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Grape expectations: Will a lockdown-free summer save the wine industry's blushes?

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Sebastien Latz, director of French wine producer MDCV, inspects bottles of rosé at Chateau des Bertrands vineyard in Le Cannet-des-Maures, in the Provence region, Oct 2019
Sebastien Latz, director of French wine producer MDCV, inspects bottles of rosé at Chateau des Bertrands vineyard in Le Cannet-des-Maures, in the Provence region, Oct 2019   -   Copyright  Daniel Cole/AP
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It is the quintessential French summer scene: a sun-soaked terrace, family and friends, and a bottle of rosé chilling in an ice bucket. That is, it was, before coronavirus.

It may often be maligned by oenophiles, but the fact remains that one in ten bottles of wine sold worldwide is rosé and three in ten bottles of rosé sold are French. The vast majority of those bottles hail from the southern region of Provence, where 90% of vineyards produce rosé.

Although French rosé is exported all over the world, at least two-thirds of what is made in France is consumed in France. Much of it by tourists and locals during the long hot summer months on the Côte d'Azur and elsewhere in southern France.

Like the vast majority of white wines, it is consumed young, with consumers tending to look down on a rosé that is more than a year or two old. For producers, turnaround is fast: the grapes are harvested in August and September and usually bottled by the following January. By February, most of the wine will have been sold or exported ahead of the summer.

“[Consumers] want to have the year 2019 now. We want something very cool, and fresh, from the year. People want something to drink with ice in the summer, on the terrace, at the beach,” Georges Dos Santos, founder of Antic Wines in Lyon, told Euronews.

As a result, Dos Santos estimates, that 90% of winemakers in France had already bottled their rosé when the coronavirus pandemic hit in February, with the expectation of selling it in March, April and May. Given that the lockdown in France began on March 17 - with restaurants, hotels and bars closing and tourists dwindling to zero - those plans have been thwarted.

That hasn’t just left French rosé producers with a sharp drop off in income, it has created a problem of capacity, says Dos Santos. Winemakers have full cellars going into the 2020 harvest, with little prospect of selling what they have from the previous year.

“If you don’t sell it this year you can sell it next year, but what happens if you have ten million bottles in the cellar and next year you can make ten million more? This is impossible,” he said.

Could have been worse...

Provence’s local market has also suffered from the high-profile cancellations of events such as the Cannes Film Festival, the Monaco Grand Prix, and other major festivals at which massive consumption of Provence’s most famous tipples are consumed on an annual basis.

But despite all this, Brice Eymard, director-general of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Provence, told Euronews that 2020 has by no means been as bad as it could have been.

He points out that both the export market and supermarket sales - responsible for two-thirds of Provence’s rosé output each year - have been relatively unaffected by the pandemic.

In March, exports were down just 8%, but only because March 2019 had been a particularly good month for rosé exporters. British supermarkets had been bulk-buying rosé that month in the expectation that Britain would leave the European Union on April 1.

Direct sales, he estimated, were only down around 20% on a normal year.

Which leaves the final third: restaurants, bars and hotels, all of which were shuttered from March 17 to June 2 as France implemented its coronavirus lockdown.

Eymard said this area of the market was down as much as 40% in March and likely to be worse in April and May given the lockdown lasted the full month.

Smaller producers biggest losers

In terms of the impact on rose producers, it will be smaller vineyards that are worst hit, said Eymard, those that produce under 20,000 bottles per year. These vineyards make up 25 to 30% of the total number of producers in Provence, he said, but produce just 15% of the wine.

Not only do these producers export less wine internationally, but they tend to have smaller cellars and rely on direct sales - i.e. tourists and locals visiting their vineyards and buying wine - or sales to restaurants and hotels in Provence and elsewhere in France.

“Right now it is especially difficult for the smaller domaines,” said Eymard. “They basically haven’t sold anything over the last two or three months.”

"We lost two months of sales. Up to 50% of our usual turnover," wine producer Jean Simonet told Euronews. His domain, Château Grand Boise, relies mostly on restaurants to buy up its stock.

Château Grand Boise
Jean Simonet's domain's wine fermentersChâteau Grand Boise

Eymard says that it is too early to say whether these smaller producers will go out of business due to the coronavirus lockdown, banks have been generous in supporting French business and July and August peak summer months in France.

“If restaurants are open and tourists are coming to Provence, we could probably sell a big part of our volume,” he said.

But Dos Santos notes that while the lockdown is now over, many restaurants will be unlikely to buy huge quantities of wine as they still have so much unsold stock from March, April and May. Across Lyon, restaurants are already cancelling orders, he said.

“Nothing is going to happen before September. If you are a restaurant, you have to sell the stock you have already,” he said.

What will definitely change, both men agree, is the way we consumer wine altogether. Eymard says that Vins de Provence is currently discussing with restaurants and bars the prospect of no longer selling wine by the bottle but only by the glass. Even if they do sell it by the bottle, customers may be expected to fill their own glasses rather than having them filled by a waiter.

Château Grand Boise
Château Grand Boise's 500 hectares of vineyardsChâteau Grand Boise

Simonet remains quite optimistic overall: "This will not be a great year but we will save what can be saved", he said, feeling grateful he is not producing highly seasonable rose only.

"We are not going to end the year on a positive note," he said. He estimates his loss to be between -15% and -20%. "We've made savings here and there. Everybody played along. We stuck together," he noted.

For Dos Santos, COVID-19’s legacy will be how we drink wine generally, even as lockdowns end.

“Can you imagine in the summer if you go to a restaurant and you see a waiter taking the ice with his hands and putting it in your glass? This is going to be totally stupid. Today the rules are that every bottle you touch, you need to clean it. What is a waiter going to do?” he said.