Polar Blasts Test French Vintners’ Resolve

Wine regions from Champagne to Bordeaux have been hit by multiple frosts in the past month; now the industry is calling for new tactics and government support

Polar Blasts Test French Vintners’ Resolve
Chablis growers sprayed vines with water as temperatures fell, coating buds in protective ice. (Courtesy BIVB/Aurélien Ibanez)
May 10, 2021

Anyone thinking that France's vintners had put the risk of frost behind them with the end of April were mistaken. Frigid air from the Arctic swept over France again the first week of May, less than a month after freezing temperatures devastated numerous wine regions. "We had another hit of frost the morning [of May 3]. It was [26° F] in certain sectors—so we're not at the end of it yet," said Thiébault Huber, winegrower in Meursault and president of Burgundy's winegrowers union.

In the Gironde region, the Médoc in Bordeaux and Cognac felt the sting of the most recent frost. "It wasn't that cold, [28° F],” Philippe Abadie, director of business services at the regional Chamber of Agriculture, told Wine Spectator, “but it was cold enough to freeze the vines that didn't freeze the first time."

One frigid wave after another

This was the latest in a series of brutal Arctic blasts that began on April 6 and have inflicted catastrophic damage. Numerous types of crops have been hit, and Minister of Agriculture Julien Denormandie has declared a national agricultural disaster.

"In the Gironde, some zones were hit harder than others," said Abadie, "the Graves, Sauternes, the Premier Côtes, Blaye, Bourg, Coutras and the communes along the Dordogne river from the lower part of St.-Emilion to Bergerac. Some have suffered 80 percent losses; in Sauternes and the Graves, some [growers] lost more than 80 percent [of vine buds]."

"Like other French vineyards, Champagne was affected by an eight-night episode of severe frost between April 6 and April 16,” a spokesperson for the Comité Champagne told Wine Spectator. “Overall, it is estimated that 25 to 30 percent of the buds have been destroyed across the appellation. There is strong heterogeneity in the damage depending on the location of the plots, due to local precipitation, the presence or absence of wind or even the early development of the buds."

The main areas affected are the Côte des Bar, the St.-Thierry massif, the Vitry-le-François region, the great Marne valley, the west of Château-Thierry, as well as the south of the Côte des Blancs and the south of the Côte de Sézanne. At Champagne Deutz, CEO Fabrice Rosset said they estimated that they had lost 5 to 10 percent of the buds over their 114 acres. "The tallies show a significant variability between plots," said Rosset. And there were anomalies—despite Chardonnay being an early-ripening variety, Rosset says the Côtes des Blancs suffered limited damage, around two to three percent of buds.

In Burgundy, early-ripening plots on the Côtes d'Or suffered heavily, but the entire region, from Chablis to the Mâconnais, suffered damage. Some vineyards lost 20 percent of the buds, some 80 percent, some 100 percent. "Our hope lies in the resilience of the vines and in the fact that the [unopened] buds may have been spared," said Cécile Mathiaud of the BIVB.

With growers reeling from the damage, leaders are under pressure to act. "This is a new shock that our Bordeaux wine companies have just suffered. It is essential to do everything possible to support the winemakers who are more severely impacted and it is urgent to prepare for the next climatic accidents," said Bernard Farges, CIVB president.

How does climate change fit in?

Frost in April is not in itself abnormal. Balmy temperatures in the 80s in March are. Winters in French wine regions, from Champagne to the Rhône, are becoming increasingly mild. The warm weather signals to the vines that it's time to start growing buds and leaves.

The Comité Champagne reports that average temperatures there have risen 2.3° F over the past 30 years, with relatively mild winters provoking early budbreaks. Bordeaux has seen the same trend farther south. "The phenomena for several years now has been that winters are mild and the vegetation starts earlier," said Abadie. "The last week of March it was over 80° F. A few days later it was 21° F."

And there's the rub. While winters are milder, spring frosts continue with regularity—and the 2021 Arctic blast was particularly brutal. On April 6 and 7, in Chablis temperatures plunged to 17° F. Further south, on the Côte d'Or, there was snow. And it stayed freezing for 11 hours. "It left a huge amount of damage," said Huber. "There shouldn't have been that kind of loss, but nature had woken up too early. There shouldn't be budbreaks on April 7."

