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2016: Hot, hot, hot.

Overall, good, but watch out for alcohol levels

Ahead of our Annual Vintage tasting on April 8th, I thought it an opportune moment to go through some of the news from last year's harvest, and what this might mean for how these wines might taste. I should point out that for the sake of simplicity I will be talking about wines from Europe here.

Great! I love that old-school style. Tell me more...

In general, 2016 was a pretty good year for European wines.

That's it? So what is "good"?

In essence, there was enough sun to ripen the grapes pretty much across the continent, and there was as a result enough wine produced to meet demand.

Excellent! Thanks for that. I'll be looking forward to...

Hang on, though. there were some pretty big exceptions. Poor Chablis and Champagne saw catastrophic hailstorms and late frosts decimating huge areas.

Hail and frost? Sounds nasty, but surely it can't be as bad as all that?

Don't speak too soon: hail can wipe out an entire crop within the space of half an hour, and will also cause damage to the wines that can stunt the following year's growth. And late frosts (anything below -1.5C) will also wipe out whatever has grown so far. If you get a frost in April, quite often there will be 10-15cm growth on a vine (including, obviously, the grapes that have yet to form) and these will simply wither and die. Vines can recover, and grow again from scratch to produce a harvest for the year, but the yields are usually vastly reduced. Some Chablis producers will see 60-70% less production this year. Some may go out of business as a result.

Ouch. OK, so we may struggle to find any Chablis this year. Anything else to note?

The other major climatic influence was the prolonged heat-wave throughout most of continental Europe.

That sounds like a good thing.

Heat is, of course, a prerequisite for properly-ripened grapes, but too much of a good thing and all that... in fact, when the temperature reaches 35C, the leaves of a vine actually "shut down". Their stomata (a plant's "lungs") close, meaning that respiration, and therefore photosynthesis no longer takes place. Without photosynthesis, of course, the plant cannot feed itself, let alone any grapes it has. At the same time, extreme heat is often linked with a lack of rain. Vines are incredibly hardy, but when there isn't a drop of rain from May until September, as can often happen, even vines start to struggle. It is a case of weathering the summer storm.

But it's always hot in parts of Europe...

Right: in normally hot and dry places like the South of France, Spain, Italy and Portugal, they have varietals which can better withstand this climate, like Grenache, Mourvedre and Tempranillo. Even in these places, though, producers are reporting 20% lower yields than 2015. In normally cooler places like Bordeaux, Germany and Northern Italy, the problem isn't so much with yields, but with maintaining balance - sugars ripen faster in hotter places, and acidity drops more quickly. Choosing your "hang-time" or how long you leave the grapes to ripen before picking is therefore even more critical. You can often end up picking 2-3 weeks earlier than you would ideally like, simply because otherwise the wine would be overly alcoholic without enough acidity, making it seem flabby and too heavy.

Blerg. Nothing worse than a "flabby" wine...

Don't be flippant! They can be pretty nasty if you've ever had one. They can often taste cooked, jammy and lacking in anything really interesting.

Whatever. Just tell me what to drink.

Well, it's not too complicated: most places will have no problems with 2016. But be a little more careful choosing your Southern European wines (check the alcohol content to get an indication), and stock up on 2015 Chablis, as there really won't be much 2016 available to anyone.

Oh and trust your local independent too - they usually pick pretty well.


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