The recently abated heatwaves that blanketed southern Europe this summer were just another in a long line of extreme weather phenomena that winemakers on the continent have had to cope with in the last several years. The full scope of issues that they have caused is only just starting to come into focus as harvest season approaches and vineyards yield their grapes.
While news channels showed images of tourists in the Mediterranean region cooling off in fountains and residents seeking shade indoors, the same couldn’t be said for the thousands of vintners there. They were in the fields offering any relief they could to their grapevines and their precious fruits. Their success or failures will reverberate across the wine spectrum.
According to the European Commission, Mediterranean viticulture (Spain, Italy, France, Portugal, and Greece) account for more than 50% of the world’s production and 55% of the world’s exports in wine.
Sicily and nearby Sardinia saw temperatures hit 48.2 C/ 118 F during the July heatwave that led to tremendous stress on vineyards and widespread wildfires. Assovini Sicilia, the association of Sicilian winemakers, just released their report for the 2023 harvest.
In it, they referenced the dual hit their vineyards suffered in 2023. Heavy rains in May and June led to a bloom of downy mildew that stressed crops. That was followed by the extreme heat in July that compromised the health and quality of the grapes. Their agronomists have initially estimated that these could lead to a -40% drop in production. Still, their hopes are tempered now that temperatures have stabilized that they might be able to contain the damage.
As such, the Sicilian harvest, the longest in Italy, will start ten days later this year.
“Right now, the quality of the grapes is excellent since we managed the powdery mildew, but due to the heat in the past weeks, we lost about 40% of the upcoming production,” said Filippo Buttafuoco, a viticulture technician Cantine Settesoli. “Since the temperatures dropped down, the unburned grapes are starting to regain strength, so the overall drop could be lower. We are satisfied with how we managed the downy mildew issue, thanks to the help of weather huts that have the ability to electronically indicate the chance of the disease, avoiding irreparable damage”
Looking at the rest of Italy, the national farming group Coldiretti has said that they expect the 2023 wine harvest could be 14% smaller than in 2022. That would equate to roughly 43 million hectoliters for 2023 compared to 50 million hectoliters for 2022.
If those numbers stand, that would rank as one of the smallest Italian wine harvests on record.
Coldiretti highlighted the difference between the different wine regions of Italy. The central and southern regions are looking at up to 50% collapses in certain areas. While the northern region, which should produce 65% of Italy’s wine this year, is in better shape. Yields there are looking to be stable despite recent hailstorms and some large storms.
Nearby Greece made headlines with soaring temperatures and raging wildfires throughout July as it dealt with its worst-ever heatwave. While the vintners on the island are only now starting to assess the damage caused, it could be substantial. Over the last several years, Greek producers have dealt with heat-related issues that have dropped their harvest numbers. In 2022 they were down 29%, according to the International Organization of Vine and Wine’s annual World Wine Production Outlook report.
France is looking to rebound from the devastation of 2022 when heat waves led to numerous wildfires that impacted several wine regions. This year while the heatwaves did lead to extended periods of drought, most areas report no other issues with their grapes. The French agriculture ministry recently said the 2023 harvest looks promising, with returns slightly above last year’s. If the projections hold, it could vault France ahead of Italy into the top spot for wine procurers worldwide.
The Iberian Peninsula, home to two wine-making powerhouses, Spain, and Portugal, has two different tales.
Smaller Portugal, nestled next to the Atlantic, has largely avoided the devastation of this summer’s heat waves. Temperatures hit average highs in wine-growing regions this summer, but nothing unusual. Meteorologists have attributed this to the Azores anticyclone effect that has acted as a protective shield against the heatwave. The Instituto da Vinha e do Vinho of Portugal recently released a report that projected an increase of 8% in wine production for 2023 based on the high quality of the grapes in the country.
In Spain, it’s a different story. Starting in the spring and continuing forward, the country has been dealing with low precipitation and higher-than-average temperatures, according to the European Commission. This increase in temperatures has led increasingly to Spanish winemakers planning to begin their harvests early due to accelerated maturation of the grapes.
According to the Spanish Wine Federation, harvest could begin seven to ten days earlier this year. In the Castilla-La Mancha region of Spain, its largest, the Cooperative Agro-Alimentarias, representing the agri-food cooperatives in Spain, estimates that Spanish wine production could be down 10% in 2023 due to drought and heat.
Overall, the wine production outlook for the southern Mediterranean region most affected by the three widespread heatwaves is a mixed bag. Several of the world’s largest producers-Spain and Italy, are projecting declines in their harvest, while France is looking to come in higher than the year before. The one message from all the regions is that while they may produce less wine, the quality is still expected to remain high.
As climate-related issues are only expected to increase across Europe, vintners are continually adapting their techniques to keep turning out their wines and keep the industry viable.