Grapegrowers in two of Europe’s top wine regions had to take cover in the past two weeks as hail pelted their vineyards, inflicting damage during harvest season. In Germany’s Mosel river valley on Aug. 26, hailstones the size of tennis balls began raining down later in the afternoon. Some parcels, particularly in Bernkastel, were damaged. On Sept. 1, heavy thunderstorms began dumping hailstones on several parts of Bordeaux, damaging grapes in St.-Estephe, Pauillac and Entre-Deux-Mers. Both Château Cos-d’Estournel and Château Lafite Rothschild began picking affected parcels early.
The Bordeaux storm dropped ping-pong ball-sized hail, hitting more than 11,000 acres of vines. Vignerons report that 3,700 acres were seriously damaged. Bernard Audoy, president of the St.-Estephe syndicate and owner of Château Cos-Labory, reports that 2 inches of rain fell in just 15 minutes.
Jean-Guillaume Prats, managing director of Cos-d’Estournel, said about 100 acres were hit by hail. His team began harvesting those parcels Sept. 5, three days earlier than planned. "It's very fortunate this happened this year and not last year,” said Prats. Due to climatic conditions, harvest had already been scheduled to start quite early. Had they planned on harvesting in October, there would have been a real ripeness issue.
Just across the border in Pauillac, a spokeswoman for Lafite confirmed that a small parcel had been hit. They began picking a few days later. "We have only harvested a northern parcel that was, as it happens, already ripe,” said Luisa de Alpoim.
A few areas south of St.-Emilion were also hit, but vignerons tell Wine Spectator damage was minimal. The carnage was far worse further south in parts of Entre-Deux-Mers. "In Branne, there aren't any more leaves on the vines," said Philippe Abadie, of the department of agriculture. Henri Féret, owner of Château Féret-Lambert in Grezillac, said his estate would not produce its first wine this year. All 40 acres were impacted, and Féret quickly sent two harvesting machines out to pick the fruit so he could salvage whatever grapes were undamaged before rot developed.
In the Mosel, harvest is three weeks away, and the hail’s impact is less clear. What is certain is how frightening the storm was. “Some villages were severely hit, with hailstones as large as tennis balls—one stone weighed in at 800 grams!” said Kirk Wille, spokesman for the winery Dr. Loosen. “There was definitely damage to the grapes in some vineyards, but it was the cars and houses that took the worst beating.”
“The areas with the most damage are around Bernkastel,” said Nik Weis at St. Urbans-Hof. “Fortunately in Piesport the intensity was less. Also in Leiwen, we didn't get a lot of damage. In Mehring there was nothing at all. The Saar didn't get hit at all either. It didn't even rain in the Saar.”
Wille painted a grimmer picture. “At Dr. Loosen, our vineyards in Bernkastel, Ürzig and Erden suffered no damage. But in Graach and Wehlen there is damage that could cost us about 30 percent of the crop.”
Weis said that the large size of the stones means different damage. Small, hard-edged stones slash grapes, allowing rot to quickly set in. The large stones did some of that, but also bruised many berries. “The squeezing causes damage inside the berries, so the juice oxidizes. As a result, the berries get a funny taste like nutmeg.”
The growing season has been warm and ideal up until now, and picking should begin in three weeks. “It all depends on the weather now,” said Wille. “If it stays dry and cool, botrytis will be inhibited and the damaged grapes will dry up and fall away. However, if it gets warm and wet, botrytis will run rampant, which will mean a lot of selection at harvest time—and even lower yields. We can only wait and see what will happen.”
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