What a year 2017 has been. Anyone who watched TV, listened to the radio, logged on to the Internet or read a newspaper could not escape the events — man-made and natural — of the past year. The bad news was so pervasive that, at one point, I almost expected to hear an announcement that the sun had turned as black as sackcloth and the moon had turned blood red.
There is no need for me to go into detail because the loss of life, property and faith have been well reported, documented and discussed. So, it’s no surprise that the worldwide wine business was not immune to the bad news of 2017, particularly in Italy, France and Spain, which are the first, second and third largest wine producers in the world. And then there’s California.
Please know that I am not minimizing the level of suffering, devastation and destruction endured by so many people this year by making a comparison to the wine business. This is, after all, an article about wine, and there is some interesting news to share about the 2017 vintage that may impact the supply, quality and prices of some wines in the coming years.
This past summer, Italy suffered through weeks of oppressive 100-degree-plus temperatures. This, plus the lack rain, has impacted the grape harvest. If that wasn’t enough, late spring frost and hailstorms in many parts of the country compounded the problem.
The spring frost and hail damaged many vines, cutting down the quantity of the harvest, while the summer heat accelerated growth and resulted in grapes with low acidity. In many areas, the harvest started two or three weeks early; then rain in early September slowed the ripening of some of the later-ripening varieties.
The regions of Piedmont, Tuscany, Umbria and Puglia were among the hardest hit, with Sicily escaping the spring frost, but not the summer heat. Production overall is estimated to be about 23% below that of 2016.
Spring came early in France; thus the growing season started a couple of weeks sooner than usual. Then, in late April, severe frost over several nights caused damage, to varying degrees, to vines in most of the major wine areas. Some vineyards even lost their entire crop.
Many areas in Bordeaux really took a beating. The Medoc was mostly spared; however, Saint-Emilion, Sauternes and Graves weren’t so lucky, and overall, 2017’s crop is about half of 2016’s harvest. Most of Burgundy was spared, though Chablis, Châtillonnais and the Mâconnais saw considerable damage.
Champagne, Loire and Alsace also saw lower yields, due to the frost. The hot and dry summer put additional pressure on the harvests in the Rhone and in the south of France. Producers still are optimistic that the quality of the 2017 wines from some areas will be very good, but production is expected to be down by about 18% compared to that of 2016.
Wine regions in Italy and France weren’t the only ones to be damaged by late April frost. The northern Spanish regions of Galicia, Castilla y Léon and Rioja experienced overnight temperatures in the low 20s.
In Galicia, 70% of the vineyards in Ribeiro and Valdeorras were affected. In Castilla y Léon, Bierzo was hit the hardest, with about 80% of the vineyards damaged; 75% of the vineyards in the Rioja Alta and Alavesa areas of Rioja also were damaged.
Ongoing drought conditions made matters worse, further reducing yields and hampering efforts to rehydrate the vines. Overall, Spanish wine production is down about 15% compared to last year.
Who can forget the images of the walls of wind-blown flames racing through residential neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, in California’s Sonoma County? Or the images of Northern California burning, as firefighters battled the flames in an effort to save lives and property?
As I write this article, 42 people have lost their lives, with dozens still missing. Almost 200,000 acres have burned in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, and about 5,500 houses have completely burned. An additional 4,000 residences were damaged.
As this story was unfolding, it seemed possible that Northern California’s wine industry might go up in smoke. Now that we have more information, reports are that the impact was not as devastating as first thought, but tell that to the two dozen wineries that were completely or partially destroyed.
About 90% of the harvest was already in when the fires started, but there was still some Cabernet Sauvignon and other late ripening varieties still on the vine. There is still a wait-and-see attitude about the 2017 vintage. It is possible that the grapes that were still on the vine were affected by the smoke. Power outages, evacuations and road closures during the fires interrupting the processing of the harvest all could have an effect on the quantity and quality of the wines from this vintage.
What It All Means
The world’s top four wine-producing countries suffered setbacks, reduced yields and lower production, with Italian, French and Spanish production down considerably, while it is hoped that effects from the California fires will result in only a minimal drop in U.S. production. The jury is still out, however, on what impact the challenges of the 2017 vintage will have on the quantity, quality and price of the wines.
As another year ends, I’m looking forward to celebrating the holidays with family and friends — and enjoying great food and great wine. All the best for a happy and healthy 2018. Cheers.
Sam Audia is a former advertising and marketing professional with more than 20 years of experience in the wine and spirits industry. He is a wine specialist at Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits, in Annapolis, holds a Certification Diploma from the Sommelier Society of America, and Intermediate and Advanced certificates from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust. He can be reached at [email protected].