While there may have been an initial modest spike in online sales, curbside pickup and home delivery of wine at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, overall global sales of wine are down thanks in large part to the temporary shuttering of bars and restaurants — major purchasers (and sellers) of wine. With eateries and watering holes cautiously reopening in markets everywhere, sales of wine will invariably begin creeping up again. But for some producers, and in some cases entire wine regions, it might be too late.

No wine industry has been hit harder than South Africa. The country, which has been dramatically affected by the pandemic, banned all sales of all alcohol for three months at the end of March, arguing it was necessary to keep health resources available for the pandemic by reducing “trauma admissions” associated with alcohol.

The ban was lifted on June 1, but then reinstated in mid-July, coming the second time around with a nightly curfew.

Most devastatingly to South African producers, the initial ban also included five weeks where South African wine producers couldn’t even sell their wines to other countries, as the government had also imposed a ban on exports (which it has since rescinded).

South African producers export about half of their wines, so a month without those sales, in addition to not being able to sell anything at home, was devastating. There’s a chance some South African wineries may have to close permanently.

A statement from VinPro, a non-profit that represents many South African producers, said, “The decision to suspend local liquor sales will deal a devastating blow to the South African wine industry, which has already suffered great financial and job losses due to bans earlier in the lockdown.”

“The decision to suspend local liquor sales will deal a devastating blow to the South African wine industry, which has already suffered great financial and job losses due to bans earlier in the lockdown.” – VinPro

In France, meanwhile, a recent piece in the New York Times chronicled the plight of winemakers in the Alsace region. Typically known for their complex Rieslings, Pinot Blancs, Muscats and more, the downturn in sales has led producers in that region, and others in France, to send tankers full of wine to distilleries to be made into hand sanitizer.

The Times story notes that in Alsace, more than six million litres of wine will end up being turned into hand sanitizer. It’s yet another blow to French producers, who are feeling the sting of the 25 per cent tax on French wines imposed by the U.S. in a trade dispute with European nations.

On this side of the Atlantic Ocean, things aren’t much better. After reopening to the public in early June, California wineries were forced to once again close to the public in mid-July thanks to a surging number of COVID-19 cases in that state.

As harvest time creeps closer, producers in both the U.S. and Canada are starting to worry whether they’ll be able to get enough bodies in the vineyard to pick grapes.

Many of the fruit pickers in the U.S. and Canada are seasonal workers who come from countries such as Mexico to work harvests in vineyards and orchards, and travel restrictions, as well as delays in visa preocessing, could mean fewer pickers are available.

All of which points to 2020 as being a tumultuous vintage, no matter how well the grapes grow on the vine.


Twitter: @bensigurdson


Wines of the week

Perfect for picnics, cans are convenient and durable. But are the canned wines available in our market any good? Read on to find out…

Fourth Wave Wine Partners 2017 Hootenanny Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough, New Zealand — $5.99/250ml can, Liquor Marts and beyond)

Pale straw in colour, this New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc delivers a slight sweaty, bell pepper note on the nose, along with the standard lemon-lime, grapefruit and gooseberry aromas. Despite being a relatively older vintage, it still offers fairly lively citrus notes with a punch of acidity, while the savoury/bell pepper notes take a bit of a backseat. A well-priced option with a decent amount of character. ★★★ out of 5

Emotive Beverages NV After Glow Sparkling Rosé (Canada – around $6/250ml can, private wine stores)

This non-vintage sparkling pink wine, made from a blend of Canadian and imported grapes, is extremely pale orange-pink in colour, and aromatically offers some peach candy, pear and floral notes on the nose. It’s mainly dry on the light-bodied palate, with zippy bubbles that help deliver tart peach and strawberry flavours without too much sweetness. Not bad for the price; obtained at Banville & Jones. ★★1/2

Yes Way NV Rosé (France — $6.49/250ml can, Liquor Marts and beyond)

A Grenache-based blend, this French pink wine is very pale orange-pink, and delivers pear, canned peach and strawberry aromas once the sulfur note blows off. That sulfur component, however, lingers on the light-bodied palate, eventually making way for sour peach candy, strawberry and chalky melon notes and a finish that’s somewhat short. Tastes better from the bottle, or once poured into a glass and swirled. ★★1/2

Underwood NV Rosé Wine (Oregon — $11/375ml can, private wine stores)

There’s just a hint of effervescence to this Oregon pink wine, which brings peach cobbler, strawberry candy and caramel apple notes on the nose. It’s a medium-bodied, off-dry rosé that wraps those cherry, strawberry and peach candy flavours in modest acidity and even a hint of tannin. Pretty decent for the price of this can, which is the equivalent of a half-bottle of wine. ★★★

Fourth Wave Wine Partners 2017 Take it to the Grave Pinot Noir (Adelaide Hills, Australia — $5.99/250ml can, Liquor Marts and beyond)

Pinot Noir’s spotty in the entry-level price point, but this Aussie example manages quite nicely. Aromatically, this red offers earth, raspberry, cherry and subtle spice notes that are unmistakably Pinot Noir. The light-bodied palate brings hints of spice and vanilla from modest oak, with the raspberry/cherry flavours front and centre. Chill for about 15 minutes and enjoy. ★★★1/2

Ben Sigurdson

Ben Sigurdson
Literary editor, drinks writer

Ben Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.

Read full biography

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