From region to region, night after night, the growers used whatever means they had: anti-frost candles, smudge pots and bales of straw set ablaze lit the night skies; wind machines and helicopters beat the air; hot-air cannons and heating cables delivered warmth.

"The most effective method was spraying the vines with water, but only Chablis is equipped with this kind of system," said Huber. "It creates a shell of ice around the buds and tender leaves, protecting them from the cold. That worked well. But Chablis is only a small part of Burgundy. We estimate that Burgundy lost 40 percent of its potential crop."

Anti-frost protection is expensive. An anti-freeze tower, basically a giant fan atop a pole that keeps cold air from settling on the vines, can cost $60,000. In Bordeaux's Pessac-Léognan appellation, towers are a common sight; in the less-prosperous Entre-Deux-Mers region, not so much.

In the Loire Valley, protection against extreme climate events is part of local vintners' "2030 Plan." "Over the past five years, more than 400 anti-freeze towers have been installed in the vineyard. We must continue to deploy protective devices—whether it be anti-freeze towers, sprinkling, heating wires—to guarantee the level of our harvests," said Lionel Gosseaume, president of the InterLoire organization.

Chablis smudge pots ]
Vintners across Chablis lit fires in their vineyards for multiple nights in a desperate attempt to protect vines. (Courtesy BIVB/Aurélien Ibanez)

Looking for new defenses

All of the regions support research into different ways growers can protect their crops, not all of them reactive—for instance, adapting pruning methods to push back budbreak or replanting with late-ripening rootstocks or clones. "The solutions exist; we must act quickly to limit the impact of future disasters," said Farges. "This affects many French agricultural regions. The time has come."

Unfortunately, time is of essence. Climate events are outpacing the implementation of new technology and methods. "There are many things underway to deal with the situation, but now it's going too fast. To change a vineyard, it takes time," said Huber. "We can advise the winegrowers to make the changes, but to change a vineyard—it's expensive, it's long, it will take a generation."

While the full extent of the damage won't be known until harvest, it's clear the losses are catastrophic. French President Emmanuel Macron's government has announced a €1 billion emergency fund for agriculture.

"Our government reacted with a big splash in the press," said Huber. "A billion euro to help us get through this year's frost. We are very cautious. The government has promised to put money on the table, but the money isn't just for the winegrowers. It's for fruit trees, large-scale field crops, so I'm a little worried that the envelope will be a bit empty when we arrive."

Nor is it clear to what extent the government's emergency fund will compensate the vineyards that were under- or uninsured for crop loss due to frost. When pressed for details, a spokesperson for the agriculture minister told Wine Spectator that financial help will roll out gradually, with some funds already released to the regional authorities.

What is clear is that the polar blasts have struck a particularly weakened sector. In 2020, Champagne shipments fell 18 percent, to 20 million cases. Overall, French wine and spirits exports were down 13.9 percent, or €12.1 billion, last year. Exports to the U.S. dropped 18 percent, or €3.1 billion. Still wine exports dropped by €400 million.

"A year ago we predicted a difficult 2020," said FEVS president César Giron. "The reality is worse than the prediction. In 2020, our businesses faced an especially complex context. First, due to the trade conflict with the United States, which remains unresolved, and then the pandemic appeared."

This has prompted wine region politicians to demand a rescue plan from the government that includes far-reaching reforms, a strategy for tackling sustainability and compensation from the European Union for losses related to the Boeing-Airbus trade spat.

"The hour is grave and even desperate for the wine trade," wrote Senator Nathalie Delattre and Deputy Philippe Huppe, co-presidents of the Association of Elected Officials of the Vine and Wine (ANEV), in an appeal to the prime minister. "The sector is in the middle of multiple structural and economic crises, the risk is emerging of the disappearance of what makes France, in its heritage, its landscapes, but also the foundations of its economy."

Delattre, who with her husband owns a vineyard in Bordeaux, told Wine Spectator that it wasn't so much the impact on the vineyards that has caught the government's attention as the impact on other food producers across the country. "Our dossiers are looked at less quickly than those of other agricultural sectors," she said. Echoing the concern that the disaster funds will be drained by those other sectors, ANEV is mobilizing. "That's our combat. For example, in the Gironde, viticulture is the No. 1 employer. It's an entire economy in certain communities. The stakes are high."

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