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Deluge Hits Southern Rhône, Languedoc at Start of Harvest

Vineyards in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and nearby appellations are flooded; prospects are dim for making top wines this year.

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: September 11, 2002

Mobile phones became the lifeline this week for winemakers in the bull's-eye of a deadly storm that struck a swath of vineyards in southern France.

Wineries had just started harvesting when the vicious storm camped out for 36 hours on Sunday and Monday above an area ranging from Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Nîmes in the Southern Rhône Valley to the Languedoc, west of Montpellier. These regions produce a host of popular wines such as the collectible Châteauneuf-du-Pape reds, value-oriented Côtes du Rhône—Villages and Côteaux du Languedoc, blush wines from Tavel, and surprising reds and whites from the up-and-coming Costières de Nîmes appellation.

The deluge burst a dam and killed a score of people, flooded vineyards and cellars, felled bridges, and cut off electricity, telephone lines and hundreds of miles of roads. The French army was enlisted to help restore normalcy in the disaster zone, where two dozen people were confirmed dead, while a dozen were still missing. Officials estimated damages could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.

In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it rained 16 inches, which equals the entire rainfall the appellation receives in some years.

"It was apocalyptic," said Daniel Coulon, a co-owner of Domaine de Beaurenard, one of several wineries in Châteauneuf-du-Pape that reported flooded cellars and vineyards. Stranded tourists and evacuated homeowners were sheltered in the village at the Salle des Fêtes, which is normally used for banquets and large tastings.

The Coulon family's winery sits at the bottom of the steep hill on which the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is built. When it rains, water funnels down Avenue Pasteur, the road outside Beaurenard and the Maison des Vins, which houses a winemakers' trade organization. Coulon, who lives above the winery, realized the gravity of the situation on Sunday night, when the storm hadn't weakened. Using his mobile phone, he summoned his brother and co-winemaker, Frédéric, to help deal with the flooding cellar.

Outside, 3-foot-deep torrents of water and mud tumbled down Avenue Pasteur like rapids. "The current was strong, the speed important," said Michel Blanc, director of the Fédération des Syndicats de Producteurs de Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which is headquartered in Maison des Vins, where he assessed the flood damage with a flashlight after electricity was cut off.

Although the Coulon brothers prevented their cellar from flooding with the help of generator-operated pumps, there was nothing they or anybody else could do to protect the vineyards. Daniel Coulon said 12 acres out of Beaurenard's 74 acres of vineyards in Châteauneuf were flooded. In some parcels, grapes ready for picking just days ago were still submerged today, soaking in muddy, cold water. Coulon said he would try to pick the grapes after the water recedes and wash off the silt before vinifying them. He has had to do so in past years, added the winemaker, whose red Châteauneufs were among the best in the appellation in recent vintages.

Throughout the region, gravity dragged down the wet topsoil in hillside vineyards, destroying countless small service roads used by growers to bring out their harvested grapes.

A complete picture of the damage in the affected wine regions remained spotty because information was difficult to collect. "We still have problems with communications. Our phones don't work, our faxes don't work," said Blanc, speaking on his mobile phone today.

Killer storms are nothing new in this usually temperate region known for its Provençal cuisine and lifestyle. Almost exactly 10 years ago, a storm hit an area east of the appellation of Gigondas. On Sept. 22, 1992, a beautiful medieval town and popular tourist destination, Vaison-la-Romaine, was struck by a 51-foot freak wave that rose along the Ouvèze river. Thirty-nine people died, and four were recorded as missing.

The reason for the havoc is simple, according to experts. In the fall, the landmass cools down faster than the nearby Mediterranean Sea, causing warm, humid air to move toward the vineyard areas. When these clouds encounter the mountains, they rise and form storms of incredible force.

This year's storm may have broken records, according to French meteorologists. In the Cévennes mountain range, some 20 miles west of Avignon, it rained as much in two days as it does in soggy Paris on an average year, about 24 inches, according to media reports.

One producer who makes Vin de Pays des Cévennes was rescued by helicopter after the water level from a local river rose briefly to 45 feet. "His vines are flattened, his winery is destroyed, his barrels are floating away and he, his wife and the harvest pickers found themselves on the roof of the house," said a friend, Michel Gassier, a winemaker in Costières de Nîmes, south of Avignon.

Gassier was optimistic that regions on the periphery of the storm's path could save the harvest. "We will have to make a more severe selection of the fruit, but there was no rot in the vineyards," said Gassier, owner of Château de Nages, near Nîmes. It rained 3.5 inches in his area during the storm, less than a quarter of the rainfall recorded in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

The region basked yesterday and today in sunny, cool weather, fanned by the mistral, a northern wind whose blow-dry action can quickly evaporate excessive water in grapes and vineyards.

But making good wine this year is a long shot, according to one of southern France's respected winemakers. "It's a catastrophic year," said Eloi Dürrbach, owner of Domaine de Trévallon, who makes a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah from hillside vineyards in the Vins de Pays des Bouches du Rhône appellation, south of Avignon.

In his area in Les Baux de Provence, 4 inches of rain fell in one hour on Monday, aggravating the spread of rot in the vineyards.

"The Syrah is rotting on the vines, and the fruit isn't even ripe. I've never seen anything like it in 30 years. I guess such things must happen now and then," said Dürrbach, striking a balance of resilience and realism that will surely resonate with many wine lovers a year after Sept. 11.

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For reference, check our Rhône Map.

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