It’s very much a case of déjà vu as severe frosts have once again hit many vineyard areas of France. Whilst last year’s frosts, which struck at the very end of April, seemed to be mainly confined to Burgundy, Champagne and the Loire Valley, this year seems to be more widespread with vineyards in Bordeaux, Alsace, Languedoc and the Rhône Valley also badly affected. Elsewhere, England, northern Italy, Switzerland and Germany have reported severe frost damage also.
Last week, temperatures plunged, especially on ‘black Thursday’ where -7 degrees was registered in some regions. With budburst coming early this year, many of the young buds were left resembling withered tobacco leaves.
How can the frosts be combatted?
Some vignerons light candles or small, oil-fired heaters, placed amongst the vines to help raise temperatures. However, you need hundreds of these and they are more effective against ground frost, but less so against air frost.
Some vignerons use fine water jets (mainly in Chablis). The ice forms a protective layer over the young buds. However, few have this facility.
In some regions there are devices resembling wind turbines which help mix the air up and draw the frosts away from the vines. These are few and far between in Europe however. Some vignerons have used helicopters to create a downdraft to stir the air around the vines. Indeed several vignerons in the Loire Valley clubbed together and rented seven helicopters to help ward off frosts in this way – but you can imagine how expensive this is! Only in Bordeaux can the top châteaux afford such measures and perhaps a few top vineyards in Champagne and Burgundy.
What’s the damage?
It’s very early days yet to fully assess the damage. Whilst the main buds might be killed off, there are secondary buds that can take over. However, these are usually less fruitful, so yields will inevitably be affected – just like last year. Also, the vine itself becomes affected and will yield less in future harvests to come.
Some vignerons have reported between 50-100% damage to their vines. Regions like Chablis were devastated last year, so this will hit them incredibly hard. Even down in the south, where frosts tend to be rare, Louis-Pascal Bouchard at Domaine des Grands Devers in the Rhône Valley stated that between 30% and 100% of their vineyards have been hit.
Christine Jacob at Domaine Lucien Jacob said that they had been up throughout the night several times last week burning straw bales beside the vines in appellations such as Savigny-lès-Beaune. She said that in adversity, the local villagers have pulled together in a spirit of cooperation. She said that last week her local boulanger brought freshly baked croissants out to vignerons keeping watch over their vineyards at 5am in the morning. Some good always comes out of a crisis …
- Ice in Champagne vineyard: John Hodder – Collection CIVC
- Workers and wine growers lighting heaters outside Chablis: Christian Hartmann/Reuters
- Fires in the vineyards around St-Emilion: Jean-Bernard Nadeau / Cephas
- Bud damage: Thomas Frey/dpa/Alamy Live News
- The morning after frost in Burgundy: Frederic Billet /@fredericbillet1 /Twitte
- Helicopters above vines: Christoph Schmidt~dpa~Alamy Live News