Producers across Europe have been using candles, heaters, down-draught helicopters and good old-fashioned prayers in a bid to save vines from the frost that has gripped the continent, but serious damage has already been done.
Regions seem to be competing to offer the bleakest news. Burgundy said it was the worst frost in 30 years and Chablis has been virtually wiped out. The Champagne Bureau said 25% of vine shoots have been damaged, reports suggested 30% of prosecco vineyards have been hit, and then Franciacorta was said to have seen 40% affected, before the figure was upped to 45% for Jura and then to 50-100% for Styria, Cognac and parts of Bordeaux, where 115,000 ha have been impacted.
Beleaguered regions like Loire and Burgundy are fearing the worst once again, capping a series of catastrophes served up by Mother Nature that have even led to the Burgundians creating a shield to protect vineyards from hail.
Patrick Vasseur, vice chairman of France’s largest farm union, FNSEA, called it ‘the most important freeze since 1991’. Important, in this case, is not a good thing. Across the continent the adjectives of choice among vignerons are negative.
The BNIC said the situation in Cognac is ‘very worrying’, the Bugey wine union said such a severe freeze has never before happened in living memory and words like ‘nightmare’ abounded.
‘In the memory of vignerons, there are two major freezes: 1991 and 1994,’ said Guillaume Lapaque, director of Indre-Loire. ‘This is on the level of 1994. It’s historic.’
Thibaut Le Mailloux from the Champagne Bureau said: ‘All areas of the Champagne are hit to very varying degrees. The frost impact is worse than last year’s.’
Even areas as far south as the Languedoc have been hit, and it is too late to save vines across Europe. It is terribly sad, as these are some of the best-loved wines among trade and consumers alike, but what does it all mean for the on-trade? There may be a scarcity of supply, but the main difference will be the continuation of soaring prices from regions like Burgundy.
In these times of drinking less but drinking better, consumers are prepared to pay more for quality wines, but not too much more. There is a ceiling, and it is up to the trade to eschew regions where prices are spiralling in favour of rival regions where the situation is more stable.
If a guest to your bar or restaurant wants a white Burgundy, you could offer them a South African Chardonnay that is better value for money. Instead of a young Barolo, claret or red Burgundy, offer them something interesting from Bulgaria, Macedonia or Hungary.
If customers can no longer afford their favourite classic wine, impress them with something from Greece or Tasmania and build loyalty by giving them a new lease of life in their wine drinking habits.
The countries of origin enjoying the most growth in the on-trade in 2016 were New Zealand, South Africa and Spain (CGA), countries not affected by the adverse weather that has battered large swathes of Europe. That trend could be set to continue given the recent news, and embracing lesser-known regions to help consumers enjoy quality wines at a price they feel comfortable with can really help you retain customers.
Instead of whacking up prices in the wake of negative exchange rates and catastrophic frost, the trade has to box clever and put in new wines to meet the price points consumers expect to pay, as they typically have a very set idea of how much they are willing to spend. They also enjoy discovering something new, and there is plenty of wine being produced across the world to go round. So many New World countries and emerging regions are making exciting, nuanced wines that can inject dynamism into your wine list.