Wine estates in Burgundy may produce their smallest vintages yet. Picture: 123RF/JAVARMAN
Wine estates in Burgundy may produce their smallest vintages yet. Picture: 123RF/JAVARMAN

Climate change made itself felt with a vengeance in Europe’s wine regions i n 2021. France was the poster child for a vintage of disasters. Severe frosts in April froze vines from Champagne to Provence.

Things went from bad to nightmarish when the unseasonably cold weather was followed by relentless summer rain, hailstorms and floods. Wildfires tore through parts of Provence in August.

The French ministry of agriculture and food projected overall yields at 24%-30% lower than average, the smallest wine harvest in 45 years. But remember: quality can still be good or even outstanding. Some growers are saying the surviving grapes look “amazing”.

On the other side of the world, in California, winemakers are happier. The grapes have exceptional flavour and concentration, they say, due in part to persistent drought.

Here is the outlook, by region.

France

Bordeaux: The land of grand chateaux is seeing a mixed fall. The biggest culprit is mildew. Some owners say the outbreak is the worst they have seen in 40 years, with grape yields down from 10% to 60%.

But a cooler than average growing season, with slow, steady ripening, has many optimistic. “Surprisingly, everything looks very positive, with incredible ripeness in the reds,” the vineyard manager for first-growth Château Haut-Brion says.

Burgundy: Paul Wasserman of exporter Becky Wasserman & Co outlines the problems here as “frost, hail, mildew, fear of rot and very slow ripening”. Plus, there were problems finding trained pickers. Harvest for reds started almost a month later than in 2020. Frost took the biggest toll on chardonnay. Veronique Drouhin-Boss of Domaine Joseph Drouhin says quantity is very low in Chablis and the Côte de Beaune, where overall losses are reaching 50%. It may end up as the smallest vintage yet, though the pinot in the Côte de Nuits was more fortunate.

Champagne: Weather and mildew echoed Burgundy’s experience. Louis Roederer lost 25% of the crop to the 12-day frost and 25% to outbreaks of mildew, which chef de cave Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon calls “the worst since 1958”. He adds, “Chardonnay is the luckier grape!” Which means excellent blanc de blancs. Top pinot noir is also successful, so Cristal, a blend of both, will not suffer.

Loire Valley: As if frosts were not enough, egg-size hailstones destroyed vineyards in a three-minute storm in June. Langlois Chateau reports quality is good for chenin blanc and cabernet franc, but there is a real lack of grapes. In Sancerre the loss amounts to 50%-70% at some vineyards. Yet in Savennières, winemaker Thibaud Boudignon says, this vintage could be his best, with wines that are minerally and fresh.

Rhône Valley: Laurent Combier of Domaine Combier calls 2021 “a true vintage of the vigneron”, meaning that it took expensive work in the vineyards to produce good grapes. He says the wines will hark back to vintages in the 1990s that had less alcohol. Stéphane Ogier, whose eponymous domaine is in Côte-Rôtie, expects “some good surprises for delicious whites” that are vibrant and fruity.

Provence: Yes, there was frost. Add to that a wildfire that raged for a week right before harvest in the Var, a rosé region that includes St-Tropez. It affected 73 wineries, such as Domaine Mirabeau. Other areas are fine. Chateau Minuty co-owner François Matton says his fermenting rosés already have intense aromas of white peach and grapefruit, balance, and freshness, and they have more grapes than expected.

Italy

Tuscany’s coastal Bolgheri area looks to be one of the year’s big successes. A cool spring and hot, dry summer created a classic vintage, says Axel Heinz, winemaker at super Tuscan estate Ornellaia. Priscilla Incisa della Rocchetta of Sassicaia calls it “a vintage with great potential — excellent structure, well-ripened tannins, acidity in perfect balance, and beautiful freshness”.

It was cool and dry in the Barolo country of Piedmont, where Giovanni Gaja of Gaja Winery is also optimistic about quality. But Brunello di Montalcino was not as lucky. Winemaker Sebastian Nasello at Podere Le Ripi cites 50% less fruit than usual because of frost, drought and hail. He is harvesting earlier, so wines may be fresher and more acidic. And despite media reports about heatwaves in Sicily, Alessio Planeta, who owns vineyards around the island, says red nero d’Avola and white grillo grapes will make great wines.

US

In terms of quality, Quintessa winemaker Rebekah Wineberg calls her haul “small but mighty”. Drought is the defining feature in Napa and Sonoma, as it was the third-driest year in more than a century, and the stress has meant fewer grapes: one of Massican’s white wine vineyards yielded 80% less than normal, according to founder Dan Petroski. But drought also causes smaller grapes with more concentrated flavour and tannins.

“So far, harvest 2021 has been fantastic,” Chateau Montelena winemaker Matt Crafton said in an email, “except for the yields.” People talk about intense aromas and depth, on par with the great 2018s. In Sonoma the chardonnay crop is light, but the wines are full of fresh acidity. Winemaker Theresa Heredia at Gary Farrell Winery in the Russian River Valley says the pinot noir is intense and concentrated.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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