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Hailstorms Damage Thousands of Acres of Vineyards in Bordeaux, Imperiling 2018 Vintage

Most intense storm cut from Pessac to the Right Bank; it's the region's third natural disaster in six years
The May 26 hail (blue) started falling south of Bordeaux and tore across multiple regions.
Photo by: Henry Eng
The May 26 hail (blue) started falling south of Bordeaux and tore across multiple regions.

James Molesworth, Suzanne Mustacich
Posted: May 29, 2018

Hail cut a path of destruction through the Bordeaux region on May 26, just days after two small storms struck the Médoc on May 21. Blaye and Bourg, the Médoc and Entre-Deux-Mers were the most seriously impacted. The overall damage is substantial: 17,544 acres of vines were impacted. More than 8,400 acres suffered a crippling 80 percent damage, according to the CIVB, Bordeaux's wine trade group.

"The leaves were torn off, the [flower buds] torn off and the wood suffered a major impact, which means the sap won't circulate well through the vine this year," said Roman Tourdias, a viticulture consultant and director of the Chamber of Agriculture's Médoc bureau.

Earlier in the week, the first two storms were relatively small. The first moved from Moulis south through the Médoc, stopping just before the town of Cussac; the second through Bégadan, Couquèques and St.-Christoly. In the Médoc, vineyards in the zone around Macau, Ludon and Parempuyre, including those owned by Châteaus d'Agassac, Cantemerle, La Lagune, Maucamps and Ségur, all suffered considerable damage.

In total, the Médoc suffered 2,965 acres of damage, with 988 acres enduring 80 percent damage. "It's impossible to say precisely the volume of loss, because a non-negligible part of the canes are still in place and the shoots aren't all broken," Philippe Dambrine, CEO of Château Cantemerle, told Wine Spectator. He said the storm impacted nearly half of their vineyard acreage.

On May 26, growers in Bourg and Blaye watched helplessly as hail pummeled 13,590 acres, with 7,413 acres suffering more than 80 percent damage. The Entre-Deux-Mers also suffered damage over nearly 1,000 acres.

"It started in Bordeaux, moved along the Garonne river on the Médoc side, then at Macau traversed the Garonne, arriving in Bourg, and then continued north to the Charente," said Tourdias.

Among the prominent châteaus affected were Smith-Haut-Lafitte in the commune of Martillac, just south of the city. "Unfortunately, we have been severely impacted on the [25 acres] of white varieties," said Florence Cathiard, owner of Smith-Haut-Lafitte. "For the reds it's difficult to say now. We have to wait until the end of the flowering."

Bordeaux wasn't the only region hit. In Cognac, hail the size of ping-pong balls pelted the vines. "It's a catastrophe for our region," said Christophe Véral, president of the general union of growers for AOC Cognac. Early estimates set the damage at 25,000 acres.

Given the timing, the most heavily damaged vines will not produce a crop this year. "We were only eight to 10 days from the flowering," explained Yann Le Goaster, director of the Federation des Grands Vins de Bordeaux (FGVB).

To add to the vintners' misery, some of the growers also lost their crops last year to the frost. "A number of the impacted growers already endured the consequences of the spring frost in April 2017, a frost which destroyed either partially or totally their crop," said FGVB president Hervé Grandeau. Severe hail also hit the region in 2013, making this an unlucky few years.

Sara Briot-Lesage
Most of the vines in this Côtes de Bourg vineyard were stripped bare by the May 26 hailstorm.

For some vintners, the 2019 crop could also suffer. "In some cases, the wood is so damaged that it will be fragile next year," said Tourdias.

Le Goaster said that trade leaders have encouraged winegrowers to take out crop insurance but few do so, because of the high costs. "On a human level, the situation is extremely difficult," said Le Goaster.

Many believe climate change clearly increases the risk for growers. "The multiplying of these major natural disasters—it's the third in six years—is the mark of climate change. It clearly puts a question mark over the sustainability of our activity," said Grandeau.

Meetings have been organized to tally the damage, inform the vintners on what little aid exists, and consider how best to protect themselves.

"Of course we think of the possible effects of global warming. But we do not have enough perspective or certainty about the link that can be made with last year's freeze or this year's hail," said Dambrine. "What about the future? Are the existing means adapted to our estates? So many questions that it is difficult to answer with reason today while we are still in shock of the event that just happened."

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Neil H Levine
Maplewood, nj —  June 8, 2018 11:11am ET
We were in Bordeaux on May 26 and the hail was unbelievable; big and sustained. Parts of Margaux had vines that lost all of their leaves.

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