Natural disasters come in different forms and varying intensity, which can have detrimental effects on people and countries.
Besides the harsh ramifications on communities, natural disasters can also heavily impact vineyards and wineries causing major loss and damage. It is reported that the wine industry worldwide suffers an average loss of 10 billion US dollars a year due to extreme weather events and natural disasters.
Let’s take a look at the major disasters that affect wine regions around the world and the impact that it has on vineyards, wineries and wine.
Hail and Frost:
This is arguably the most consistent natural threat that mostly impacts European producers, especially in France and Italy. In the last 6 years, Burgundy and Piedmont have been the most heavily affected. The hail and frost losses from 2012 to 2017 in some vineyards totalled on average a 50 to 90 percent loss in crop as well as causing long-term damage to many old vines.
However, it’s not just Europe that is affected by hail and frost. All over the world, wine growing regions are affected by at least one hail or frost event per year (or sometimes both), which can cause massive damage to a single vintage.
There are some producers who use hail nets to protect their vines but it is very expensive, costing around US$35,000 per hectare. Burgundy, however, has become the first wine region in France to be totally protected by a “Hailstone Shield”. There is a total of 125 ground generators covering all 42,000ha of Burgundy including Chablis and Beaujolais that cause tiny particles of silver iodide to rise towards the clouds above, where they stop the formation of hail stones, and thus reducing the risk of damage. However, it has only proved successful in 42% of cases.
There is still no "real" prevention of frost in Europe. Unlike New Zealand for example, who have massive fans in between vineyards to rotate the warmer air from above and aid in melting the frost, Europe will never steer away from their traditional ways. It’s going to take a helluvalot of candles to melt frost, but each to their own I guess!
Hail Nets - Photo credit: depositphotos.com
Bush fires run rampant through vineyards especially in California, Australia and South Africa (especially now during massive drought periods). The biggest impact of wild bush fires is the risk of having vineyards and wineries burn down, but there is another factor called “Smoke Taint”, which is a massive concern for any winemaker. Smoke taint adds two distinct compounds to wine: guaiacol (commonly called Creosote) and 4-methyl guaiacol.
Guaiacol and 4-methyl guaiacol are common compounds in wine that are imparted by the use of toasted oak barrels to give wine vanilla-like flavours as well as some smokiness. Of course it’s one thing to impart flavour on purpose but it’s quite another to have it contributed at random by a bush fire! Instead of getting the pretty, woody, smoky flavours from the oak, you’re more likely to taste a nasty, bitter, and charred flavour due to the higher levels of guaiacol and 4-methyl guaiacol that a grape has inhaled from a nearby fire. It won’t make for a very tasty wine at all.
Even if vineyards and grapes are exposed to smoke, it’s not the end of the world for their wines. The Australian Wine Institute has come up with a few practical tactics for managing smoke-exposed fruit:
- Hand harvest fruit to minimize breaking or rupturing of skins
- Exclude leaf material to limit smoke-related characteristics
- Maintain integrity of harvested fruit by avoiding maceration and skin contact
- Keep the fruit cool to extract less smoke-related compounds
- Whole-bunch press to reduce extraction of smoke-derived compounds
Burnt down winery in California, October 2017 - Photo Credit: mashable.com
Drought obviously means there is very little to no water present. A vine can’t survive without water. Vines generally need between 250 and 600 millimeters of rain annually to survive.
In France, it is illegal to irrigate vines but the country receives enough rain annually for the vines to survive. However, if you look at the most recent times, The Western Cape in South Africa has been heavily affected by drought. Water levels have dropped by more than 30% over the last year leaving reservoirs at 26% capacity for a population of 3.75 million in the greater Cape Town area to survive. In and around the wine regions of the Western Cape, areas have received half as much rain as what is needed for adequate irrigation.
The result of the drought and water shortage has been smaller berries with less juice and lower yields per ha, which affect a wineries volume. Yields have fallen by 20% in 2018 and expected to go as far as 50% in 2019. In 2018, there was an overall drop in volume by around 90 million liters, imagine what to expect in 2019!
There is a plus side to this. Smaller, more concentrated grapes can benefit a handful of producers of high-end wines by increasing the quality, but the shrinkage does threaten to cut the profitability of wine shipped in bulk, which accounts for about 60% of South Africa’s wine exports.
Drought stricken vines in South Africa - Photo Credit: visualviticulture.co.za
Earthquakes have the ability to knock out the infrastructure of entire wine regions and leave them struggling for a few years after, depending on the severity of the quake. In past years, earthquakes have struck Chile, New Zealand, USA, and Japan causing large losses to buildings, tanks, barrels, equipment, and chemicals.
In late August of 2014, Napa Valley was hit by a 6.0 magnitude quake that was reported to be the biggest to hit California’s Bay Area in 25 years. The quake struck just as the grape-harvesting season was getting under way in Napa (how convenient) and caused an immense amount of loss to wineries. Some wineries were said to have lost more than 50% of their previous vintage production due to collapsing tanks and barrels as well as older vintage wines that were already bottled. In 2010, Chile lost over 125 million litres due to an earthquake.
In more recent times, New Zealand was hit by a massive earthquake that measured 7.8 in magnitude in November 2016. In Marlborough, millions of litres of wine were lost from the 2016 harvest that accounted for up to a fifth of the overall production. Now think about this for a second, Marlborough accounts for 90% of New Zealand's overall production and to think that 20% was lost by one earthquake, one can't fathom exactly how much revenue was lost, but it was a lot!
Devastating loss of collapsed barrels from the earthquake in Napa - Photo Credit: bloomberg.com
If you look overall, there has definitely been a rise in natural disasters over the last 10 years and as always, they have had a very negative impact on certain wine regions. Now, we can't help the fact that there are fault lines beneath the surface of the earth that cause earthquakes but with climate change, certain things like frost/hail, bushfires, and drought have certainly wreaked havoc recently and it is only getting worse.
However, agriculture sectors within governments have been working really hard at putting strategies and protocols in place to try minimize the effect of these disasters, but as the saying goes, "Rome was not built in a day" and only time can tell whether these severe disasters will eventually be under control because my view is that they can never be eradicated.
The positive, despite all of these hazards, is that the the wine industry continues to grow and diversify and still bring us endless pleasure in a glass!