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French winegrowers face poorest harvest since 1945

Pascal Pavani, AFP | Grapes are harvested at the Minervois vineyard near the southwestern French town of Pepieux, in the Minervois region, on September 27, 2017.
Text by: Anna SANSOM
4 min

France’s winegrowers are preparing for their poorest harvest in decades after frosty weather in April devastated vineyards, with many fearing they will be unable to meet market demand.


Winegrowers in France have finished harvesting their grapes to produce wine for 2017. Yet many fear they will be unable to satisfy market demand after their vineyards perished during the April frosts. Jérôme Despey, head of a governmental wine advisory board at FranceAgriMer, said this year’s harvest will be “the smallest since 1945”.

"At harvests everywhere, in places where we thought there would be a little less, there's a lot less," Despey said at a news conference in August.

Vineyards in the Bordeaux region of southwest France are amongst those hardest hit. “The spring frost destroyed over half of our harvest and we’ve harvested the weakest quantity since 1991,” Alain Raynaud, president of the Bordeaux group, Cercle Rive Droite des Grands Vins de Bordeaux, told FRANCE 24.

“On the quality front, it’s unequal depending on the different designations,” Raynaud, nicknamed the Karl Lagerfeld of oenology, said. “Medoc suffered less from the frost and the quality of the wine is very good, the same for Saint-Emilion and part of Pomerol. For the other territories in Bordeaux, it’s very heterogeneous. As we’ve only just finished the harvest, we now need to complete the wine-making process and we’ll find out the result of the quality in a few months.

Quantity versus quality

Regarding the quality-quantity issue, he added, “It’s always the quality that’s more important, but with such a low quantity we can’t satisfy the markets.”

Not all regions were affected to the same extent. “Our Burgundy region was relatively protected but some sectors – such as [the white-wine growing] Chablis, Mâconnais and Châtillonnais – were very affected [by the frost],” said Thomas Nicolet, director of CAVB, a confederation of designations and winegrowers in Burgundy, central-west France. “But apart from those areas, the harvest is beautiful and good, both in quality and quantity.”

Chablis vineyard in April 2017
Daniel Seguinot, winegrower, shows the buds of his Chablis vineyard hit by frost in Maligny near Auxerre, northern France, on April 20, 2017. Philippe Desmazes, AFP

Indeed, the hot summer that followed the spring frost has promised to deliver splendid vintages for some winegrowers lucky enough to have been spared the bad spring weather.

“In terms of volume, it’s a catastrophe,” said Jean-Philippe Granier, head of communications for Syndicat AOC Languedoc, which represents winegrowers in Languedoc, south of France. “One part of Languedoc suffered hail damage and was frozen. But those [producers] who carefully tended to the soil of their vineyards and protected the vines suffered less, resulting in superb, excellent quality wine."

Vineyards in northeastern Alsace, which produces mainly white wines, were also badly hit, while those in the south, Beaujolais and the Rhône Valley, suffered an exceptionally dry summer that will further depress yields, according to France's agriculture ministry.

Italy and Spain also suffer a poor 2017

France is not alone in forecasting disappointing results for 2017. Europe’s wine harvest for 2017-2018 is expected to fall by 14 percent from last year, according to the European Commission. This has also been blamed on the drought in Italy and the heatwave in Spain, according to French daily Le Figaro.

The 2017-2018 wine harvest across the whole of the EU is currently estimated to reach around 145 million hectolitres, some 22 million hectolitres less than 2016, the European Commission said.

As Europe’s number one wine producer, Italy is predicted to produce 40 million hectolitres of wine (down by 26 percent), followed by France’s 37.2 million (down by 17 percent) and Spain’s 36.8 million (down by 16 percent).

Despite the gloomy predictions, the EU represents 61.2 percent of global wine production, according to the most recent figures from 2016. However, it faces increasingly more foreign competition from the US (8.7 percent of wine production), Argentina (5 percent), Australia (4.8 percent), China (4.4 percent), Chile (3.9 percent), South Africa (3.5 percent) and New Zealand (1.2 percent).

Faced with the steep competition, French red wine producers have been lowering their prices over the last three years. The average bottle of red wine in France costs €3.82, according to EU figures released in July, down from 24 percent in July 2016. This compares to €3.47 for a bottle of red wine in Italy and €3.33 in Spain.

Although the French and Italians are consuming far less wine than in 1980, France remains the leading consumer of wine in the EU, followed by Italy, Germany, the UK and Spain.

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