French grape harvest heading to historic low

Paris - Knocked off course by a cold spring snap, French wine production from Bordeaux to Alsace has dropped dramatically this year and could hit "a historic low", according to the agriculture ministry.

"At 37.6 million hectolitres the 2017 harvest is set to come in 17% lower than in 2016, and 16% below the average of the past five years," the ministry's statistics bureau Agreste said Saturday.

As such, the traditional August to October harvest of the world's second largest wine producer "could be historically low and inferior to that of 1991, which was also hit by severe frost."

The cold wrought havoc notably in southwest France, with Bordeaux suffering along with neighbouring Charente, as well as Alsace and Jura in the northeast. Some losses are also anticipated in the Burgundy region, Languedoc and the southeast.

The Mediterranean region was hit by a problem of a different variety as wind and rain caused the phenomenon of "coulure" where grapes, most notably the grenache variety in the Rhone valley, fail to develop properly after vines have flowered.

But wine sommeliers urged a bit of patience, dispelling the gloom with the old wine adage: "August makes the grapes, September makes the wine".

"It is still too early to draw a conclusion about the quality of the wine this year which will depend on the weather up to the grape harvest, and the conditions of the crop," said Philippe Faure-Brac, who held the title of world's best sommelier in 1992.

"At the moment, the weather conditions are not at all bad," he said, but admitted the quantity of wine production "will be economically very tight, that's for sure."

Some vineyards have a system of reserves, like those producing Chablis or Champagne, holding back from selling a part of the production year to year as insurance to help ride out those times of poor grape harvests.

"For instance 2016 was a huge vintage - that will allow some regions to manage their volumes and quality," said Faure-Brac.

But not all wine regions practise the same system, and only about 25% of French winegrowers have insured against severe weather.

Vineyards "with little stock" and "not much cash flow", after being hit by hail and frost last year, are going to be in a "difficult" situation this year, said Bernard Farges, president of the national AOP/AOC committee.

"We are working with the ministry to put in place measures to improve insurance and savings regimes," he said - although that won't relieve problems this year.

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