Now, on the back of a minimal 1991 crop, along comes a mean- looking 1992. First reports suggest a mediocre vintage in Europe, albeit with a patchwork quilt of bright spots in unlikely places. Yet if this season turns out to be generally poor, it will be for precisely the opposite reason to the failure of its predecessor. For while frost decimated the 1991 crop, rain and rot look like ensuring a superabundance of mediocrity this year. In terms of quality, at least, it looks rather as if it is the second consecutive lean year after the seven fat years of the Eighties.
It is still too early to write 1992 off entirely. In 1989, Bordeaux, for instance, was declared to be a vintage of the century before a single grape was picked, but this verdict soon changed.
Throughout this year, freakish weather conditions have largely determined results. What David Orr, of Chateau Latour, says of the Bordeaux area is likely to prove the case for much of Europe: 'Those who sprayed against rot, removed green bunches in July and selected at vintage time may still make good wines.' While many areas of France and Italy have been deluged by appalling autumn weather, Germany appears to be basking in an Indian summer. By contrast, Portugal and the Jerez region of Spain have harvested considerably reduced crops because of vines stressed by drought conditions.
In France, however, 1992 is already going down as a Burgundy vintage. Like Champagne and Alsace, the region escaped the harvest rains relatively unscathed. The usual varied pattern of ripening suggests differences within the region, with the Cote de Beaune better off than the Cote de Nuits but, by and large, everyone is fairly content. Thanks to a dry July and August, the grapes have yielded less juice and more stuffing than expected.
Beaujolais, however, is likely to be patchier, for while yields look reasonable in Burgundy, they are bloated in Beaujolais. Coupled with a strong franc against a wimpish pound, the omens for beaujolais nouveau this year are not promising.
The news from Bordeaux, which usually dictates the reputation of French vintages, is not good. Since 29 August, the Atlantic has taken it out on the area like an avenging god. The problem is that the late-ripening cabernet sauvignon grape, the backbone of the claret blend, has not ripened enough.
The grape is particularly green in the Medoc, which seems to have borne the brunt of the bad weather. The potential quality indicators of sugar and acidity levels are low, and the colour is often weak. There are also a lot of rotten grapes. 'Most of the vats lack fruit and fat,' says Peter Sichel, of Chateau d'Angludet.
One of Bordeaux's top winemakers, Michel Rolland, says this is a year in which the grapes badly needed to be vinified at high temperatures to squeeze out the maximum colour and flavour. Esme Johnstone, who owns Chateau de Sours in the Entre-Deux-Mers region, is pleased at least with his white and rose wines. Perhaps 1992 will go down as a rose vintage in Bordeaux.
A bad case of overcropping has added to the region's woes. The received wisdom is that, following a year of severe frost, it is going to be a thin year. This is what happened after the disastrous frosts of 1956. Pruning is a major factor in determining crop level, and it rather looks as though too many growers overcompensated to make up for last year's shortfall.
On a brighter note for wine drinkers, with the Bordeaux wine trade strapped for cash and plenty of good wine from the Eighties swilling around, prices should fall. 'They've spent a fortune on their cellars and now they are going to have to sell some wine,' says the London merchant John Armit.
A similar problem of overproduction has afflicted the Loire. Quantity is reasonable, according to first reports, and the weather appears to have hit the region less hard than Bordeaux, so there should be plenty of drinkable wine at steady, if not slightly reduced, prices.
Reports from the south of France suggest there is a lot of ordinary wine around, with pockets of better quality being produced in the hillier districts. A return to le gros rouge, perhaps? 'We're all so broke that's all we can afford,' says one friend. Unfortunately, widespread rot in the region has presented growers with an impossible dilemma: whether to pick unripe healthy grapes for a fresh, tart style or wait until the grapes are ripe but rotten.
Italy also has suffered from autumn rains, with Tuscany (chianti) and Piedmont (barolo) as well as the Veneto (soave, valpolicella, bardolino) being particularly badly hit.
'Twenty years ago it would have been a total disaster,' says Paolo de Marchi, of Isole e Olena in Tuscany, 'but with modern viticultural techniques, such as green harvesting and careful sorting, we can salvage something.'
Elsewhere, things look more promising. Portugal and Spain are a mixed bag with port producers who waited for grapes to ripen happy about quality but disappointed with crop levels. Poor weather in Spain last spring has reduced rioja quantities by nearly a third, so price rises look inevitable. In Germany and Austria, producers are more satisfied although the Austrian vintage will be small. According to Rainer Lingenfelder in the Rheinpfalz, , 'It's been dream weather. The fruit is ripe and in good condition. It looks like a high quality vintage of good quantity like 1983.'
With huge stocks causing prices of bulk wine to tumble across much of Europe, the vintage could be disastrous for the many small growers unable to cover their costs. Consumers, however, should see most prices remain stable, but picking and choosing next year will be something of a minefield: 1992 is destined to be a widely varied vintage.Reuse content