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Topsy-turvy weather leaves winemakers in a spin

  • FILES - A file picture taken on June 26, 2012 in Maumusson-Laguian, southwestern France, shows French wine producer Alain Brumont showing grappes in his vineyard. (AFP PHOTO / REMY GABALDA)

PARIS: Record rainfall, cold snaps, hail storms and rampant vine disease: The conditions for making wine in large parts of France and in England have rarely been as tough as they have been this year.

Yet winemakers on both sides of the Channel are optimistic that 2012 could still turn out to be a vintage to remember for its quality as well as for the financially devastating impact of low yields.

“Some growers don’t have a thing, others only have 30 percent of their normal yields,” said James Dodson of Vine-Works, a consultancy based in Sussex, southern England. “We had record amounts of rain in April, May and June. Our flowering happens over Wimbledon weekend [late June], when we had rain and high winds. It was terrible. Then in July, more rain and cool temperatures.”

Water is key to viticulture and the wet stuff was at the heart of challenges faced by vintners this year.

Vines need water to grow and produce fruit. A drought causes the vines to stop photosynthesizing. But rain, particularly at the wrong moment, can disrupt the vegetative cycle and open the door to ravaging vine disease.

“Water pretty much governs everything,” says Jon Bowen, owner of Domaine Sainte Croix in the Haute Corbieres region of southern France.

While in vastly different climates, both Dodson and Bowen – as well as growers in Champagne and Burgundy have been plagued this year by a condition called millerandage, which occurs when bad weather interrupts and lengthens the vine’s flowering period.

That produces grapes of different sizes that ripen at different times, resulting in lower yields.

The English growers, mainly producing bubbly on chalky soil similar to that of the Champagne region, suffered even more acutely due to last year’s bout with millerandage.

“Millerandage leads to fewer buds the following year, so we expected lower yields this year. But now we have the same thing again, so it’s a compounded problem,” Dodson said.

Yields were further reduced by rain in July, which spread downy and powdery mildew. It was the same story in Champagne with the added complication of powerful hail storms.

“We had frost in April that froze 10 percent of the buds,” reported Thibault Le Mailloux of the Champagne wine board. “Then we had bad weather during flowering, which took place over four weeks rather than a few days and led to millerandage ... In the spring and early summer, rain brought mildew, hail hit 1,000 hectares. Some growers were hit by frost, hail and mildew.”

Burgundy was struck by the same triple whammy. “We have had a succession of problems in the vineyards,” said Alain Serveau, the technical director of winegrower-merchant Albert Bichot. “It’s rare to have all of these phenomena together. In 2012, this will certainly be a vintage where you have to be both a good winegrower and a good winemaker.”

The unfavorable weather has been particularly challenging for organic growers, some of whom have seen the viability of their businesses threatened.

But “a good thing with millerandage is that you have big berries and small berries,” Dodson explained. “The small berries don’t have seeds, but they have good concentration and you can get a high quality wine. Last year, we had millerandage and exceptional quality.”

With the harvest still to be completed in France, downpours when the grapes are plump could spell disaster. “That is always a risk, but today, right now, there is no question mark hanging over the quality. We could produce an interesting vintage this year,” Serveau said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 11, 2012, on page 13.
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