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Update: French Winemakers Weathering Worst Frost in 25 Years

Vintners are reporting widespread damage in Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, with some losing their entire 2017 crop
Photo by: John Hodder - Collection CIVC
Vineyards in Champagne have been hit hard by frost.

James Molesworth, Suzanne Mustacich
Posted: April 27, 2017

Updated April 28

Cold weather struck France's young vine buds again this week, and Bordeaux is the latest region to suffer frost damage. Farther north, Burgundy and Champagne also weathered cold conditions and frost. Damage reports are incomplete so far, mainly because winegrowers have been busy preparing anti-frost measures.

Bordeaux's Right Bank Hit Hard

"We can already estimate that we have lost nearly half of the potential crop,” said Xavier Coumau, president of Bordeaux's Syndicate of Wine and Spirits Courtiers.

Many are calling it the worst frost since 1991, as temperatures dropped to nearly 26° F in some spots. Damage has been reported on the Right Bank, including in Pomerol and St.-Emilion—though the plateau of St.-Emilion was spared—as well as Pessac and Graves and even up in the western edge of the Médoc.

"It is rather dramatic," Stéphane Derenoncourt, proprietor of Domaine de l'A in Castillon and consultant to dozens of Right Bank estates, told Wine Spectator. "Only the plateau and the tops of slopes are spared. There is damage everywhere, sometimes 100 percent. We haven't seen everything yet, and it is forecast to freeze again tonight."

"Really bad news," said Stephan von Neipperg, who owns a cluster of elite St.-Emilion properties, as well as Clos Marsalette in Pessac. "Château Canon-La Gaffelière is touched as well as d'Aiguilhe, Marsalette and some plots in Clos de l'Oratoire. No damage in La Mondotte, which is on the plateau. Very difficult to tell you the percentage we lost but it will be rather hard."

Vineyards in low-lying areas, where cold air settles, are more susceptible to frost than sloped vineyards or higher plateaus. However, the extent of the damage won’t be known for several days.

In Pessac and Graves, growers were checking their vines as well. Véronique Sanders of Château Haut-Bailly reported a significant frost. By Friday morning, she had inspected the fields and found one-third of the buds were dead and another third were damaged. From Château Villa Bel-Air in Graves, Jean-Charles Cazes reported that 90 percent of the potential crop was gone.

Jean-Jacques Dubourdieu said he suffered significant damage at his estates Cantegril, Haura and Clos Floridène, but little damage at Reynon and Doisy Daëne. "I have some hope for the Cabernet Sauvignon and Sémillon, but Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot are [badly damaged]," he said.

And the frost even spread further up into the Médoc, hitting areas in Listrac and St.-Julien. "We suffered pretty severe damages in Listrac," said Bruno Borie, owner of Château Ducru-Beaucaillou in St.-Julien and Ducluzeau and Fourcas-Borie in Listrac. "Some [Listrac] plots have been hurt 100 percent. For the entire vineyard, we lost probably 35 to 45 percent. St.-Julien has been affected too, but to a lesser extent, with estimates at 10 to 15 percent loss."

Pauillac and St.-Estèphe were spared the worst of the cold, but suffered some damage. Philippe Dhalluin at Château Mouton-Rothschild says they only lost about 1 percent of buds, but that the white varieties were hit hardest. At Cos-d'Estournel, Aymeric de Gironde said that just the lower portions of the hills were impacted, but not too badly.

Philippe Dambrine, CEO of Châteaus Cantemerle in Haut-Médoc and Grand Corbin in St.-Emilion, told Wine Spectator that Cantemerle got off lightly with an estimated 30 percent loss, but St.-Emilion was another story. "I just come back from St.-Emilion. Our vineyard of Château Grand Corbin has been severely impacted by the frost. We expect 90 percent loss this year."

On the flats of St.-Emilion between the côte and the river, Gerard Perse hired a helicopter to warm the air at Chateau Monbousquet, while Pavie escaped relatively unscathed. Nearby at Château Angélus, Stéphanie de Bouard-Rivoal spent several hours in the vineyard, surveying the damage. Her team did not undertake any measures of protection, a decision she has asked her technical team to rethink.

Despite their vineyard being hit hard by the frost, she believes they can produce 80 percent of their usual grand vin production. "Unfortunately, the harvest of 2017 will not be abundant, but we will mobilize all our energy and resources to ensure that the little wine we produce is exceptional in quality," said Bouard-Rivoal. "And remember the 1945 and 1961 vintages. They were hit by the frost. It shows us that even if the volume is low, the quality is not necessarily diminished."

Enologist Dany Rolland told Wine Spectator, “It will take time to gauge much of the damage, because everything is not yet visible. It is necessary to wait until the shoots blacken, then die or not. Percentages will be difficult to estimate, even within the same plot."


Frigid Mornings for Chablis and Champagne

Photo Courtesy of Christian Moreau Photo Courtesy of Christian Moreau Photo by John Hodder - Collection CIVC Photo by John Hodder - Collection CIVC Photo by Alex Gambal Photo by Alex Gambal Photo by Alex Gambal Photo Courtesy of Christian Moreau Photo Courtesy of Christian Moreau

A Second Wave in Burgundy and Champagne

At 4:30 a.m. Friday morning, Chablis vintner Christian Moreau was in the vineyard with his team to light 1,000 anti-frost candles to protect 8.6 acres of his most prized plots. "We've very happy with results," said Moreau, owner of Domaine Christian Moreau, although he took heavy losses on 3.7 acres. "Last year we had a black frost and two hailstorms. Three disasters in one year. We're crossing our fingers that this is it for this year."

The supply of anti-frost candles ran out in France during last week's frost. This week, in desperation, winegrower syndicates in Burgundy bought hay from other farmers, which they used to create small bonfires, creating smoke to protect the buds from being "grilled" by the sun during the frost.

"This morning we had 50 straw 'bonfires' burning in St.-Aubin [in the Côte d'Or], until the temperature warmed," said CAVB president Thomas Nicolet. While their efforts were successful, other areas have not been so lucky. "In the north of the Côte d'Or, 750 acres in Chatillonnais suffered 90 percent damage."

Moreau and other Chablis growers estimate that 2,400 acres of buds were destroyed completely in their appellation, with another 1,000 acres suffering 50 to 60 percent damage. "The damage is major," said Moreau.

Although it's too early for official reports, vintners believe the hardest hit area in Chablis was the Maligny, Lignorelles and Ligny-Le-Chatel sector as well as certain parts of Beines and Courgis.

In Champagne, growers sprayed water on the vines when the temperature fell low enough to create a protective layer of ice, insulating the vulnerable plant shoots.

While Champagne growers are still evaluating the extent of the damage in its vast 81,000-acre region, the local trade group CIVC was able to provide a preliminary report. "The last two nights it froze in Champagne, in a wetter climate than during the previous frosts, which increases the level of risk," said Thibault Le Mailloux, the group’s communications director.

In addition to the destruction from last week's frosts, the CIVC estimates another 25 percent of the crop was damaged, bringing the total to nearly half the buds in 319 villages. "Of course, in every village, every subregion, frost impact intensity varies from marginal symptoms to vineyards entirely damaged," said Le Mailloux. And only time will tell if the young shoots of spring can recover.

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