With temperatures dropping to 22°F in early April, and after an exceptionally warm March, this year could be the worst ever for French wine growers. All corners of France report heavy losses, from Champagne to Provence, from the coast of Gascony to Alsace. As a result, very few 2021 French wines are likely to reach U.S. shores.
Spring frosts are a threat to vineyards every year. If it happens after bud break, the first growth of the vine after winter dormancy, it can kill the plant.
Measures to limit frost damage include regulating the heating or protecting plants. Straw fires built into oil cans can have a boogie effect and also create a smoke screen that acts as a physical barrier against the morning sun, which can burn frost-covered buds. Aspercia, which is common in Chablis, refers to large sprinklers that, counterintuitively, cover the buds with a skin of ice to protect them from damage. Wind turbines blow warmer air to the cooler ground, while industrial heaters can regulate the temperature near the vines.
Of course, most of these methods are expensive and time consuming.
Château Lafleur-Petrus in Pomerol, France, tries to mitigate the effects of the frost / Photo via CEPHAS – Jean-Bernard Nadeau
The only measures we take are to adapt our working methods, for example by pruning the frost-prone areas later, explains Sophie Voiles of Domaine La Croix Montjoie. It owns 10 hectares of Chardonnay in Vézelay, in northern Burgundy, south of Chablis.
We don’t have the resources to set things up like boogies, sprinklers, wind machines. They are usually used for premium cruises or large cruise itineraries with much higher prices, and even those were not in effect this week.
Ms. Voyel estimates that her property lost about 80% of its harvest. She is convinced that this situation will become commonplace for her neighbors in Vézelay, as is the case for many appellations in Burgundy.
I think it will take a concerted effort that will take much longer than a few years if we want asparagus, wind or heat to be a meaningful way to cope with big frosts like this one, says Jeremy Seyss of Domaine Dujac in the Côtes de Nuits in Burgundy. But fighting the effects of global warming while using more heat and energy is just wrong.
It’s French and even pan-European, and after a year of tariffs on it, it’s the real deal. -Jérémy Seiss, Domaine Dujac
A viable option might be to replant vines with roots that mature later and lead to buds, Seiss says, but pulling them out is hardly an ideal scenario.
He is not yet estimating his losses, as many of the pinot noir buds have not yet broken through and we have to wait and see if anything grows or not. Anyway, he says 2021 will be a small vintage year.
I think it’s helpful for people to understand that this is nature, that climate change is real, and to be aware of the effort it takes to make wine and the pain of losing the harvest, he says. It’s French and even pan-European, and after a year of tariffs on it, it’s the real deal.
The extent of the damage is forcing wine experts to take a fresh look at each region in the past.
I think for now we can continue to hope that this kind of very severe frost in Bordeaux remains a rare event, said Jonathan Ducourt of Vignobles Ducourt, which farms nearly 500 hectares in Bordeaux.
However, Ducourt says growers can make rational decisions, such as planting varieties that break down later, noting that this year it looks like Cabernet and Petit Verdot will be less affected.
He suggests mowing as late as possible, testing out new winter practices and possibly installing sprinklers like in other regions. Our work as winemakers is constantly evolving and we need to think about what we are leaving to the next generation.
We don’t have the resources to set things up like boogies, sprinklers, wind machines. They are mainly used on designated sailing areas or on large cruises. -Sophie Voulez, Domaine La Croix Montjoie.
According to Ducourt, 80 to 100 percent of Winnoble’s vineyards are frozen. In the Entre-de-Merce areas, where 50-70% of the vineyards were frozen, more white grapes were affected, while Château Ducourt in Montagne-Saint-Emilion, which never froze, was 100% affected.
It’s hard to estimate losses, and there’s another month of frost danger before we can relax, he says, noting that some plants can recover from frost damage. The harvest is still six months away and nothing has been decided yet. This will be a precious vintage, not only in Bordeaux, but in all of France!
Burning candles in the vineyards of Pomerol, France / Photo via CEPHAS – Jean-Bernard Nadeau
In regions such as the Loire Valley, where wine prices are relatively low, the high cost of frost protection is particularly problematic.
The resources we have now are quite expensive, and in our cities our bottles are sold for 10-15 euros, says Sandrine Delobel of Domaine Delobel. The vineyard covers 12 hectares, mainly in the Sauvignon Blanc area of Touraine. Although many of Delobel’s vines are more than 50 years old, future generations will have to make long-term decisions, she says, such as working on new planting material and varieties to start later in the season.
Previous measures by Delobel colleagues, such as freezing towers and burning straw, have largely failed this year due to the peculiarities of ambient temperature and humidity. In contrast, some recent modest efforts have been effective.
In 2016 and 2017, we were 80 percent frozen, but we didn’t have frost protection then, Delobel said. We then decided to put clods on some of the most vulnerable places, and the protection worked well.
The harvest is still six months away and nothing has been decided yet. -Jonathan Ducourt, Vignobles Ducourt.
Valentin Morel, from Les Pieds sur Terre, in the Côte du Jura, close to the Swiss border, has sent a letter to his colleagues informing them that losses are estimated at 80%. But he sees these frightening attempts as part of a long history of people trying to bend the Vitis Vinifera to the will of nature.
In the note, he says he is seriously researching interspecific grapes – he doesn’t like the word hybrid, because these grapes share the genus Vitis and are not genetically modified, once widely planted in France between the two world wars. He believes that by encroaching on a small percentage of their vineyards, they can protect themselves from such events without taking costly or environmentally damaging measures, noting that the arguments against this practice are often incorrect and outdated.
The prospect of a vineyard that is phyto-independent and requires absolutely no treatment cannot leave us indifferent at a time when so much is said about agroecology and our country remains one of the biggest consumers of pesticides, Morel writes.
The best way to help American drinkers is to buy wine, French winemakers say, but they also stress the need for broader thinking.
Consumers just need to understand how much the grape growers are in direct contact with nature, and of course we can’t counter that, says Wojlec. Our business is based on a delicate balance between the terroir, the climate, the grape varieties and the work of the farmers. Any imbalance has lasting and, in our case this week, devastating consequences. And each of us is responsible for maintaining this balance in our daily decisions.