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Dowd On Drinks: Odd Weather Forces Early Euro Harvest

Attention Beaujolais Nouveau revelers. Your infant wine will be a bit older this year.

The earlier harvesting of grapes in many parts of Europe — caused by unseasonable weather that has, for example, resulted in the hottest summer in 400 years in the Mediterranean growing areas — is having a variety of effects on winemaking.

In the case of Beaujolais Nouveau, the harvest usually begins around the start of September. This year, however, it began several weeks ago. That won't change the release date of the nouveau, traditionally the third Thursday of November — the 15th, this year — which is good news for many organizations that build their major fundraising events around the wine's release.

"It's the fifth time in my life that we have seen such a phenomenon. It's a bit exceptional," said Georges Duboeuf, head of one of the Burgundy region's biggest vineyards. He said the previous years were 1947, 1976, 2000 and 2003.

Duboef said the earlier harvest won't affect the quality of the new wine.

"For Beaujolais Nouveau, like many wines, if it's good at the start, it will be good at the end. It's not because the harvest is earlier that the wine will be more rounded or structured, or the taste will be different," he said. "Each vintage has its own characteristics."

For the long term, many European grape growers are concerned that earlier harvests will have a negative impact now and beyond this vintage year.

For example, while '07 might wind up being a good year for wine quality, it will produce a much smaller crop.

Italy, which stretches over a number of growing seasons because of its geographic length, may be the most affected. Grapes in some areas, such as around Rome, are ripening three weeks ahead of schedule.

The situation is being blamed on two separate heat waves that broke records across southeastern Europe in June and July.

Attilio Scienza, a professor of horticulture at the University of Milan with a particular expertise in viniculture, spoke with the Chicago Tribune about his advice on experimenting with new grape varieties and his reluctance to blame the situation on global warming.

"There are records of early harvest across history," Scienza said, and those early harvests can have some effect on how growers look at the next season. If the pattern continues, he said, "this will likely change the variety of grapes in Europe. Growers will have to find grapes that fit the weather cycle."

The Italian Trade Commission's Web site, however, isn't at all reticent about placing the blame.

"Unfortunately," it says, "early harvests are becoming progressively more common due to erratic weather patterns and rising temperatures caused by global warming.

"In Italy, the 2007 harvest comes even earlier than the record 2003 harvest. It is quite extraordinary to have two harvests like this in a short four-year span. … Grapes were garnered a month early in many areas as the sweltering heat caused them to rapidly ripen.

"For example, Sicilian grape growers are now hastening to contract seasonal workers as their grapes now must be picked in early September instead of October. The grapes of the Northern sparkling wine regions of Veneto and Trentino also have been harvested approximately three weeks ahead of schedule."

In Hungary and the Czech Republic, the same problem is taking place. In Slovenia, where wine exports have been steadily rising, the harvesting already has begun. And Bulgaria, a rising star in the wine industry, had so many periods of drought and hailstorm damage that the grape yield is expected to be off as much as 70 percent.

 

(William M. Dowd covers the beverage world at BillDowd.com)

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