Fires, frost, and floods: Europe’s winegrowers brace for the worst harvest in memory

September 11, 2021, 10:00 AM UTC

Christine Piot is no stranger to the volatile winemaking business. She’s the 10th generation in her family to cultivate Champagne vines in northeastern France, where the family’s 20 acres have produced fine bubbly since the 1700s. Most years, she ships about 1,200 bottles of Champagne Piot Sevillano to the U.S.—France’s biggest wine customer.

But after centuries of the domaine surviving a revolution and two world wars, 2021 could be the worst year in memory.

“We’ve lost 90% of our grapes,” says Piot, who is preparing to start harvesting in the coming days. Harvest dates for each village are dictated by regional officials, along with the amount growers are allowed to pick. After strictly limiting production in 2020, when pandemic lockdowns drove down demand, the Champagne Committee ruled that growers could harvest up to some 13,000 kilos per acre, beginning on Sept. 9.

There is one problem with that plan, Piot tells Fortune: “Nobody has that much.”

Piot’s pain is widely felt, not only in Champagne, but across France, the world’s second-biggest wine producer by volume after Italy—and across the rest of Europe. A cascade of weather disasters has hit vines hard, pummeling an economic linchpin in some countries—and raising questions among winegrowers about how age-old practices can withstand climate change.

“There are a lot of very distressed people,” says Burgundy vintner Thiébault Huber. “Climate change is too hard.”

France: Hot, cold, wet

French officials estimate this year’s harvest will be the smallest in several decades. That’s a sobering prospect for the country, whose $17.5 billion wine industry is one of its biggest export earners. The COVID-19 vaccine rollout, and the end of President Donald Trump’s tariffs on French wines, had promised relief after a miserable 2020, when sales to the U.S. dropped by about 18%. “There is light at the end of the tunnel,” deputy chairman of the Federation of French Wine and Spirits Exporters (FEVS) Antoine Leccia said in February.

That was not to be. Instead, a freak heat wave in March scalded vines. Deep frost in April froze plants in the Loire, Provence, and Rhône regions, prompting growers to light “crop candles”—large canisters filled with burning paraffin—between the vines in an attempt to keep them warm. Then came torrents of rain in June and July, spawning an outbreak of mildew in Burgundy and Champagne, and in August, wildfires burnt vineyards to a crisp in the South of France.

“Is this the new normal—these so-called false springs following mild winters, where vines are tricked into early growth, like an army lured into a trap and then ambushed?” Tim Atkin, a prominent British wine writer, asked in April.

For vintners like Huber, the winegrower and owner of Burgundy’s Domaine Huber-Verdereau, the possibility that this is the new normal is a terrifying one. Huber typically produces about 55,000 bottles a year, selling out to customers who reserve them in advance. But he expects this harvest to produce half that amount. “This year might be the lowest in the history of Burgundy,” he notes, referring to a region that has produced wine since the Middle Ages. “There are many winegrowers saying, ‘We cannot live with this production.’”

When Fortune first visited Huber in Burgundy, in December 2019, his U.S. sales had dropped to near zero, thanks to Trump’s tariffs. Today that problem is over, but the climate crisis promises to be a more lasting one.

“Our vines are suffering a lot, and we will have huge costs to try to adapt to this climate,” Huber says.

After the Ahr flood in Germany, many in the industry came together for relief efforts such as the Flutwein (“flood wine”) initiative.
Ina Fassbender—AFP via Getty Images

Germany: After the deluge

The mid-July floods in Germany had a catastrophic impact in the valley of the river Ahr, a tributary to the Rhine. The wine region, long known for its reds, was decimated. Overall, 65 German estates were damaged or destroyed in the floods, along with four cooperative wine cellars.

“The deluge of water has carried away barrels, wine bottles, and machines, thus destroying entire wine-producing businesses and livelihoods,” lamented the German Wine Institute, which represents the sector, at the time.

A few weeks on, schools still lie in ruins, electric and gas power lines remain out of commission, and families are starting to contemplate the possibility of a winter without central heating. Many of the valley’s traumatized inhabitants will not return, said Frank Schulz, a spokesman for the institute. “However, estate owners do not have this choice,” he added.

The river Ahr flows through the Ahr Valley in July, past the destroyed village of Marienthal and the vineyards.
Philipp von Ditfurth—picture alliance/Getty Images

So far, the Ahr region, which is one of Germany’s northernmost, has been less affected by the rising heat normally attributed to global warming. Hotter weather forces earlier harvests, a situation the valley experienced with its Frühburgunder harvests in 2019 and 2020, though not this year. Still, the flooding was the Ahr’s worst in at least 500 years, and scientists partially attribute the extreme weather disaster to climate change, which they say intensified the rainfall that caused it.

After the flood, many in the industry came together for relief efforts such as the Flutwein (“flood wine”) initiative begun by restaurateur Linda Kleber, marketer Daniel Koller, and Ahr Wine Federation chair Peter Kriechel. In exchange for donations on a crowdfunding platform, the campaign gives people the salvaged, muddied, and crucially unbroken bottles of wine that were ruined in the disaster. So far, it has raised nearly €4.5 million ($5.3 million)

“It’s a big number—I don’t want to make it seem smaller than it is—but compared to the damage only in the [Ahr] wine industry, this campaign raised 1%,” says Koller.

