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Devastating Frost Bite for Vines in Europe

Posted: Wednesday, 17 May 2017 11:02


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Devastating Frost Bite for Vines in Europe

May 17: Many countries in Europe, especially France and Italy have suffered a heavy damage from the Spring Frost but parts of UK and Spain also suffered the devastation in small pockets as Subhash Arora discovered during 3 days of travel within Northern part of Castilla y Leon a few days before judging at Concours Mondial de Bruxelles in its capital city Valladolid

Click For Large ViewWe left Podera ‘ de Donna Urrata, a quaint boutique hotel in the small village of Fermoselle- in the province of Zamora which is part of the region of Castile and León in Western Spain on the morning of May 3. We were headed towards the village of Cacabelos to visit the office of the Consejo Regulador de la denominacion de Origen Bierzo (DO Bierzo), one of the fast upcoming wine areas of Spain during the last couple of decades.

On the previous day we had visited the appellations of DO Salamanca, home to the indigenous variety Rufete on the terraced slopes and DO Arribes where another local red variety Juan Garcia rules the roost (More on the varietals in another issue). En route, we had stopped over at a few vineyards and were impressed by the old, rare and very rare vines aged 40-80 years. By the time we reached our hotel in Fermoselle in the evening, the surprise element of 60-80 years old vines in many vineyards had disappeared even though In India the average age of vines is less than 8-10 years and there are hardly any over 20.

 We had driven through the rural terrain with bush wines having shiny green leaves ready to start the flowering. But today as we passed the town of Zamora in the morning, the vines along the roadside vineyard appeared to have suddenly become totally bald with no leaves visible. Everywhere as far as the eyes went, the sight was dismal with only trunks visible.

The mystery was sadly solved after we reached the beautiful , chic office of DO Bierzo where we met with Sonja Soto Gonzalez, technical manager who soon conducted a guided tasting of 28 wines produced from the local Godello white and Mencia red grapes. During a vineyard visit following the tasting she explained to us that the early morning spring frost on the previous Wednesday and Thursday ( April 26th and 27th) had wiped out around 70% of the crop in the DO. Visiting the steep vineyards overlooking Cacabelos one would not believe that there was such colossal damage as the 60-100 year old vines where we were standing, appeared to be singing with green leaves.

Click For Large ViewAlmost 100% of the crops in the plains had no leaves and were destroyed. ‘It is not possible to assess the exact damage but at the first estimate, the farmers feel the loss is total. People are also assessing the impact on the buds that will provide shoots for next year’s harvest but we hope the crops in 2018 will not be affected,’ she said. Imagine more than half the annual potential income of a farmer wiped out in just a few hours and they could do nothing to save their crops except watch in dismay.

Though not as severe as the current one, frosts are a crucial factor in vineyard evaluation and as she explained slopes can handle frost better than plains where there are totally exposed to this vagary of nature which can be as dangerous as hail storm or rains at the wrong time and followed by mildew and other diseases- something our Nashik farmers have to routinely face.   There are ways to counter frost- people burnt candles at night at a vineyard elsewhere in Europe and helicopters had a brisk business spraying the vineyards but these are expensive and obviously not carried out by the farmers in DO Bierzo.

Devastation in Europe

Despite the unfortunate mishap in Bierzo appellation, Spain has been less hit than the rest of Europe, especially France where practically no region was spared from Chablis to Champagne and Bordeaux to Burgundy.  Bordeaux has suffered perhaps the worst frost after the infamous1991crops. Some vineyards were destroyed completely while many on higher slopes escaping unscathed. A Danish-owned property in Fronsac in Bordeaux reportedly lost 95% of the crop within 2 hours of frost!

Click For Large ViewThe exact extent of the damage will become clear by next month as flowering takes place in the vineyards. Estimates in Bordeaux, Cognac, Loire, Champagne and Alsace suggest potential losses of anywhere from 25-50% of their crops. Burgundy and the Languedoc have also sustained significant damages with the entire appellations affected. 

Italy has also suffered from frosts which affected a week earlier on 17-19 April in the Northern belt of the country. Here also the vineyards in the plains of Piemonte, Tuscany, Veneto, Marche and even in Abruzzi were damaged.  Franciacorta and Gavi also had reportedly big problems; so did the Prosecco producing area of North- East Italy, ostensibly the plains where the ubiquitous DOC Prosecco is produced. With the demand of this bubbly galloping globally, the shortage of supply might cause havoc in the price of Prosecco next year.

To the farmers of DO Bierzo where the devastation has been acute and the other areas of Spain where there were pockets of vineyards suffering this vagary of nature, it is little solace that there were many more in the same boat and especially for those who depend solely on the business of growing grapes, one hopes they have had insurance cover on the crops against such tyrannies of nature. The wise men have always said to save for the rainy day but for these vine growers, they must also save for a frosty day-or two!

What about the damage to the DO Bierzo vines? Sonia and the office of Consejo Regulador are optimistic. ' At the moment, part of the affected vineyards have started to recover. Although this harvest there will be a reduction of production compared to other years, the good news is that the vineyards have started to sprout again, and we hope to recover next year,' she says.To that we'd raise a glass and say 'Jai Ho!'

Subhash Arora

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