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French Wine Regions Slammed by Hailstorms

Vouvray is reeling from a historically brutal storm; Chinon and Cahors hit as well

Ben O'Donnell
Posted: June 27, 2013

"I was at Vinexpo and I got a call at 6 a.m. in bed," said Benoît Gautier, proprietor of Domaine de la Châtaigneraie and a vice president of the Syndicat des Vignerons de Vouvray, in the central Loire Valley of France. On the other end of the line: "'We have a catastrophe.'"

Even old-timers cannot remember the last time Vouvray saw a hailstorm as bad and as late as the one that hit in the early hours of June 17. "For people like my parents, never something of that scale," said Céline Champalou of Domaine Champalou. "Even the old people of Vouvray never saw something like that." The most recent comparable storm vignerons could think of struck in 1930.

According to early estimates, two-thirds of the appellation was hit by hailstones, some of them bigger than golf balls, with damage to parcels ranging from 20 to 100 percent. Gautier estimates harvest will bring 50 percent of a typical yield across the appellation, "perhaps." In his own vineyards, he estimates only 10 percent of the crop is salvageable, after a frost- and mildew-plagued 2012 that cost him half his crop last year.

But despite the evident damage, vintners noted that they will not have a clear picture of the extent of the damage until weeks from now, as vignerons and the vines themselves tend to their wounds.

"For us, it's do what we can to protect the vines, give them strength and help them along," said Sarah Hwang, president of Domaine Huët. "Right now, the vines are doing what they can do to protect their children, the bunches. The vines that still have something, they're responding, so there's that hope. It's important that people don't count out Vouvray in 2013 because not all areas in the appellation were as severely hit as others and there's still potential."

Gautier estimated 2,500 to 3,700 acres were affected in Vouvray, but nearby Chinon took a blow to about 500 acres as well.

And beginning June 18, the day after the hail, southwest France saw a deluge of rain, with heavy flooding concentrated in the Haut-Garonne, Hautes-Pyrénées and Pyrénées-Atlantiques departments. The storms left three dead and inflicted an estimated $652 million worth of damage on agriculture alone. The national government declared a state of disaster. Vineyards there weren't spared from hail either. In Cahors, around 620 acres suffered, concentrated in the villages of Trespoux and Villsèque.

"Every winegrower situated in these two villages had between 50 to 100 percent of their production destroyed," said Jeremy Arnaud, marketing manager of the Union Interprofessional du Vin de Cahors. "It's terrible for the winegrowers concerned; it's not a catastrophe for the appellation. [U.S. consumers] are very interested in artisanal French Malbec, and the hail impacted exactly this kind of grower—not big négociants, just around 10 very small winegrowers. They are very young, very interested in high quality, so it's not good news." Arnaud said it would be a challenge for these growers to source grapes from elsewhere in the appellation that would meet their standards of quality and, in some cases, biodynamic principles.

That challenge is amplified in Vouvray. Hwang said growers are discussing how best to help those in need, but "as far as [helping cover] the financial part or the stock, I think that's not something realistically that can be done."

"We have no [extra] grapes in Vouvray," Gautier said. Plus, "not many producers have insurance, because it's very expensive." Gautier paid premiums for 20 years; two years ago he stopped. Châtaigneraie, Champalou and Huët all have some stock in the cellars, but the damage was aggressive enough in some places in Vouvray that some vines may not fully recover in time for the 2014 vintage—some had to be ripped out. It could mean a third straight year of poor harvest.

For now, all winemakers can do is cross their fingers and hope for sun. "2012 was so difficult for us and 2013 continues to be, but the 2012 wines turned out pretty spectacularly," said Hwang.

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