November 15, 2021
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French Frosts: On The Ground Reports From The Vineyards

Among the wine producers affected by France’s Gelée Noir (“Black Frost”), dampened spirits along with the icy vineyards 

As most wine lovers know, several regions in Europe were affected by severe frosts, when temperatures dropped to -7°C (19°F) and stayed there for several days. The cold snap damaged vines in large parts of Italy and France with some estimating at least 50% crop loss and in many areas, 80%.

“The devastation across France is greater than anything I can remember, but most growers will tell you they need a few more weeks to really understand the complete level of devastation,” says David Hinkle, who leads the French wine portfolio at Skurnik Wines & Spirits in New York City.

Generally, producers are prepared with warming systems that can help mitigate frost damage, but this year was particularly troublesome as many vineyards were in bloom after a spurt of unseasonably warm temperatures in March. In some areas of Burgundy, the frost hit both high and low-lying regions—an unusual circumstance—forcing farmers to make decisions on which vineyards to focus their limited resources. While most producers have equipment for dealing with limited frost conditions, most are not equipped for a full-estate disaster.

Hinkle has been reporting on the situations on a week-by-week basis this month. We spoke for a summary of on-the-ground conditions as producers continue to assess the damage and strategize their efforts as frost risks remain until mid May. He said growers are walking the vineyard to assess damage, but it’s a waiting game to see if the buds are damaged beyond repair, if they will recover or if a second growth will appear.

“Most of the experienced growers who have been through this many times say it’s an impression the vines are damaged beyond repair, but they have been able to recover more than what was previewed in the midst of the initial debacle,” Hinkle says.

“Producers are incredibly resilient and farming has improved so much in the last 10 years that I do think the vineyards are healthier than ever—the farming has never been at a higher level with organic [cultivation] and the vines are probably more resilient than they would have been 30 years ago when more industrial farming was the norm,” he said.

Thibaud Boudignon in the La Possonnière commune in western Loire Valley is one such producer Hinkle spoke with.

“Despite the devastation to most of my vineyards in Anjou, my morale is better this year. In some ways it’s sad, but my vines have known frost for many years now: 2016, 2017, 2019 and now 2021 has put frost into their DNA,” he said. “In many ways our vines are finding ways to adapt under the most extreme circumstances. I also believe strongly that because my team and I have been in the vineyards so many of these nights of extreme cold, fighting Mother Nature with candles and everything we could to help protect them, that it is has helped. Organic farming, biodynamic treatments, whatever it is, I have more hope that despite the devastation this April we will continue to improve how we work in this new normal and our vines will continue to persevere and get stronger.” 

Reports from Skurnik’s French wine team:

The week of April 4

Depending on the area, wine farmers across Burgundy, the Loire Valley, Mâconnais, Chablis, and beyond, have been looking at vines that are seven to eight days advanced with bud-break. The week of April 4 brought three consecutive days of rare severe cold—earlier than the typical frost season, which is more focused in late April. The regions affected were broad and very few growers have enough candles, hay bales, and/or fans to protect all of their vineyards and have adopted strategies about where and what to protect.

To complicate things further, there has been a lot of wind that made it hard to even light the candles or effectively situate them in some areas. Many growers are outside all night waiting for the wind to calm down or deciding whether to light candles or save them for the battles to come over the next days and weeks. For now, growers are focusing on protecting their vines and not getting discouraged.

Jean-Philippe Blot in the Loire: Really difficult to focus on the destruction to date. Probably looking at something like 50% loss as of now. We just purchased more candles and hay bales. April will be long and difficult. The frost season is just getting started. I don’t have time or energy to look at the destruction as of today, I’m just doing as much as I can to keep protecting the vines moving forward. —

Frantz Chagnoleau in the Mâconnais: Catastrophic despite all of the protections that were in place with our candles. Every single one of our parcels was frosted. We’re barely able to estimate the damage at this point.

Vincent Dampt in Chablis: Another day of lots of destruction. The snow complicated things because when it melted it filled the buds with humidity. The cold then finished the job, burning the buds. I already have fears that the crop is going to be virtually nothing in 2021. In talking to friends elsewhere, it could be the same in much of France. On top of that, it’s just the beginning of April. I can’t say that we’re not a bit discouraged as of today.

Thibaud Clerget in the Volnay: [It is] very, very complicated. I’m guessing about 50% loss in many of our more advanced vineyards.

In the second week, Hinkle reported, “Everywhere in France there is fatigue and discouragement both over the frost of the last seven days and the potential for more damage for weeks to come. Global warming is real. These growers are adapting as fast as they can and throwing as many different ideas at this evolving challenge.”

“Vines can surprise us with unexpected recovery and find ways to put a little bit of fruit out despite the extremes mother nature throws at them. There are signs of courage and extraordinary resilience during this spring onslaught of winter cold from mother nature.”

Monday, April 12

Thierry Pillot of Domaine Paul Pillot in Chassagne-Montrachet: [It is a] very tough moment to take your temperature in the heart of disappointment. It seems to get more and more difficult every day. 2021, especially for whites, has been a spring that nobody has ever seen. My father and I just got through walking through the vineyards. We are so fortunate to have some of the greatest premier cru in Chassagne-Montrachet. Late yesterday afternoon there’s almost 0 buds left, it’s absolutely crazy. Everything burnt. 100%. I have a tiny concern about this being a two-year problem. And it’s not just our village: It’s a nightmare everywhere. The best-case scenario is that we finish with a very small harvest. 

Vincent Dureuil in Rully: Yesterday when I was walking through the vineyards, I saw nobody. Everybody is demoralized at the moment. I let my team go home and take a break. There’s really not much to protect at the moment. My father who is now in his 80s has never seen anything like this; he said he has rarely seen any issues on the slope higher up like what happened this year. It was almost like you didn’t know what to try to protect. Mother nature can be cruel.

Tuesday, April 13

Jacky Blot of Domaine de la Taille Aux Loups & Domaine de la Butte in Montlouis-sur-Loire & Bourgeuil: I have a glass half-full outlook and am hoping for the best. Economically this is so discouraging for our friends across the Loire and beyond. We are battling and last night we won with our fans and candles saving the day. The team is exhausted.

Joseph Colin in St. Aubin: Since I started working the vineyards in 1992, I’ve never seen anything like this. My father was talking to friends who all have many vintages between them and they concluded that to see this kind of frost damage across the villages and different slopes, you have to go back to the 1921 vintage. There were so many nights last week with no sleep and we tried everything – nothing worked. There are places like en Remilly and Roche Dumay in Gamay that never frost and yet, this year virtually 100% is lost. Even if a few buds come back it’s going to be very little production.

Marc Bachelet of Bachelet-Monnot in Dezizes-les-Maranges: We are looking at such complete destruction as of today in many of our best vineyards and hoping for something positive. The premier crus in Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, and our Batard look to be zero at this point. Easily one of the most devastating weeks ever for my family. We hope to have a small harvest and will recover, but this has been very hard to swallow.

Laurent Fayolle in Crozes-Hermitage: Our vines in the villages of Crozes-Hermitage and Gervans we’re hit harder than anything I’ve ever seen. Maybe 60 to 70% of our white vineyards are lost for 2021 and 40% and of our red vineyards in this northern sector. For our top site, it looks even worse, maybe around 70% loss. I always hope for surprises and miracles, but the frost season is not over for us yet.