France has been hit hard by Mother Nature this year. French winemakers and vintners are suffering from a three-pronged assault on the country’s grapes: an abnormally cold spring brought frost to several regions, including Bordeaux, and summer storms encouraged the dreaded grape rot in Champagne; while in the southern regions, drought severely hampered production.

The grape-growing and winemaking industries are incredibly fragile, and shockingly dependent on the weather’s mercy. While the entire agricultural sector hinges on good growing conditions, grape growers especially place their fates in the hands of a particularly fickle plant.

Praying for perfect conditions

Wineries, and grape farms generally, are incredibly susceptible to changes in the weather, as the drop in French production this year demonstrates. The French Ministre de l’Agriculture has predicted a 19% fall in production on last year’s numbers; a loss of around 4.9 billion bottles. It’s a stressful problem for producers – to get the best out of your product, you’re praying for perfect conditions year on year.

The Champagne region highlights how excess rain can be incredibly damaging for grape-growers. “In years of heavy rains, the environment around the grapes is going to be humid. Humidity and warmth around the grapes leads to mould and mildew,” explains Wineland Estates Winery director David Hulley.

Mildew is infamous in grape-growing communities, as even small spots on grapes can create a weak point, which may cause the grape to burst as it grows, attracting fruit flies, which in turn attract flies and disease. Growers often have no choice but to pay for expensive engineered sulphur-based sprays to prevent against mildew formation.

Regarding the spring frosts, Hulley says avoiding the cold is a tricky balancing act, and that it can often be impossible to get right. “Grapes need more than sunshine, they need heat,” he says. “The grapes need a certain amount of growing degree days (GDDs) to get going. Certain varieties need a specific number of GDDs but if you grow them too early, you risk frost. If a nasty frost comes along and burns off the shoots, then you’re toast.”

Add into the equation that a cold start to the season can delay the beginning of the growing period, and you have a gamble on your hand that could easily see you lose a significant portion of your profits.

The war on weather

Wine aficionados are forever discussing the ideal terroir for a particular varietal of grape, especially those grown in the more influential regions of France, but it is easy to forget how much of an impact weather has on a particular vintage. Identical grapes grown in identical soils would have entirely unique tastes if sun, heat, and rain rates differed even slightly between two regions.

Despite the troubles they face, producers can fairly consistently gather a workable number of grapes, but a tricky growing period brings another hidden cost. “Vines are an amazing plant. They really want to get the job done. If the heat comes and the sun shines late, they can get done in days what normally takes weeks,” says Hulley. “If it were corn you might be able to write it off, but vines are very different. They will get the job done, and sometimes that saves you.” But where this can help avoid a catastrophic year, the taste cannot be expected to go unaffected. “Weather can make it quite remarkably different. Even the great wine houses have a spectrum of tastes; it’s why we say a vintage is ‘a good year’.”

There is, however, a recent development in the industry that could turn the tide in the war on weather. Optical sorters are still new to most producers, and are a very expensive piece of technology, but can help growers to sort the very best of their crop year-on-year. Hulley explains that “with the sorter, each grape is individualised and photographed at lightning speed. The decision is made by a computer input whether or not to keep that individual grape out of millions.”

Smaller winemakers will not have the luxury of throwing away all but the very best of their crop, but for the bigger producers, optical sorting equipment has the potential to change the game. Vintage quality can theoretically be maintained year on year, with the amount of wine produced being the only variable. Profits will still receive a significant hit, but a consistent quality of product can be kept up. As Hulley puts it: “It could be the worst year ever, but the vines will produce excellent grapes; you just need to find them.”