April 25: The French winegrowers may be accused of crying Wolf in most years to extract extra money from the buyers, with a notable infamous incident in 1981, but France has been very badly hit by frost on April 6-9, destroying up to 100% of the crop writes our Bordeaux Specialist Contributor, John Salvi MW though he believes the exact loss will be known only in end- May
Let me start by telling you a true story. For the English, the French are famous for “crying wolf”. The Oxford dictionary describes this as meaning, “making false claims with the result that consequent true claims are disbelieved”. I remember 21 April 1981 when the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux had organised a Grand Tasting in Vintners Hall in London. Everybody flew over on the early morning flight, weeping, wailing and despairing because there had been a disastrous frost overnight.
The English wine trade just laughed and said, “nonsense, you say the same thing every year in order to increase your prices!” For once it happened to be true and one thing is sure, certain and absolute – this April on 6, 7, 8 and a little on the 9th it was NOT WOLF and was unfortunately, thoroughly disastrous.
Extent of Damage unknown yet
It will not be until early May that we will know exactly the extent of the damage. We must wait for the vine to de-stress after its physiological shock. Many would have treated it with valerian to lessen stress. We will have to wait and see how many damaged buds can recover and above all how many contre-bourgeons (secondary buds) will emerge. At the same time bearing in mind that secondary buds are less regular, produce fewer grapes and are more prone to fungus diseases and mildew. Also, even if secondary buds emerge and grow, without leaves there can be no chlorophyllisation (build-up of sugar in the grapes), and many leaves were 100% frosted.
Worse kind of frost
There are two principal types of frost, and one does much more damage than the other. What we have had this April was the bad one, a BLACK FROST (gelée noire). This comes with very cold air and very low humidity. If there is moisture, then it is a HOAR FROST (WHITE FROST or gelée blanche). Ice crystals form and help protect the buds. If it is dry, as it was this April, then the plant tissue freezes, and the buds break off like cigarette ash. In Chablis they even had snow followed by frost. It must be remembered that the most important task for the vine is to survive. It is prepared to go to any length including that of aborting its fruit. Survival is primordial.
Heat did it
The whole disaster would not have been nearly so bad if we had not had absurdly hot weather just before the frost, reaching 26°C in Bordeaux and 28°C in some other regions, and 28°C even in MARCH! A total of 240 heat records were broken across France just before the frost, which advanced budbreak considerably and many vines were already in leaf.
Budbreak was early this year, even if not as early as last year. Château Ducru Beaucaillou told me that they saw buds in cotton on March 23. Naturally, the more advanced the vine, the greater the damage. Those in the leaf had the leaves destroyed. The later the budding the less the damage. Fortunately, almost no vineyards had yet produced secondary buds.
Bordeaux not alone
What is most dramatic is that this frost damage was not limited to any one region but struck all over France. Germany and Great Britain were safe because budburst had not yet occurred. But Spain, Portugal and Italy were impacted, although it was less cold. Chardonnay was worse hit than Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc more damaged than Cabernet because they were more advanced.
Optimists are saying that it is not as bad as 2017, but pessimists are saying it is much worse!
Burgundy worse hit
Burgundy was worse hit than Bordeaux and first estimates are talking about 50%. They had 3 consecutive nights of frost and by the 3rd night there were no more “bougies” available to warm the vineyards. The regisseur of the Hospices de Beaune kept repeating ,”c’est la cata, c’est la cata” (catastrophe). The Côtes de Beaune appears to have been worse hit than the Côtes de Nuits and Meursault seems to have been particularly badly damaged.
Here are the first estimations by the various Syndicats. I repeat that we must wait for early May to have precisions.
Aquitaine and Bordeaux : Bordeaux : 35% (Graves, Sauternes, Sud Gironde, Nord Gironde)
Dordogne : 35%
Cognac: Less Damaged
Saône et Loire: 100%
Chatillonnais: (for Crémants) almost 100% ;
Gaillac and Plaimont : 80%
Jura : 60-90%
Indre et Loire : 100%
Aude : almost 100%
Hérault : 70%
Gers : 70-80%
Vaucluse : 70%
Sancerre : 50-60%
In addition, some 40,000 hectares of beetroot have been destroyed and the same for Colza. Enormous, as yet un-estimated, damage to apples, pears, cherries and apricots.
C’est la Cata- Calamité Agricole
The French Government has declared a “Calamité Agricole” and a “Catastrophe Naturelle”. The Minister of Agriculture has already promised 1 Billion euros to avert disaster. We are now talking about permitting temporary modification of some of the AOC rules and regulations such as blending and limits of yields.
Submissions should be made to the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité. Everybody is claiming aid from wherever they think might be able to get it. They want Insurance, indemnity and exoneration from social taxes. Even 1 Billion euros divided up between all the vignerons, fruit growers and cereal producers will not go very far.
On top of the problems of corona, lack of sales, lack of storage space, USA taxes (fortunately suspended) and shortage of labour, this frost is for many the straw that broke the camel’s back. Among vignerons bankruptcies are being declared so fast that the banks cannot cope with them.
The frost has been followed by exceptionally hot, dry and sunny weather and vines that were not damaged by the frost are rocketing ahead. Nonetheless, yields will be small this year.
Truly, we can say that this April growers did NOT CRY WOLF!
Never mind everybody, keep smiling, there is nothing to worry about. Emmanuel Macron the President of La République Française has solemnly announced, “hold tight, we are by your side”!
Also Read: Devastating Frost Bite for Vines in Europe
John Salvi Master of Wine
For those who think wine making is fun and games and passion, there are several adverse situations the farmers have to face every season-frost is one such variable. April is a month for frosts and different parts of Europe are affected though to different extent-as I experienced in Spain in 2017 when France was affected but to a lesser extent. This was really a bad and unfortunate month for the grape growers in France. One hopes governmental help comes soon. Meanwhile, expect a rise in the price of these wines. Incidentally, Italy has also been hit but apparently not as badly as France. Areas of Tuscany have been affected-editor