France’s Winemakers Count the Cost of Heavy Frost | Wine Enthusiast
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France’s Winemakers Count the Cost of Heavy Frost

French growers are starting the gruesome business of counting the cost after frost hit the country during the last two weeks. In Bordeaux, Olivier Bernard, the president of the Union des Grands Crus (UGC) told Wine Enthusiast. “It is the worst frost since 1991.”

Every French region has been hit: Champagne, Loire, Burgundy, Alsace, Beaujolais, Languedoc, Cognac and Bordeaux.

The damage has been made worse because of the current growing season. A dry spring (almost no rain) in April coupled with sunny days have accelerated the vines’ growth. By the time the first frost hit the east of France on the morning of April 20, it was already three weeks ahead of normal levels.

Bordeaux is in the middle of its En Primeur sales campaign for the stellar 2016 vintage. Speculation immediately started that the frost would push up the price of 2016s, by putting a question mark over the 2017 crop. Bernard was quick to scotch the rumors.

“I can’t see the frost making any difference to prices. I think that château prices for 2016 will rise by between zero percent and 15 percent (over 2015) which was expected.” And in an implicit warning to his fellow château owners, he added: “When châteaux have tried to raise their prices because of frost in the past, they have quickly found they made a big mistake.”

Figures for lost production are being tallied. In the Champagne region, Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon said overall production loss would be around 15 percent. He is vineyard director and winemaker at Champagne Louis Roederer. He believes that 25 percent of his 592 acres of vines have been affected with temperatures falling to 27°F. “It’s worst in the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Blancs,” he said.

This is the second year in a row that the east of France has been affected. On the night of April 29, 2016, a swathe of vineyards from Champagne to Beaujolais was hit by the worst frost on record. The west of France, including Bordeaux, was spared that time.

Château Angélus Sees Heavy Losses

Not this year. Damage has been right across the Bordeaux region. Saint-Émilion and parts of Margaux, Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes are heavily damaged. In Saint-Émilion, Premier Grand Cru Classé estate Château Angélus claims a loss of up to 80 percent in some of its top parcels.Angeles_Vineyard

The UGC’s Bernard, said his family’s vineyard, Domaine de Chevalier in Pessac-Léognan, had suffered up to 30 percent damage on the night of April 26/27. Temperatures fell to 28°F. Allan Sichel, president of the Bordeaux Wine Council, confirmed in a statement that the damage would “certainly impact the 2017 harvest.”

Growers have developed a range of techniques to cope with frost, none of them cheap. They burn bales of hay or use so-called smudge pots of burning paraffin or propane burners. They spray with water to create an ice pocket around the buds, a system that costs $5,000 an acre to install. Other growers or groups of growers use a helicopter, at $100 an acre, or a less expensive drone, to stir up the air. Frost insurance is expensive too, costing up to $200 an acre depending on the importance of the vineyard.

And the frost risk is not over yet. The old saying is that you should wait until the days of Les Saints de Glace (ice saints) before planting out delicate plants. This year that falls between May 11 and May 13.

So perhaps the best and cheapest technique to combat frost is to pray.

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