45.7 million hectolitres, an increase of between 6-8% compared with last year’s vintage and slightly above the country’s average of the past five years.
Vines generally benefited from favourable spring weather for flowering, although mildew disease has affected parts of the southwest and hailstorms in the Bordeaux region caused up to 30% production losses in some zones.
The ministry added that a developing drought in the country could curb the anticipated increase in production this year.
A very warm spring has left vines much further ahead in their growth than last year, with the Loire Valley region showing an advance of up to one month, it said.
The prospect of an early wine grape harvest has added to the problems faced by growers who are heavily dependent upon seasonal labour and who have been facing a shortfall of foreign workers and stricter sanitary measures during the coronavirus epidemic.
For the Champagne region, the ministry said vines were showing good potential, but noted that producers have yet to agree on an annual volume.
Growers and champagne houses are negotiating a production target, with some producers looking to cut output to shore up prices of the sparkling wine after the coronavirus crisis slashed sales. Elsewhere, some wine may be set aside to avoid flooding an already saturated market.
In some wine regions, the growth cycle is a full month ahead of 2019 and virtually across-the-board, this year’s crop is expected to be higher than last year’s, though forecasts are obviously still subject to change over the coming weeks.
Muscat grapes near the Spanish border were the first to be picked, where fruit is ripening apace this year. Good weather during flowering has paved the way for a good harvest and despite sometimes significant damage from downy mildew in regions including South-West France, Languedoc and Roussillon, production estimates are currently 6 to 8% up on 2019. How the wines will be classified though is still up for debate.
Bordeaux: winemakers’ perspective
In Bordeaux the harvest started around mid August, even earlier than in 2003, kicking off with the grapes used in the production of cremant, and in Pessac Léognan and Graves where the grapes for dry whites are produced.
According to the BIVB, the word in the vineyards is that producers are looking forward to a good vintage with healthy yields. Growers are also currently enjoying ideal weather conditions which has contributed towards optimal ripening. However, producers are all too aware that the weather could turn at any time and jinx the whole situation.
Gavin Quinney of Chateau Bauduc is one producer who is acutely aware of this. “After the threat of early season frost, significant spring rain, the risk of mildew, heatwaves, prolonged water stress, hail alerts and summer storms, it's looking really good.,” he said. “No, really - at least, for the dry whites and rosé. A tad early to predict for our red perhaps, and we don't want to tempt fate, though it's all looking fine for the moment.”
2020 was always likely to be an early harvest, he said, because once the cycle gets underway it tends to just crack on with it,” he said. “Otherwise, we see a familiar pattern in Bordeaux: significant rain in the spring months, followed by drought and heat in late June, July and August - with just enough rain at critical moments.”
It was a similar story in 2016, 2018 and 2019, he claimed, and 2020 is closer to 2018 given the timing of each stage, and the mildew threat.”
Perfectly timed sunny weather in May helped the vines to flower early, and a fair amount of seasonal rain continued until June 20th. However, after that, Quinney says they received no rain whatsoever for 53 days.
“The vines respond well to water stress in summer but the prolonged drought wasn't ideal, and when the temperature dial hit 40ºC at the end of the first week of August, we were somewhat concerned, to put it mildly
“Some of our young vines were dropping like flies, while others decided to, well, lock down. Mercifully we had three significant downpours at Bauduc in mid-August, and mostly at night. This rain was a godsend - we're not allowed to irrigate the vines - especially as it was followed up with sunny days and cool nights. The bunches, with the vines refreshed, have been ripening beautifully as a result.
“Meanwhile, the powers that be have reduced the maximum yield we can produce by almost 10% - which at this late stage has zero impact on quality as the fruit is hanging on the vine - because there's too much wine sitting around unsold elsewhere.
While the weather is something that is out of the hands of producers, they have been nonetheless been very proactive in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only have they had to adapt to strict hygiene restraints, but also pickers have been forced to socially distance, and wear masks when this is not possible. The harvesters lunches and dinners have also lost their usual conviviality because of the need to maintain social distances, but in many cases these have been replaced by lunch baskets.
The regional health agency and the CIVB have participated in setting up free Covid test centres for all their vineyard workers and staff to provide reassurance to both employees and employers. Some Bordeaux producers have gone one step further and acquired harvesting machines to minimise the impact of the Coronavirus, according to the CIVB.
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