Europe's 2021 vintage shrunk by frost

Stop Gel anti frost 'candle' in Bordeaux vineyard April 2021

19 April 2020 The French government have pledged €1bn in aid to frost-hit vignerons. The agriculture minister Julien Denormandie called the unseasonably warm weather followed by arctic cold 'the greatest agricultural catastrophe of the beginning of the century'. It is thought that about a third of the potential 2021 crop may have been lost.

17 April 2020 Nature can be so cruel. Above, one of the tens of thousands of anti-frost pots that were lit last week (all images by Gavin Quinney of Ch Bauduc in Bordeaux). A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

Émilie Faucheron repeatedly brushed away the tears and occasionally simply sobbed as she made a hoarse six-minute video last week reporting on the devastating effect of this year’s spring frosts on her 60-hectare (148-acre) wine estate Domaine de la Grande Canague west of Béziers in the Languedoc. She and her husband Benjamin, fourth-generation vignerons, had been upset when they lost five hectares of production to the notorious French frosts of 2017, but this year she fears that a full 50 hectares of their vines may not produce any wine to speak of in 2021.

In the video, one of a regular series she posts on YouTube, she treads the vines trying to process the damage, under a clear blue sky. And that of course is the problem. A lack of cloud cover at night invites Jack Frost to do his worst. She clearly finds it hard to believe that here in springtime in the far south of France overnight temperatures on the night of 7/8 April fell as low as -6 °C (21 °F). Her vineyards outside the village of Montady are on a pancake-flat plain, and are therefore perfect targets for the predations of frost which fatally freezes the young buds. The coldest air, being the densest, settles straight down on to the vines, whereas in hillside vineyards gravity tends to pull the dense, cold air downhill. Although this year unusually, as Matthew Hayes reported from Burgundy, many higher-elevation sites have been severely frosted.

The French wine trade news site Vitisphère reported sub-zero temperatures in much of France for three nights in a row from 6 April with temperatures as low as -9 °C (16 °F) recorded in some wine regions.

Thermometer at Ch Bauduc, early April 2021
The early-morning temperature at Ch Bauduc near Créon was -2.4 °C (27.7 °F); later that day, 8 April, it climbed to 24.8 °C (76.6 °F)

All over Europe, not just in most French wine regions but throughout northern and central Italy, as Walter reported here and here, vine growers have been pacing vineyards in which the juicy, young green buds and leaves that had been pushing vigorously forth, as emissaries of the 2021 wine harvest, are now just shrivelled, brownish-grey and lifeless. This year’s unseasonably arctic temperatures in Europe have been particularly poorly timed because they followed a period of warm weather that encouraged vines to start budding typically two weeks earlier than the traditional norm. (One hesitates to say ‘usual’ any more when the climate is increasingly unpredictable.) And even in early April, many wine regions enjoyed warm, sunny, cloudless days which cruelly contrasted with the viciously cold nights. Even worse for those reporting devastating losses at the end of last week in Burgundy and Champagne was that the extremely cold nights were forecast to continue at the beginning of this week.

This problem of shorter and shorter winters and earlier and earlier budbreak is increasingly leaving young vines vulnerable to frost damage. Many growers are now deliberately delaying the winter pruning of the vines as long as possible into spring in order to delay the start of the growing season – particularly for vine varieties such as Chardonnay which tend to sprout early.

It is too early to be precise about just how much of the 2021 crop is lost. Growers will have to monitor the extent to which the vines are able to shoot forth second-generation growth, but this is rarely as fruitful and will ripen later than what has been frozen. It seems clear, however, that these 2021 frosts will be at least as severe as those of 2017 and 1991 in France and 2003 in parts of Italy.

Many European vignerons were already on their knees, what with drought, hail, the limitations imposed by the pandemic and the period between October 2019 and March 2021 during which the US imposed additional 25% tariffs on a wide range of wine imports from the EU. French producers had already benefited from some state support but they are now demanding another tranche.

Émilie Faucheron and other southern French vignerons such as Jean-Marc Astruc, who reckons he has lost 70% of the 2021 crop on his 14-hectare (35-acre) eponymous domaine in Fitou to last week’s frost, were defenceless against the frost because it is – or at least has been – so rare in their part of the world.

In Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, on the other hand, spring frost has been an increasingly common problem recently, so growers have got into the habit of lighting special burners and anti-frost candles – which may look awfully pretty in night-time scenes on Instagram but are expensive and none too good for the environment. Like their counterparts elsewhere, some Burgundy growers deliberately set fire to carefully positioned bales of straw in an effort to disperse the freezing air. Locals have to learn to live with smoke.

Frost has been so common in Burgundy’s far northern outpost of Chablis that some growers have installed spray systems that manage to warm the soil and the vines and then protect them with a layer of ice, but this too would be far too expensive for the Faucherons, for example. The same is true of the wind machines that are common sights in Napa Valley and Marlborough in New Zealand and which prevent cold air settling. Helicopters have occasionally been hired to protect vines by keeping air moving. Another expensive ploy is heating the wires along which most vines are trained. But this is hardly energy-efficient either.

In Bordeaux the best-known wine producers are just about to launch their 2020s in their annual en primeur campaign. The severe frost is hardly likely to encourage them to moderate their prices. Entre-Deux-Mers resident and Master of Wine James Lawther emailed me on 8 April about the frost: ‘it hit just about everywhere last night and the night before – with temperatures down to -4 °C, buds in advance and very dry conditions. Reports are that it was particularly bad in parts of Margaux, Listrac and Moulis (the old adage of proximity to the estuary left Pauillac and St-Estèphe relatively unscathed), Barsac and southern Graves and low-lying areas of St-Émilion. Vines near me took a hit and according to the viticultrice [local female grower] had been bien cramées [really screwed up]. It’s been a while since I’ve seen them burning straw locally.’

Bales by vines at Ch Corbin early April 2021
Bales by Ch Corbin's vines in St-Émilion, early April 2021

In northern Italy, the vines and fruit trees of the Veneto were basking in temperatures of 27 °C only a fortnight ago but suddenly had to suffer temperatures of minus five on the nights of 7 and 8 April. In La Morra in Piemonte, Barolo producer Alberto Cordero reported on the likely long-term damage suffered by his vines that is all too visible in images he shared, ‘it depends a lot on the weather over the next 20–25 days. But its part of our life. We have to accept it and I do.

But his wines sell for many multiples of Émilie Faucheron’s.

Tradition has it that it is well into May before vine growers can sleep easy without worrying about the risk of further frost damage.