Temperatures dipped below freezing in several of France's prized central wine regions this week, striking both Burgundy and the Loire Valley. In the Côte d'Or, Chablis to the north and Côte Chalonnaise, frost arrived early on the morning of April 25 and again the next night and the morning of April 27, resulting in frost that damaged the newly formed buds. Farther west, central regions of the Loire Valley, including Chinon, Bourgueil and Vouvray, were similarly hit.
"We cannot estimate the damage at the moment," said Alex Gambal, the Beaune-based négociant. "Everyone is calling everyone else and it will take a few days to see what results."
Brice de la Morandière, managing director of Domaine Leflaive in Puligny-Montrachet was in New York at the time. Checking in with his team, he learned that when the sun rose, the ice and water on the vines magnified the rays, burning the leaves and shoot tips. He told Wine Spectator that usually frost accumulates in low-lying areas, "but it rose right up Chevalier-Montrachet," at the top of the slope of the famous grands crus of Puligny.
Reports from numerous vintners say that Chardonnay vines were affected in the villages of Puligny, Meursault and Chassagne-Montrachet, while both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were damaged in Pernand-Vergelesses and Savigny-lès-Beaune. However, the damage was widespread, and a full assessment of affected vineyards may take up to two weeks.
The frost comes on the heels of hail in the Mâconnais two weeks ago. At this stage of the growing season, the effect on quality is likely minimal. But the quantity of the eventual harvest may be significantly reduced. "The second buds will arrive in a few weeks, but with very little fruit, and the harvest will certainly be very late," said Claude de Nicolay-Drouhin of Domaine Chandon de Briailles in Savigny-lès-Beaune.
Early reports from the Loire were not hopeful. "In the memory of vignerons, there are two major freezes: 1991 and 1994. This is on the level of 1994. It's historic," said Guillaume Lapaque, director of the federation of the Indre-Loire wines trade group and the Bourgueil wine syndicate. "It froze on three nights—April 18, April 25 and then April 27."
Lapaque said he does not have exact estimates of damaged vines yet, but the early word is bad. "In Bourgueil and St.-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil it's between 50 and 60 percent. In Chinon, it's a little less, about half. In Montlouis, it's very serious. And in Vouvray, happily it's not too serious overall, although some vineyards have problems."
More cold is in the forecast, but Lapaque adds that the damage has already been done. "You can't set fire to a forest that has already burned. The lower vineyards froze, it doesn't matter if they freeze again. The upper slope vineyards didn't, and we don't expect them to," said Lapaque.
With vintners facing possible short supplies, their main concern is maintaining their loyal foreign customers and getting through a lean financial year. "We'll ask the banks to help us in terms of rescheduling payments, but we don't expect any other aid," said Lapaque.