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Culture

Fingers Crossed for the Wine of the Century

The drought in Europe this summer may be a boon to wine producers. The abundance of sun could just contribute to one of the best vintages Europe has seen in years.

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The jury's out until the grapes are in the barrel

While European farmers bemoan a summer of drought and plead with local governments and the European Union to help them through the dry period, winegrowers and drinkers may be treated to one of the best years ever.

"In the first half of 2003 we had a surplus of 340 sunshine hours compared to the average of past years," Ernst Büscher, a spokesman for the German Wine Institute, told DW-WORLD. "The conditions are wonderful at the moment."

To produce wine the grapes need to ripen in the sun. It disintegrates disagreeable acids and enriches natural sugars.

Rüdesheim

"In northern wine growing regions, like Germany, early ripening is helpful for a good vintage because the grapevines have more time to produce sugar in the grapes, and therefore the quality will be very good," Büscher explained.

The abundance of sun in Europe this summer has speeded up the process.

Throughout Germany's wine-producing regions the grapevines are two to three weeks further in their development than is normally the case. In Rheinhessen, one of Germany's traditional wine growing regions in the south of the country, grapevines haven't bloomed so early since 1934, Armin Göring, the head of the German Wine Institute, told DPA news agency. In Württemberg there were no records of the vines ever having blossomed so early, he said.

The benefits of drought

Drought doesn't affect grapevines like it does other crops.

"It's not like grain, whose roots are near the surface, in the region of 30 centimeters. Wine is a taproot that goes 10 to 12 meters deep, straight down," Jürgen Stumpf, whose family has a vineyard in Franconia, in southern Germany, told Deutsche Welle. Long after other crops have died of thirst, wine still has access to its water supply.

But the vines can get too much sun too.

"At the moment, [German] wine makers are waiting for rain," Ernst Büscher explained. "In some regions the conditions are quite critical because the supply of water is very low. Wine producers need some rain but not too much at once."

It's not just that the grapes need water either. "When it's really hot the berries close down. Then they don't develop more sugar, they turn off. That's why it doesn't sometimes work when there's too much sun. In regions like La Mancha in Spain, for example, where there's lots of sun, the wine is sometimes boring," Stumpf explained.

And this summer it may just be too hot in places like southern France. "But in these regions, like the Mosel Valley or the northern areas that normally get little sun, it's brilliant."

But it takes a lot more to produce an excellent wine.

"You need a good location. You need a good vine variety. You need someone who does it well. You also need to have a feel for it. Everything must be just right," Stumpf pointed out.

"The great wines grow in the north, where it's difficult and the conditions are not so straightforward," he said. "It's like with people: when they are under stress and constantly have to adapt to things they're more lively. That's how it is with wine too."

Don't applaud, yet

Weinlese

But as a German winegrowers' saying goes, one shouldn't praise the wine before the autumn. The summer of 2000 started out well in Germany, but ruined wine experts' hopes when it rained for three weeks straight.

"But we're going the right way," Stumpf conceded. "The blossoming worked out; we didn't need to spray. There were few weeds and few damaging fungi. The stock is very good and healthy. That is, of course, a good basis for a good wine."

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