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World’s worst wine disasters

Winemakers are a hardy bunch having faced some undoubtedly challenging situations in recent history, as this list shows.

From a well-documented and debilitating Phylloxera outbreak in the 18th century, which all but decimated Europe’s vines, to more recent natural and human-made disasters costing the industry millions, the world’s winemakers have conquered many a challenge throughout the centuries.

Scroll through to see some of the more recent challenges faced by the wine industry…

Have we missed any? Leave a comment below.

Finger Lakes frost 2014

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) declared an “agricultural disaster” in 19 upstate New York counties earlier this year after a “long and bitter” winter caused by an unprecedented polar vortex which swept across the US east coast, leaving the region’s vines in tatters.

Some vineyards reported bud loss of 50% or more due to the severe cold weather caused by a polar vortex which slammed into the east coast of America early this year breaking US temperature records with some places experiencing temperatures 40 degrees Fahrenheit colder than average. According to a report by The New York Post, farmers in the Finger Lakes are expecting to have lost between 75 and 90% of their crops due to “bud injury”.

An agricultural disaster was declared the USDA to allow winemakers and vineyards to apply for aid from an emergency loan scheme to rebuild their battered crops.

The disaster area covers the counties of Cattaraugus, Cayuga, Chautauqua, Oswego, Yates, Allegany, Cortland, Erie, Jefferson, Lewis, Oneida, Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben, Tomp­kins, Wayne and Wyoming counties – all of which will be eligible to claim support.

Chilean earthquake 2010

In 2010 Chile was hit by a devastating earthquake killing 800 people and causing scores of winemakers to halt production over damage to their stocks and facilities.

Concha y Toro, Chile’s biggest winemaker, was among the winemakers to suspend production and logistics operations for at least a week after several of its wineries, located in one of the worst affected areas hundreds of miles south of the capital Santiago, suffered serious damage. Eduardo Guilisasti, Concha y Toro CEO, called it a “catastrophe” which had struck the “heartland” of Chile’s wine industry.

The 8.8 earthquake ripped through swathes of Chile’s Central Valley with 100 million bottles of wine, about a sixth of the country’s annual exports valued at US$300 million, thought to be lost.

The total cost of the quake to Chile’s economy was estimated at $30 billion.

Italian boulder smashes vineyard

An Italian vineyard and 300-year old building were left in tatters earlier this year when a landslide caused three giant boulders to crash down a mountainside and smash through them.

A series of dramatic images captured the extent of the damage caused to the winery in Tramin-an-der-Weinstrasse in Alto Adige, northern Italy – a German speaking part of the country. A business building and part of the vineyard was flattened but miraculously no-one was injured.

The main house, owned by the Servite Order of the Catholic Church, was spared more damage after a second boulder stopped just meters from the main house.

California’s ‘historic’ three-year drought

California is currently in the grip of one of its worst droughts in recent history, a situation which has been steadily getting worse for the past three years. While the scale of the the state’s 2014 drought may not be fully realised, it is certain to have had a significant impact on the region’s winemakers.

As of Monday, the US Drought Monitor declared 81% of California to be classified as either D3 or D4, extreme to exceptional drought, the two highest categorisations. As a result of the three-year drought, California’s reservoirs are now short by more than one year’s worth of water, or 11.6 million acre-feet, compared to the average for this time of year. Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in January, calling on Californians to conserve water whenever possible.

Residents of California now face fines of up to $500 (£300) for watering their lawns, using sprinklers and washing their cars, while breweries have reported that the continued drought is affecting the amount of beer the state’s many craft breweries can produce – as demand continues to riseCoupled with recent wildfires throughout Napa, winemakers and brewers alike are facing an undoubtedly challenging period – the full effects of which are still unknown.

Austria’s 1985 Diethylene Glycol wine scandal

More of a scandal than a disaster, in 1985 a number of Austrian wineries were found to be mixing their wines with the toxic substance diethylene glycol, commonly found in antifreeze. A limited number of Austrian wineries, mostly committed to bulk wine production, hit upon the idea of using the chemical in their wines to boost its sweetness before it was sent to Germany to be bottled, either as Austrian wine or, on occasion, mixed in with bulk German wine.

