For wine enthusiasts, the expression "The Future is Now" should be taken more seriously than usual, particularly by those who enjoy European wine, since what is happening on the continent is potentially unsettling. However, because the American wine marketplace is usually at least six months behind the market prices charged brokers and importers for new European wines, Americans are yet to be affected.
The last six years have witnessed bountiful crops ranging in quality from good to superb in virtually all the major wine-producing regions of France, Italy and Germany. This stunning string of vintages has occurred at a time when the dollar surged to record-breaking heights against foreign currencies. For wine consumers, the remarkable coincidence of a bullish American dollar and very fine European grape harvests has resulted in a fantastic opportunity to indulge one's taste and stock one's cellar or closet with an array of wonderful European wines.
It is still not too late to take advantage of these European wine bargains, but clearly the 11th hour is at hand. Why?
First, the euphoria of European grape growers and winemakers came to a depressing halt with the vintage of 1984. Virtually no area in France, Germany and Italy was spared from what will turn out to be the worst vintage since 1977. Yes, there were pockets of modest successes in the Medoc region of Bordeaux, the Rhone Valley and in southern Italy, but for wine consumers, the important statistics of the 1984 European harvest reveal it as mediocre or poor in quality and small in size.
One would assume that one poor crop after six straight abundant and very successful ones should hardly throw things out of whack. Well, normally it wouldn't, but then no one expected this winter to put western Europe and its famous vineyards into a deep, deep freeze.
When I was in France in mid-January, the elderly cognoscenti told me that one had to go back to 1956 to find cold weather as potentially damaging to the vineyards as that of the winter of 1985. Many oenologists predicted that the freeze was actually good for the vineyards because the bacteria that inhabit the top layers of the soil and cause troublesome summertime diseases would be killed off. However, they also warned of potential shock to the vines that would cause a reduced crop size in 1985. It is this last fear that the market prices for European wines seem to be reflecting.
The intense cold, according to reports I have seen, has caused extensive damage to the vineyards of Chablis and Champagne, the two northernmost winemaking areas of France. No one I spoke to was willing to say that the vines were actually killed because of the cold and that replanting would be necessary. However, everyone I spoke to did say that there was widespread "freeze burn" to the vines and that in Chablis alone, the crop for 1985 would be at least 70 to 80 percent below normal. There were also reports of freeze burn to the vines in Pomerol and St. Emilion, but no one was yet ready to issue a prediction regarding the potential damage to the 1985 crop.
Are such predictions of dire straits for some of the most significant wine-growing regions of France just calculated statements designed to drive up prices for existing wine inventories? No one will know definitely until the spring when warm weather causes the vines to bud and flower. However, the fear that exists in the wine trade can be measured by the fact that shrewd brokers and importers are taking as big a position as they can with the top wines of vintages such as 1982 and 1983. Furthermore the sellers of these wines have become more and more reluctant to sell at any price, preferring to see what the consequences of the freeze of 1985 will be.
What should you do? Prices for European wines bottomed out a good five to six months ago and have been rising, sometimes spectacularly, ever since. This year's great values in European wines -- the 1982 and 1983 chardonnays from the Maconnais, the small petits chateaux wines from Bourdeaux's 1982 vintage, and the 1983 German and Alsatian wines -- can all still be found, at least for now.
However, most stocks of these wines are virtually gone in Europe and as they reappear on the American market later this spring and summer, you can expect price increases to be as high as 25 to 50 percent. This will happen despite a rampaging dollar that just last week set record highs against the French franc, Italian lira and German mark.
If the prophets of doom are correct in their assessment that Europe's 1985 crop is going to be tiny because of the severe winter of 1985, the good old days for European wines will be nothing but fast fleeting memories by year's end.