“The total damage to the wine industry is estimated at €450 million if you include the long-tail damage like the destroyed vineyards,” he says. “If you rip them out of the ground and plant again next year, it takes at least four years until you get the first harvest.”

Italy: No time to celebrate

There are typically triumphant September headlines in Italian newspapers in the years Italy overtakes neighboring France to claim the crown as the world’s biggest wine producer by volume. It’s a lock this year, but nobody is cheering.

According to a much-cited annual forecast by Assoenologi, Unione Italiana Vini, and the ISMEA agricultural institute, the harvest yield is expected to fall 9% in Italy, and plummet by 29% in France. An April frost bedeviled growers in the north of Italy, while extreme summer drought and wildfires scorched output down south. The upshot: If you’re a fan of Tuscany’s brawny Brunello di Montalcino or the rich, dry Valpolicella Amarone hailing from outside Verona, you may find the hunt for a 2021 vintage more challenging than ever.

Again this year, growers are putting a positive spin on the grape crunch. The soaring temperatures, wine producers say, is good news for collectors as it means the tradeoff of lower volumes, but higher quality wines—a dynamic the Italians describe as, “poca, ma buona,” or a diminished harvest of even tastier grapes.

Viticulture scientists don’t see it that way, however. In hotter, drier seasons, the harvest is pushed forward by days, as was the case in much of central and southern Italy this year. Wine grapes that ripen at an accelerated pace often contain excessive sugar levels. In less expert hands, the resulting wines are an alcoholic fruit bomb—the wines can be overly potent, and lose their freshness and aromatic complexity in the bottle. (Truth is, a big part of the wine-consuming market is just fine with that result.)

Italy is blessed with a rich biodiversity of native wine grapes, and that’s pushing growers to increasingly bank on hardy local varieties like the lush, white vino Pecorino, found in the hills off the Adriatic coast, or the Nerello Mascalese from the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna as a way to adapt to erratic growing seasons. But even that strategy is being challenged in a rapidly changing climate. A few days ago, a quarter of the Italian grape harvest had already been picked—days or even weeks ahead of schedule.

Spain: Lucky—this year

Spain often endures summers that feature hellacious wildfires, sudden volleys of golf-ball-size hail, and blistering heat waves, but in 2021 the world’s third biggest wine producer has largely escaped the climate extremes that have ravaged the rest of Europe’s wine regions.

While Spain was hit by strong January frost that damaged plants in the center of the peninsula, and saw spring and summer hail along the Ribera del Duero, Spanish wineries are on track for what Rafael del Rey, general manager of the Spanish Observatory of Wine Markets (OeMv), calls a “medium-low” production year of some 40 million hectoliters (hl) of wine. That’s compared with an especially productive 2020, with 46.5 million hl, and a low 2019, at 37.2 million hl.

“A good harvest is coming, the quality seems very good, and as it is somewhat lower than expected, prices tend to rise,” says del Rey.

In some parts of Spain, in fact, a generalized rise in temperatures over recent years has benefited vintners. Rafael Vivanco, the fourth generation co-owner, along with his brother Santiago, of Rioja’s Bodegas Vivanco, says that mild levels of warming help the grapes in their cool region mature more fully, giving them more complex and long-lasting wines. “Climate change favors us with more years of quality,” he says.

But Vivanco is by no means blind to the long-term dangers of climate change. While he is harvesting one week later than normal this year, early harvests forced by excessive heat—and the grape flaws they cause—are increasingly becoming the norm.

“Climate change can reduce our ability to create great wines, unless we move to higher altitudes” where temperatures are lower, says Vivanco.

The other option to combat rising temperatures, he notes, is to blend Rioja’s trademark Tempranillo grape, which suffers from excess heat, with slower-ripening varieties such as Graciano and Mazuelo. “They mature later,” he notes. “And if we harvest later, we can take advantage of the cool autumn nights that bring the quality.”

Changing grapes is becoming a common practice in winegrowers’ regions hit by rising temperatures. In January, France’s national wine regulatory body, the INAO, took the unprecedented step of approving the use in Bordeaux wines of six new grape varieties suited to hotter climates—including Spain’s Albariño white.

Harvest of sadness

For Europe’s winegrowers, a small harvest could, in theory, produce expensive, rare 2021 wines. But importers warn against hiking prices. “Some markets have reached the point where they’re saying, ‘We cannot keep raising prices,’” says Chris Santini, a winemaker in Burgundy, who represents the California wine importer Kermit Lynch. A bottle that leaves the winery for €10 (about $12) can be $95 on a restaurant wine list, he notes.

Santini says winemakers like himself, who produce wines from other people’s grapes, are struggling to find grapes this year. Grape prices have doubled, and some growers are not selling at all, Santini says. He expects to produce fewer than 3,000 bottles this year, about 20% of a normal year.

All that has turned the festive camaraderie of the September harvest season into a deeply anxious time.

Piot, who quit a job in journalism 14 years ago to take over her family’s Champagne farm, says she usually cherishes harvest weeks, which she describes as a time for communal bonding. Normally, she hires 30 people for the harvest, which lasts between seven and 10 days, Piot says: “Everyone sleeps here, and I cook for everyone.”

This year, Piot has hired just three people to pick her meager quantity of grapes, and expects to be finished within four days.

“It will be really sad,” she says.

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