The ruse was discovered when one of the producers claimed for unusually large quantities of the stuff on his tax return bills and its presence was also confirmed by German laboratory tests. The news made headlines around the world especially as diethylene glycol is often used in antifreeze. Long-term consumption of the chemical is indeed very dangerous but the quantities involved in this particular case would have necessitated the uninterrupted drinking of dozens of bottles over several days to achieve lethal results.

Only one bottle, a Welschriesling Beerenauslese from Burgenland, exceeded the 40 grams needed for such an eventuality. Still, Austrian wine exports crashed overnight from 45 million litres a year to just 4.4m and some countries banned imports altogether. As an example of how a bad thing can lead to good, however, Austria’s years in the wilderness forced it to clean up its act, focus on winemaking and cut down on bulk wine. Stricter wine laws were introduced and its re-emergence in recent years with the likes of Grüner Veltliner is an example to all.

Hailstorms of Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Languedoc

Hail causes havoc for winemakers every year, no less so in recent years than in France, where Bordeaux and Burgundy have both been badly affected for the past three years.

This year, large swathes of Bordeaux vines were destroyed after two nights of hail storms in June, as torrential rain and lightening swept across France. The Médoc appellation was one of the worst affected areas with around 300 hectares of vines completely decimated and up to 1,000 hectares in a further five regions; Prignac-en-Médoc, Ordonnac, Civrac, Blaignan and Saint-Yzans, badly affected. Bordeaux was badly affected the previous year following a series of hailstorms which destroyed the crops of around 100 producers.

In July Languedoc-Roussillon become the latest region of France to experience severe hailstorms, with some grape crops completely wiped out. Between 12,000 and 15,000 hectares of vineyard in the Aude – about a quarter of the department’s total plantings – were affected. Among the worst hit areas were appellations around Carcassonne, especially Minervois and Corbières, where early reports indicated that 80-100% of vines have been damaged.

While in June Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune suffered hail storms for a third year in a row with damage to the vines ranging from 40% to 90% across the region.

Forklift drops US$1 million worth of wine

In 2011 news broke of an unfortunate incident which saw one hapless forklift operator drop $1million worth of wine in Australia.

A total of 462 cases of $200/bottle 2010 Mollydooker Velvet Glove Shiraz were smashed while they were being loaded into a container to be exported to the US. At the time, winemaker Sparky Marquis told reporters it looked like a “murder scene” but smelled “phenomenal”.

The loss represented a third of the McLaren Vale winery’s annual production.

The wine was thankfully insured.

California warehouse fire 2005

In 2005 a Californian wine warehouse was set on fire destroying wine valued at US$250 million, prompting a repair bill of $12m and untold insurance claims.

The 244,000 square foot facility on Mare Island, owned by Wines Central, housed wines owned by 92 wineries and 43 private collectors totalling six million bottles, 80% of which were destroyed in the fire.

Businessman Mark Anderson was later found guilty of setting the blaze and jailed for 27 years.


Undoubtedly the worst disaster to ever hit the wine world, in the late 1800s a Phylloxera epidemic erupted throughout Europe coming close to killing pretty much every vine on the continent and all of its grape varieties.

Phylloxera, a microscopic aphid that eats the roots of grapes, is native to north America and was inadvertently introduced to Europe by Victorian botanists who had collected specimens of American vines in the 1850s and spread rapidly across the continent. In a desperate attempt to stem the spread, some French winemakers buried a live toad under each of its vines, apparently to draw out the poison, while others ripped up and burned their families ancient vines.

By the end of the 19th century the practice of grafting native American rootstocks, which are naturally resistant to the disease, onto European vines became popular, however such vines did not hold the same appeal as original vines.

European vines which withstood the epidemic are now among the most sought after wines. And while resistance to the bug has increased thanks to grafting, it remains a threat to winemakers.

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