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Jefford on Monday: Unearthly Powers

Who are the highest paid individuals in the wine world? It’s hard to winkle out information like this without a team of full-time researchers, but my guesses would include the world’s leading winemaking consultants (notably Michel Rolland); one or two top writers (Robert Parker, of course, but Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson MW must be in the frame too); leading fine-wine brokers (notably Farr Vintners’ Stephen Browett); and the lynchpin importers and distributors in major markets like the USA and, increasingly, China.

If you happen to own a perfectly sited vineyard or set of vineyards in Bordeaux (the great eight), Burgundy (DRC) and Champagne (Roederer), wealth management will take up some of your diary. The tillermen in wine’s corporate world will also trouser huge salaries, though their faces and names are disconcertingly fugitive. Note, though, that this list includes no shamans.

Er, shamans? The reason why I mention them is simple. Not one of the individuals or enterprises mentioned above can dramatically change the tidal flow of fortune within the wine world from one year to the next; they are simply talented individuals who are well positioned to siphon off a little of that flow. What does, by contrast, alter everything on an annual basis, sending billions of euros hurtling in one direction and billions of dollars in the other, is the weather: a seemingly random set of events over which we have no control. Yes, I know that the track record of shamans in dancing up the rain or the sun is patchy at best, but even a percentage success rate in the low teens would probably make any enterprising wine shaman worth his or her weight in gold. Many times over.

Seeing the photographs of ‘Casella Island’ float by on Facebook a few weeks ago set me thinking along these lines. Half of the 2012 harvest of [yellow tail] has reportedly been lost to floods, along with up to 30,000 tonnes of the Riverina’s later ripening varieties. This looks like the second year in a row that the wet cycle which tends to affect Australia during years of La Niña dominance has had a negative impact on part of the country’s harvest. For most of the first decade of the twenty-first century, by contrast, it was drought.

Or consider those same tidal flows in Europe for the 2011 harvest. Overall European production 165 million hl may not have varied much from the 2010 figure of 163.5 million hl, but that apparent steadiness conceals some eye-popping individual swings. Romanian production was up 63 per cent, Austrian production up 56 per cent, German production up 36 per cent and Hungarian production up 25 per cent: the warm spring and early harvest tended to work to the advantage of more northerly or more continental wine-producing nations. France was also a beneficiary, with production up by almost 11 per cent to 51 million hl, putting it back ahead of Italy in the European top spot.  

That same early heat, though, combined with localised drought, saw Italy’s production plunge by 14 per cent and Portugal’s by 17 per cent. Poor Greece, too, saw no let-up in the ire of the gods; it, too, lost 17 per cent of its production compared to 2010, as the country was fustigated by an assortment of hazards, from powdery mildew to blocked maturation.

Individual wine producers must always budget not just for the income reduction of a small harvest, but for a total loss of a year’s work, despite a full cycle of labour costs and other inputs. As it happens, the projected reduction of Australian production by 13 per cent (or 1.54 million tonnes) for the current harvest is good news for the nation as a whole, especially in conjunction with American shortfalls, yet that is little consolation to a Riverina Muscat grower who has lost everything after years of collapsing prices.

Attributing every major weather phenomenon to global warming is simplistic and misguided; so, too, is the assumption that soaring CO2 levels in our atmosphere, and any associated rise in global temperatures, will leave our weather systems entirely unchanged. It is possible that the coming century’s anthropogenic climate change will, as John Gladstones suggests in the conclusion to his 2011 book Wine, Terroir and Climate Change, usher in “wine’s Golden Age”. It is also possible that it will bring a cycle of increasingly disorderly vintages, in which ever-more capricious weather systems test the mental and financial resources of those involved in wine production to the limit. Those of us without shamanic powers will just have to wait and see.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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