Sour Grapes: Bad Weather to Bring Europe Worst Harvest in 50 Years

Hail and frigid weather across Europe have damaged vineyards; will wine lovers suffer?

This Monday Sept.10, 2012, photo shows Vineyards in front of the Gevrey-Chambertin castle in Burgundy, eastern France. The European Union's farmers' union is warning that drought, cold and hail have conspired to produce the worst wine harvest for the region in up to half a century, according to Farmers Union expert Thierry Coste on Wednesday Oct. 17, 2012. The Champagne and Burgundy regions were hard hit by weather conditions that particularly affected the chardonnay grape.

This Sept.10 photo shows Vineyards in front of the Gevrey-Chambertin castle in Burgundy, eastern France.

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Is it time to start stockpiling your favorite Shiraz and Syrah varieties? Drought and cold weather have ravaged European vineyards this season, leading to what could be the worst grape harvest in 50 years, the Associated Press reports.

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Hauls in key regions in France and Italy are expected to slump as much as 40 percent this year on top of declines seen in 2011. France's Champagne and Burgundy regions were particularly hard hit, especially impacting the Chardonnay grape, which is used in many white wine varieties.

That's left some winemakers no choice but to forgo the harvest this year, bad news for the world's wine lovers—since European vintages account for 62 percent of global wine production.

"I have never seen a situation like this before," English winemaker Cherie Spriggs told the AP. The grapes Spriggs uses for her Nyetimber sparkling white wine were too damaged to produce a quality product, she said, and her company will skip the harvest this year.

In places where small profit margins are already squeezing vintners, this year's bad harvest could lead some wineries to close up shop.

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But while bad weather might severely limit this year's grape harvest in Europe and put some wineries out of business, wine connoisseurs don't have to panic just yet. According to experts, the setback in grape yields should only raise prices slightly for American consumers, and probably only most noticeable in lower end price points.

"The consumer who purchases say a 7-dollar or 8-dollar bottle of wine might notice an increase to 10 dollars," says Michael Kaiser, spokesman for Wine America, the national association for American wineries. "But they'll notice a lot more than someone who buys a 25-dollar bottle of wine that's now 27 dollars."

Another reason wine drinkers won't have to deal with severe price increases just yet is that winemakers typically offer a wide range of vintages, which means a shortage of the wine itself isn't immediately on the horizon. A poor yield in 2012 might not show up for several years, largely due to the time it takes to process, ferment, and bottle the resulting wine, says William Earle, president of the National Association of Beverage Importers.

"Wine that has a production date is coming from a different vintage anyway," Earle says. "Especially for wines on the higher end, we probably won't see some 2012 wines for several years—they go into storage for aging and to mellow."

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American wine varieties could actually benefit from the bad weather in Europe. Imports have traditionally gobbled up a large portion of lower end price points, but price hikes thanks to the bad harvest could make some domestic wines more attractive to bargain hunters.

"It's hard to tell because it's a big market in and of itself, but you might see more of the market share here, especially with the lower price points," Kaiser says.

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Meg Handley is a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can  follow her on Twitter or reach her at mhandley@usnews.com.