“Winter is coming” may be a popular phrase from Game of Thrones, but is also something we seriously started to doubt throughout 2015’s surprisingly warm festive season. 2016 is now upon us and we have finally been treated to a cold blast that has seen us swapping shorts and flip flops (in Newcastle at least) for something a bit warmer. As you struggle to control your shivering, perhaps you should take a moment to consider how the weather can affect wine growers…
Our vineyards rely on sunshine for photosynthesis and to ripen the sugars in grapes to make the all-important alcohol! Due to this demand on sunshine, England is at the very limits of viable winemaking (take that as a compliment…). Rain, on the other hand, is somewhat of a speciality for us in the UK. Unfortunately, too much rain can cause a diluted wine or be the cause of the dreaded fungal disease.
Frost is another kettle of fish altogether. We try to combat it by planting on hillsides but this isn’t always enough to remedy the threat to buds from a late spring frost. One traditional option is to use smudge pots, which burn oil to insulate the vine in warm air. These days you are more likely to find vines being sprayed with water. What! Funnily enough, the process of the water freezing overnight releases small amounts of heat energy which will prevent a damaging frost settling. Perhaps the most glamorous method of frost prevention (a sexy subject in itself) can often be seen in New Zealand, where helicopters are deployed at night to keep air circulating around the vines. Who said the life of a wine producer was all work and no play?
Hail is singlehandedly responsible for complete annihilation of crops, particularly in the Loire valley and Burgundy, on an almost annual basis. As a result, demand surpasses supply and the price of grapes can soar, leaving the end consumer a little sore also. Hail can lead producers into financial ruin, some sadly shutting up shop permanently. Producers in the high altitude vineyards of Salta, Argentina have used netting to protect their vines from hail but even this isn’t a fail-safe solution.
In Canada and Germany winemakers are harnessing the power of nature and turning the deeply cold winter to their advantage. Grapes are left on the vine and allowed to freeze. Pickers come by night and painstakingly harvest these grapes by hand. The grapes are crushed immediately and the frozen water is discarded. What remains is a highly concentrated package of sugar and flavour which produces a sublime, lusciously sweet and intensely flavoured wine such as Ziraldo's. The success of a vintage is completely in the hands of the fickle weather gods – the conditions are either perfect or there is no harvest.
So when you put on your extra thick socks, scarf and haul your golf umbrella above your head, spare a thought for the poor winemakers who have to deal with everything nature can throw at them yet still turn out some awe inspiring wines!