Your favourite European wine may soon get a tad pricier, or at least harder to find. Blame it on the weather. A freakish combination of frost, hail and severe drought across the continent this year conspired to produce what some are calling one of the smallest harvests since the Second World War.
The European Commission has forecast an across-the-board drop in wine-must production of 14.4 per cent among member countries, down to 14.5 billion litres from 16.9 billion in 2016.
"That's an enormous amount of wine that's kind of missing," said Stephen Rannekleiv, the global beverage strategist at Rabobank, a Dutch multinational bank with a heavy focus on the food and agricultural sectors. "That's close to 10 per cent of what the world consumes in wine in a typical year."
Italy, the world's largest wine producer, appears to have suffered the biggest wallop. The EC expects volume there to be down 21 per cent, while the Copa-Cocega European farm union pegs the figure at an even higher 26 per cent.
In many areas, early flowering left vines vulnerable to frost, which damaged opening buds and shoots. Then came intense heat and drought, which accelerated ripening but kept berry size down. (Although crop yields are down, fruit quality is said to be generally very good.) In Sicily, many producers began harvesting in July, three weeks ahead of normal. Coldiretti, an Italian agricultural lobby, predicted Sicilian production alone would fall 35 per cent over 2016, with Tuscany – home of Chianti – not far behind at a deficit of 30 per cent.
The picture was not much rosier in the continent's other two wine powerhouses, France and Spain, with widespread frost hitting both countries and notorious hailstorms adding to the pain in such high-priced regions as Burgundy.
Rabobank's Rannekleiv said it's not uncommon for one country to be off by up to 15 per cent in output in a single year. But in such cases other countries can mitigate price swings by filling market gaps and increasing output with, say, wine that might have otherwise been sent for distillation. The challenge this year, he adds, is that "all three top producers are off by a significant amount."
Rannekleiv says producers are generally reluctant to hike prices in response to one-time weather anomalies because they risk losing consumer loyalty – and thus market share – to competitors. He expects the biggest price impact to be felt at the low end, where profit margins are already razor thin. In the premium and superpremium spheres, many wineries can afford to absorb the shock and pray for better weather in 2018.
Just in case, let's sip some fine European liquid before they can decide to make it pricier.
Jean Baptiste Ponsot Molesme Rully 2015, France
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $43.95
A premier cru from the underappreciated Rully appellation in Burgundy. Full and round, with ripe fruit, impressive mid-palate gravity and tangy acid balance. There's noticeable oak in this chardonnay in the form of vanilla, caramel and toast but there's substantial fruit to support it. Smart Burgundian winemaking. Expensive but worth it. Available in limited quantities in select, large LCBO stores in Ontario.
William Fèvre Chablis Montmains 2014, France
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $39.95
A premier cru, medium-bodied and silky, with oily texture and a truckload of minerals as well as a flinty, mouth-puckering, saline edge. In other words, classic Chablis. Available in Ontario at the above price, approximately $55 in select B.C. private stores, various prices in Alta., $52 in Que., $50.39 in N.S.
Castello di Querceto Chianti Classico Riserva 2013, Italy
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $28.95
Terrifically chewy, with notes of dried cherry, licorice, spices and cedar. Good concentration and ripeness. It's worth cellaring this red up to eight more years. Available in Ontario.
Fumanelli Squarano Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2014, Italy
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $42.95
Great producer. And not your cheap-pizzeria sort of valpolicella. Solid depth and structure, with cherry-plum fruit in the foreground, a woody-cedar overtone and lots of fun in between. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alta.
Feudo Maccari Saia 2014, Italy
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $34.94
Smooth, very dense and chunky Sicilian red. Made from the local nero d'avola grape, with spiced plum and flecks of prune and raisin, veering nicely into savoury territory with leathery aromatics reminiscent of a shoe-repair shop. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alta.
J.L. Chave Sélection Mon Coeur Côtes du Rhône 2015, France
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $21.95
Surprisingly good for the dollars. Full-bodied, polished to a cue-ball sheen, with a concentrated core of plum and blackberry joined by a gamy, smoky-bacon essence and black pepper. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alta., $23.30 in Que.
M. Chapoutier les Vignes de Bila-Haut Côtes du Roussillon Villages 2016, France
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $15.95
Very southern France, with a soft, ripe centre that turns chewy and dry and spicy around the edges, showing cherry jam, licorice and black pepper. Chewy-ripe tannins. Good weight and gravity. Available in Ontario at the above price, $15.79 in B.C., $15.55 in Que., $18 in N.S., $19.96 in Nfld. (currently on sale for $17.96), $18.09 in PEI.
Magana Dignus 2012, Spain
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $16.95
A blend of 50-per-cent tempranillo with merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Much going on for the money in this Navarra red, including cherry, vanilla, licorice, underbrush and a pleasantly subtle whiff of barnyard. Very Spanish, and a major value. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alta., $17.90 in Que.
Baglio di Pianetto Shymer Syrah Merlot 2013, Italy
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
Velvety, meaty Sicilian red. Plum syrup, baking spices and hints of cedar, black olive, raisin and pepper. Vibrant, and with tangy edge, too. Available in Ontario.
Massucco Roero Arneis 2015, Italy
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17.95
From Piedmont, home of the obscure but increasingly hip white grape arneis. The wine is light-medium-bodied and soft, though with good acidity and notes of stone fruit, almond and spice, finishing with a chalky sensation. Available in Ontario.
Cantina di Negrar Garganega 2016, Italy
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $9.85
You know garganega, if not necessarily by name. It's the grape of Soave, one of northern Italy's historically maligned whites. The variety may not trip of the tongue as suavely as "Soave," but this beverage goes down mighty easy. Plump and richly flavoured, it offers up pear, peach and apple fruit on a smooth texture, with snappy acidity lifting things on the finish. Good house- or wedding-wine candidate. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alta.
Beppi Crosariol will be among the hosts of The Globe and Mail River Cruise, which sails next August through the wine regions of Burgundy, Beaujolais and the Rhône Valley. For details, visit tgam.ca/cruise.
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