This year’s Bordeaux harvest has been challenging. For some, that has meant dealing with anything from unseasonal frost to the current warm, damp conditions so favourable to rot. For others it’s been, literally, daylight robbery.
In total, four chateaux in the Libourne area lost sizeable portions of their harvest to thieves in September, with the first valuing the damage at €45,000.00 ($52,788.00) and the second at €25,000.00. Although neither chateaux name was given in the first two cases, shortly afterwards, two more chateaux were reported robbed. This time they were named as Montviel (Pomerol) and Haut Gravette (Lalande-de-Pomerol).
Asked how exactly grapes are stolen, the president of the Winegrowers Union in Lalande-de-Pomerol, Xavier Piton, said quite simply: “You get ready for a day’s work, as a normal harvester, with your cutters and equipment and trucks, and then you find a likely target.” Unless the owner happens to walk past, no one will notice. At one chateau, it would seem the team waited until the early morning rounds were done and then swept in, with Piton saying the owner checked a plot of just under a hectare at 8:00 am. When he returned at 11:00 am, the grapes were gone.
Piton estimated a team of eight people would have been needed to get the work done in that time. At Montviel the modus operandi is assumed to have been similar, only this time it was an entire hectare. In layman’s terms the robberies represent about 6,000 to 7,000 bottles, given the standard one-vine-equals-one-bottle estimate, and that the average right bank vine density is about 6,000 to 7,000 vines per hectare.
Piton said the grapes were likely taken to a nearby winery and could have been stolen to order. “Everything would be ready and waiting and the grapes would be sold for a good price. It’s very opportunistic … they would take the grapes from wherever they could, and then, to make it worthwhile, they would be sold as a top-quality wine. So, this is also a fraud issue.”
The robberies, he said, because they are assumed to be so local in nature, have further ratcheted up existing tensions in the area caused by damage done in April. At the end of that month two or three days of unusually late frost killed off the slightly earlier than normal grape bud break, wiping out 60% to 80% of the potential harvest.
Both Piton and other winegrowing representatives agreed that robberies such as these, although rare in Bordeaux compared to Burgundy and Champagne, happen more frequently in low volume harvests. The uneven nature of the frost also meant that while one vineyard might be severely damaged, a nearby one could be left untouched. For the Bordeaux region as a whole, the harvest is expected to be the worst since 1991, with the forecast down 30% to 40% on 2016.
Piton described the robberies as shocking, and said he not seen anything like it in the last 20 years.
Asked about a possible link between lower harvests, climate change and grape theft, Harvard University, Environmental Policy and Science Professor, John Holdren (who spoke at Vinexpo’s ‘Fire and Rain’ seminar earlier this year) said in an email that given the small numbers overall, it would be risky to deduce trends. However, where there is a strong historical correlation between annual yields and numbers of robberies, it would be possible to see a plausible link, in the sense that climate change, all else being equal, will reduce yields in many places.
At Vinexpo, Holdren had urged the wine industry to make its voice heard in the campaign for more aggressive green-house-gas emissions reductions worldwide. Quoting a study by Mozell and Thach (2014, Wine Economics & Policy) Holdren said grapes are particularly susceptible to minor changes in climate, especially premium wine grapes.