New World rises to the challenge of Europe's poor wine harvest

By Leslie Gevirtz

NEW YORK, Oct 9 (Reuters) - North American winemakers are having a near perfect harvest this year in stark contrast to their European counterparts, who have suffered from bad timing and worse weather.

In Portugal some vineyards are reporting yields down 40 percent and in parts of Burgundy in France hail storms have destroyed nearly 80 percent of the harvest.

But in California's Napa Valley, after three years of below average temperatures and inopportune rain, winemakers are enjoying a banner year.

"Neither too early, nor too late; neither too hot, nor too cold, 2012 looks to be the 'Goldilocks' vintage, where everything is just right," said Christopher Howell, general manager of Cain Vineyard and Winery, referring to the story book character.

The good fortune is not limited to Californians. Winemakers in Oregon, Washington, New York state and Canada are also excited by this year's harvest.

Josie Tyabji, head of the British Columbia Wine Institute in Canada, said it has "come in right on time," and although it is a bit earlier than normal in Oregon's Willamette Valley, winemaker Luisa Ponzi says she has no complaints.

"We've been blessed with quite a bit of sun," said Ponzi, who trained in Burgundy and is the winemaker for her family's winery.

Although there were some concerns in Washington state that the harvest would be tainted by wildfires in September, tests have shown nothing wrong.

The white wines are halfway done and much of the Merlot is halfway picked, according to Kari Leitch, of Washington's Chateau Ste. Michelle Wines Estate, where the vintage is shaping up to be one of its best.


Conditions were similar at the opposite end of the country in New York's wine-growing regions. The Hudson-Chatham winery north of New York City reported that its harvest of Seyval Blanc was well under way. It also expected good yields for their other varietals including Vidal Blanc and DeChaunac.

Richard Olsen-Harbich, of the Bedell Cellars on Long Island's North Fork, said he was harvesting a week or two early.

"Guess that's the new normal," he said, adding that his wines are similar to those produced in France and Italy.

Despite the shortage of European wines, prices globally are expected to remain little changed, except for some top level Bordeaux and Burgundies.

"The market for wine is global," said David Jaeger, a member of the American Association of Wine Economists, "so there is pressure on the Old World producers, even in tough years, to keep their prices roughly in line with the global market, with the possible exception of Premier Crus in Bordeaux and some in Burgundy.

"Most vintners will claim that their wines are a unique expression of their terroir, but consumers can likely find pretty close New World substitutes to most wines produced in Europe," he added. (Terroir refers to the local conditions that give a wine its unique characteristics.)

Rob Sands, the chief executive of Constellation Brands , which produces Robert Mondavi, Kim Crawford, Inniskillin and Ravenswood wines among many others, said he is seeing little or no movement on lower-priced wines.

(Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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