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Hailstorm Wreaks Havoc in Bordeaux

Julia Mann
Posted: September 9, 1999

St.-Emilion's hopes for an excellent 1999 vintage were dashed on Sunday, Sept. 5, when a freak hailstorm ripped through some of the best vineyards in the prestigious Bordeaux appellation. In less than 20 minutes, hailstones about the size of golf balls pulverized 1,235 acres of vineyards.

Winemakers said that the storm hit the region at about 8 p.m. "At midnight, you could still see whole piles of hailstones in the vineyards," said John Kolasa, director of Chateau Canon, one of the estates that was severely damaged by the hail.

The French national weather service had predicted bad storms, with the possibility of hail, for the weekend, but there was little that wineries could do to protect their vines. The hailstones literally sliced through the leaves and grapes of any vines in their path. But despite other press reports, no other regions in Bordeaux, such as Pomerol, were badly affected.

The storm swept from the southwest of Libourne and headed northeast, cutting through a big chunk of the appellation. Among the worst hit were Chateau Angelus, one of the top estates of the region, Chateau Canon, Chateau Clos Fourtet, Chateau Beausejour-Becot, Chateau Beausejour-Duffau-Lagarosse, Chateau Grand-Mayne and Chateau Clos de l'Oratoire.

The damage was so bad that most producers began to harvest at the beginning of this week, almost two weeks before the opening of the harvest season is usually announced in St.-Emilion. Following a bad hailstorm, the vines can't grow properly with damaged leaves, and cut grapes deteriorate within a few hours. Consequently, the St.-Emilion wine syndicate issued a memo after the storm, allowing the producers to start harvesting.

"It is too early to say yet whether I will make a Clos l'Oratoire this year or not," said Stefan de Neipperg, who owns several other chateaus, including Canon La Gaffeliere and La Mondotte, which were not hit. De Neipperg had to begin harvesting at Clos l'Oratoire on Tuesday. "The bunches we have had to pick are not very ripe; those that were not so badly hit we hope will ripen, as the weather is perfect now," he said. "At least 30 percent of the yields are damaged. It is the first time in my career that I have seen such bad hail before the harvest."

Chateau Canon -- where an average of 50 percent of the vines were damaged, and as much as 70 percent in three or four plots -- also began harvesting Tuesday morning. "The hail made a vertical incision into everything," said Kolasa. "There is not a single bunch where the grapes on top were not cut. When you look at the stems, it is as if a penknife has plucked out a couple of pieces. We had to start harvesting as the vineyard is just drying up, and the grapes will turn to vinegar."

Chateau Angelus was the first to begin harvesting on Monday afternoon, and by Thursday afternoon, had finished picking the Merlot. "80 percent of the leaves were totally ripped away, and the rest were chopped up, so the vines just stop working," said Hubert de Bouard, owner of Angelus and president of the St.-Emilion wine syndicate. "And 60 percent of the grapes were touched."

Nonetheless, Bouard retained some optimism. "The ripeness levels of the Merlot are great, with an alcohol potential of 12.6 to 13.5 degrees, but normally we would need to wait an extra eight days before harvesting," he said. "If I produce Angelus this year, and I haven't made a decision yet, it will be symbolic. If the rest goes into the second wine, it will be the best second wine we have ever made."

Bouard and others who already harvested due to the hail have one small consolation: They no longer have to worry about next week's forecast and the timing of their harvest. Apparently, bad weather is expected for most of the week.

Back to Bordeaux Basics

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