Challenging outlook for Mediterranean grapes
The Mediterranean table grape crop looks to be slightly shorter overall this season due to smaller bunch sizes on seedless vineyards, particularly in Spain. Despite the volume dip, seedless grape planting continues to ramp up across the European region, and that will likely offset some of the volume decline for 2014. But production issues offside, trading conditions are tough in the old continent with now with popular summer fruits dominating the market.
"It will be a normal yield for seedless grapes from the Mediterranean in 2014," says Robert Zerres of Zerres Fruit Partners, a Germany-based table grape import specialist.
"In certain areas of Spain and for certain producers bunch sizes are very small because of the weather but new plantations will offset some of the shortfall.
"In Italy, the seedless volume will be more or less the same as last year but quality appears to be a bit lower than in 2013 because cold temperatures affected the blossom.
"For seeded Victoria grapes from Italy again the volume is the same but quality is slightly reduced."
Zerres says his contacts in Spain suggest production is down by about 50% this season, or at least 25% depending on the grower. However, he is quick to point out that last year was a bumper crop, which, coupled with the addition of new plantations, means Spanish production will be about average this season.
Across in Italy, Zerres believes output will be roughly the same as last year despite bad winter weather, or perhaps slightly higher because of new areas planted with seedless varieties.
On the contrary, André Nieuwenhuis, commercial manager at Dutch importer-exporter Olympic Fruit, suggests Italian production will be much lower this season.
"Last year Italy had an overproduction of grapes, so now the vines are giving fewer bunches as a result and also because of recent weather problems, which have included hailstorms and frosts."
Spain has already started harvesting and shipping some Sugraone variety grapes, and Italy’s campaign, boosted by a warm winter, will get underway one week earlier than usual during the second week of July.
Greece, meanwhile, will enter the market in August and Nieuwenhuis says growers there are expecting more or less the same volume as last year.
According to Zerres, the Greek grape crop is also one week early but with the season start still a month away, he says it is too early to speculate on volume or quality for 2014.
Nieuwenhuis says the European grape market is currently tough with no suggestion of any improvement over the next four weeks.
"It's nothing new – in June/July there is always too much summer fruit available with melons, stonefruit and berries, so demand for grapes is low," he states.
"The overproduction of Mediterranean grapes in the last few years is also another reason why the market is difficult and prices are low."
Zerres agrees that prices are under pressure from summer fruits but he remains hopeful for an uplift with fresh supplies.
"It's extremely difficult to know what the prices might do with all the summer fruit around but the new season arrivals and new varieties from the Mediterranean should animate the market," he says.
"I think prices this season will start more or less the same as last year or maybe slightly lower because the fruit will come all together with Italy’s earlier start."
In order to boost sales, Nieuwenhuis recommends European supermarkets should plan maximum promotions for grapes.
"Promotions will improve consumption," he says.
"But there is so much fruit available that retailers can choose what they want to promote and in summer it’s always more attractive to push melons and stonefruit than grapes."
Demand-wise, European consumer preference is shifting more and more to seedless varieties because of their quality and convenience.
As a result, across the Mediterranean there are many new plantings of varieties such as Crimson, Regal and Summer Royal.
According to Zerres, 95% of the grapes supplied to the U.K. and Scandinavia are already seedless – a trend that is catching on across Europe.
"Germany is moving more and more to seedless but it depends on the area – northern Germany is 85% seedless whereas in southern Germany consumers are more used to seeded varieties.
"In comparison, seeded grapes still sell very nicely in Poland and the Czech Republic, and France is a seeded market that focuses on arrivals from Sicily."
Spain has also already made the shift, according to Zerres, because all the grape production from Murcia to Alicante is now seedless.
Italy, meanwhile, has replaced a lot of its seeded crop with seedless, although the process has been slow since the local market prefers seeded grapes like Italia and Victoria.
"But seedless grapes are becoming more fashionable in the modern, bigger Italian cities like Milan, Rome, Genoa and Turin," Zerres notes.
In general, Zerres says there are a lot of new trials taking place in Europe with grape varieties.
"Right now everyone is looking for a variety which looks a bit like a Thompson Seedless but has a higher yield and longer shelf-life," Zerres reveals.
"The more oval to long berry sizes are also more likely to be accepted by consumers than the round shape."
Nieuwenhuis adds that late grape varieties are also being looked at with interest in an effort to make European grapes available after the busy summer fruit season.
"Varieties for the autumn period when there is less competition are interesting for us, such as white grapes like Crystal and Princess as well as several late red grapes," he explains.
"In fact, if European growers can manage to continue until December then European distributors could skip the more expensive imports from Peru and Brazil and then go straight to South Africa."