Canadian cold snap, California 2023 harvest, French exports decline

frost on vines

While freezing temperatures have devastated vineyards on Canada's west coast and in Washington, California's 2023 crush – the largest in the last four years – offers some more positive news. 

Freeze damage in British Columbia

I mentioned last week that areas of British Columbia were estimating 90% crop loss as a result of a devastating cold snap that took place 11–15 January where temperatures dropped below -20 °C (-4 °F) for 50 consecutive hours. Temperatures did not rise above -10 °C (14 °F) until 20 January. With another week on the books, there’s more info.

According to a report released by Wines of British Columbia, the province is expected to have a 97–99% crop reduction in 2024. The 1–3% of viable estimated production comes from areas unaffected by freeze – Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island – which are very small production regions. Okanagan Valley, which accounts for 86% of British Columbia’s wine production, is estimated to have a complete crop loss in 2024. Losses to vineyards and wineries have been estimated at $340–$346 million with another $97–$99 million in losses for industry suppliers, logistics providers and distributors. These estimates don’t include estimated long-term damage. Extended intense cold is known to cause long-term damage in vines, not just crop loss, and can necessitate entirely replanting vineyards. Wines of British Columbia will release a report later this year that estimates total vine kill, replanting costs and recovery period. If replanting is necessary, it generally takes three years to begin producing marketable yields. It is likely that wineries and growers in British Columbia will require governmental financial assistance.

This is the second cold snap in British Columbia in two years. According to a preliminary report from BC Wine Grape Council, a cold snap in December of 2022 reduced last year’s yields by 58% across the province. The financial pressures from last year’s crop loss from freeze, this year’s yet-to-be-realised loss, as well as severe wildfires in the summer of 2023, have resulted in massive hardship for growers and winemakers across the province. Winemakers are currently setting meetings with government officials to discuss the possibility of importing grapes from Ontario and Washington State in order to have wine to sell from the 2024 vintage.

However, Washington State has also seen damage from freeze. During the same window of time as in British Columbia, Washington State growers saw temperatures as low as -24 °C (-11 °F) in some AVAs. Thus far reports on crop loss are highly variable. Predictably, AVAs that are near large bodies of water seem to have suffered less.

California’s 2023 harvest

In November of last year, I wrote about how the 2023 growing season in California was one of the longest and wettest this century and that harvest was ongoing. Quality, by all accounts, looks good. I’m now going to look at some useful info about yields from the preliminary California Grape Crush report that was published a week and a half ago – but I do still recommend you read my initial report.

Preliminary estimates for the grape crush have come in at 3.67 million tons, which is up around 8% over the 2023 vintage and is the largest crush in the last four vintages. However, it was suggested at this year’s state-of-the-industry presentation at Unified Wine and Grape Symposium that the grape crush could easily have been 4 million tons if all the grapes that were grown had been harvested. Ciatti Company, a bulk-wine broker, believes that the crop would have been well over 4 million tons. The reason that grapes were left hanging has to do with softening demand for wine, which will, eventually, result in a need to rip up acreage. It also has to do with growers wanting to retain fair pricing. Prices per ton this year were up an average of 13.6% for red grapes and 6.4% for white grapes. And while many growers who left grapes hanging may have been able to find a buyer, they often would have been taking a price that was around the cost to grow the grapes – and taking that price would impact the overall market and undervalue the cost of farming. It’s actually extraordinary the number of stories of growers unwilling to sell grapes at cost because they know what the knock-on effect would be in lowering prices to unsustainable levels in coming years. But back to the crush report …

Chardonnay overtook Cabernet Sauvignon this year as California’s most-crushed variety with 17.5% of the crush compared with Cabernet Sauvignon’s 17.3%. This is despite the fact that there are more acres of Cabernet Sauvignon planted in California than there are acres of Chardonnay … because there was fruit left hanging this year this actually points towards a larger trend. White-wine grape crush was up by 15.3% while red-wine crush was up by only 2.3%. While this has a bit to do with the season – when things flowered, how the crop set – it has more to do with the increasing consumer demand for white wine – which was illustrated by the OIV’s December report on wine consumption by colour. The biggest loser in California this year was Zinfandel which saw 26% reduction in crush. Sauvignon Blanc was a big winner with 28% increase. I highly suggest you go read Alder Yarrow’s report on the increasing demand for Sauvignon Blanc.

Overall, the 2023 vintage looks excellent; there is enough of it; and Alder and I will be bringing you recommendations on what to purchase as soon as the wines are released and we start tasting.

Declines in French exports

On 13 February, the Fédération des Exportateurs de Vins & Spiritueux released 2023 export numbers which showed a 9.4% volume decline and 3% value decline in French wine exports. The most notably declining market was China with a 20% value decline. However, this is in line with an overall decline in Chinese wine imports of 21% across wine-producing countries. While this is worrying for the wine industry in general, it’s not unexpected – wine consumption in China has been in dramatic decline since 2016. Perhaps more worrying is that exports of French sparkling wine to the United States fell by 16% – but this is attributed to stock rebalancing following COVID. Still-wine exports to the US stayed steady as did overall exports by value to the UK.

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