Why the “disaster” is not an exaggeration for the French wine industry – how | Beverage Industry Commentary
The French are known for their passion – sometimes to the point of over-excitement. In his latest look at the wine category for Just Drinks, commentator Chris Losh finds that this tendency to overdo it on this occasion is not out of place for wine producers nationwide.
There are times as a journalist when the silence of your interviewees can give you a better idea of what is going on than a thousand words of commentary. I have spent much of the last fortnight hunting vineyards and growers across France, to find out how they were affected by the frosts of the past month, and it’s safe to say people don’t mind. queue to give their opinion.
Typically, when chasing bad news like this, if you issue enough probes. you will end up having a reaction like “It’s bad in places and some people were badly affected, but we escaped more or less unharmed”. This time, however, the silence was almost omnipresent, which can only mean one thing: it’s bad. Really bad.
The month of April was full of cruelly gorgeous photos on social media of ‘candles’ lighting up vineyards across France and smoke rolling down the twilight slopes as winemakers lit pots of wax and burned pot. hay to prevent freezing. The image that impressed me the most, however, was neither. Rather, it came from the French meteorological website, Infoclimat. For the night of April 7, the graph showed almost the entire country covered in blue markings indicating sub-zero temperatures like a blanket of arctic air nestled over France.
From the western edges of the Loire in the west to Alsace in the east, and from Champagne to Bordeaux and south of the Rhône, the country was – literally – freezing.
France is no stranger to spring frosts. But, there are four issues here that make the 2021 episode particularly devastating.
First, the cold snap occurred after an atypically hot February. At a time when the vine should still have been huddled against the cold, the sap began to rise and the cultivation cycle began much earlier than usual. Vines were about two weeks ahead of schedule across the country. The cold air hit in the middle of the bloom.
Second, as mentioned, it was unusual in scope. Northern regions like Burgundy, Champagne and Loire are used up to a certain degree of frost. But, it is a one-time event in a generation for each wine region to be affected. There is nothing like it over the past 70 years.
Third, the frost was unusually severe – -5 ° C was commonplace, and it fell to these levels for three consecutive nights. Growers are often able to take mitigating action against temperatures just below freezing and trust the luck that they will not be affected if it is an overnight event. There was, however, no escape from three consecutive nights of such harsh polar air. The growers who escaped the first night were captured at the end of the cold snap.
The combination of advanced vineyards and prolonged frost was a perfect weather and climate storm.
But, it is the one that was exacerbated by the fourth point: that this freeze comes on the back of a particularly tough six-year race where France has seen its production decimated on several occasions. In the six years since 2016, the country has experienced four vintages affected by frost. Maybe not the ubiquitous 2021, but still affecting over 50% of the country’s vineyards to some extent.
This is not normal. In 15 years from 1979 to 2015, Infoclimat recorded only five remarkable years of frost. Or, to put it in context, France has seen more or less as many vintages struck by severe cold during the Trump (ish) presidency as it has by the terms of Carter, Reagan, Bushes I and II, Clinton and Obama, put together. .
Places that hardly ever see frost have seen it this year. Unaccustomed places are preparing for losses of 50%. The regions accustomed to it have been practically wiped out. The scale of the loss in regions like Burgundy and the Loire is horrendous.
As mentioned earlier, it is currently difficult to get reliable damage figures. Officially, the wine regions are waiting for the frost season to end and see if the secondary buds improve matters anyway before quantifying the devastation.
It is just as likely that producers and their regulators are too shocked to speak.
So let’s make smart guesses. Over the past ten years, the average vintage size in France has been 44 million hectoliters. 2017, the last great “ gel ” vintage was 36m hl – a decrease of 20%. I’ve seen estimates in the French press put this year’s likely harvest at 32 million hectoliters – a drop of 30% – though based on some of the unofficial comments I’ve collected, it may well be even lower than that. .
What is certainly true is that it is unbalanced. The “volume” appellations of Languedoc, Roussillon and Provence can record almost normal years, while the “value” regions certainly will not. The country’s wine revenues are going to take a kick in the next few years.
What we can say with enough confidence is that prices are likely to rise in all areas – with the possible exception of Champagne, whose lock-in policy is helping to ease peaks and troughs. of the offer.
But the question of whether prices will be able to rise enough to fill the deficit is highly debatable. In a COVID world, few importers, buyers or consumers will be able to afford double-digit price increases. Yet how can producers counter a 90% reduction in their income? Burgundy winegrowers at least have the possibility of charging for their wines at good prices. And, the aging in barrels allows a certain spread of sales to be smoothed over thin years. For producers of, for example, Sauvignon Blanc de Loire, Muscadet or Rosé de Provence, which are typically made and sold within six months of the vintage, there is no such stamp.
For many winemakers, the economics of wine hasn’t been convincing for a while – even in a decent year. They don’t make sense at all in frozen vintages.
I would expect a number of wineries to go up for sale within the next 12 months which could (if we’re really looking for the bright spots) offer more financially sound operations. But three nights of polar air has done enormous damage to the French wine industry in the near term, and the declines will be felt for some time to come.
Sales will fall, prices will rise, and businesses will fall to the wall. It has been described as a national calamity and, coupled with the uncertainties of COVID, for once it does not appear to be hyperbole.