(Vista Flores) With particular feverishness, the harvest is in full swing at the end of summer in the Valle de Uco, the heart of the Argentine vineyard at the foot of the Andes, to limit the damage of a dark climatic year, and a harvest which promises to be the worst in more than twenty years.

“We are rushing to harvest, because we are afraid of another frost to come, in the middle of the harvest. In a year like this, you can expect anything.” Marcelo Pelleriti, oenologist at the Monteviejo estate, describes for AFP a season already “one of the most difficult in the wine history of the province of Mendoza”. Where 78% of Argentine wine comes from.

Early frost, late frost, hail, extreme temperatures, dryness in the soil and in the air… The vines suffered, like two bunches of Cabernet Franc that Jose Mounier, cellar master, shows to AFP: ‘one mature and well-formed, the other half-atrophied, imperfectly developed, with heterogeneous berries, the result of frost at flowering.

“Less berries means more work in the bodega,” he sums up, referring to the increased care that will have to be taken in the selection of berries, between the green ones, the atrophied ones, etc.

In Monteviejo, crop loss is expected to be around 50%. And again, the vast vineyard located between 1000 and 1200 meters above sea level is partly protected by anti-freeze sheets. But in places in the province of Mendoza, the losses reached 100%.

And on the scale of Argentina, the 2023 harvest, the final result of which will be known in May, will not exceed 15.4 million tons of grapes, according to projections by the National Institute of Vitiviniculture (INV). That’s about 40% less than a “normal” year, like 2021 (22.2 million).

“We can talk about the worst harvest in more than twenty years, maybe in sixty…”, worries AFP Mario Gonzalez, new president of the Argentine Wine Corporation (Coviar), member of a cooperative of another wine region, Rioja (north-west).

“The panorama is very complicated, which goes hand in hand with declines in the internal and external markets”, for exogenous economic factors. “The equation is getting tighter on all sides.”

Because Argentina, which oscillates between the places of 5th to 7th producing country (far behind the Italy-France-Spain trio) also came out of two good commercial years, directly linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. The internal market (over 70%) had benefited from confined Argentines opening more bottles. The 2022 average is expected to be less than 18 liters per person per year, compared to more than 20-21 liters in 2020 and 2021, predicts Gonzalez. “It’s going to have a big impact.”

Not to mention soaring inflation (94.8% in 2022) gradually cutting into the purchasing power of Argentines. Who anyway are drinking gradually, but considerably, less wine than before, compared to a peak of 88 liters per person in 1977, according to INV data.

Worried, gradually losing places in the ranking of exporting countries (around 10th place), the wine sector has received a boost in recent days from the Minister of Economy Sergio Massa. In search of a win-win, for wine, but also to bring in international currencies that the country lacks.

As it did in 2022 with soybeans, Argentina’s flagship export product, the government, in a country subject to exchange controls, will apply a preferential exchange rate for wine exporters, more favorable than the official one (210 pesos to the dollar), in order to stimulate exports. The “Malbec dollar”, (referring to the dominant grape variety in Argentina), as the media have already dubbed it.

The coming year will have its share of difficult decisions to make, whether or not to replant frozen seedlings, based on profitability that has been declining for five years, according to Mr. Gonzalez.

With a worried eye on the climate, because Marcelo Pelleriti is convinced of this: the sequences of frost or hail which “in the past were more distant, five or ten years, come back more repetitively”.