The dead of a cold April night, and in vineyards across France and the southern counties of England, hundreds of bright fires are burning like beacons. The reason: Jack Frost, whose silent, icy fingers must not be allowed to grasp the tender new buds on which the year’s crop of grapes depends.
“We were getting up at 1am and running through until 7am, setting light to vine prunings in about 100 oil drums, trying to keep the air warm enough around the new shoots,” says Ian Kellett, founder and managing director of Hambledon in Hampshire.
The severe frosts at the end of last month hit vineyards across Europe, striking as far south as Tuscany, and causing huge damage in the Loire, Champagne, Burgundy, Cognac, the Languedoc, England, Prosecco, the Jura, Germany and in Bordeaux. At this point in the year the effect on production is hard to gauge, but Allan Sichel, president of the Bordeaux Wine Council, calls it “a disaster”.
In Champagne, around a quarter of all new shoots were destroyed, according to one estimate, and some growers are reporting frostburn to 90-100 per cent of their vineyard.
In Prosecco, it’s estimated that 20 per cent of the 2017 production has been wiped out. In Bordeaux, they say it’s the worst frost since 1991 when about half the vintage was wiped out in a single night in spring. According to Sichel, roughly 60 per cent of Bordeaux’s 65,000ha of vineyards were damaged on the nights of April 26-27, “which is actually enormous, with quite high percentages where the loss at the first bud-break is measured at 90-100 per cent”.
The Right Bank, in particular areas of St-Émilion, Blaye and Bourges, as well as the Entre Deux Mers, was badly hit. Those who could afford it were ready to fight the cold snap in every way they could, although sometimes even the best efforts weren’t enough: Jane Anson reported in Decanter that St-Émilion luminary Cheval Blanc was ready to stave off the most severe effects of the cold by sending up helicopters – the downdraft from the blades circulates warmer air around the vines – only to be stymied by air traffic regulations which didn’t allow them to take off until 6.30am, by which time it was too late.
Vines are hardy, easily able to survive sub-zero temperatures during their dormancy period over the winter. The frost danger comes in spring, after the first budbreak, when tiny, fragile shoots and leaves begin to sprout from the buds.
These primary buds eventually bear the grapes. If all are lost to frostburn, there can be another opportunity to salvage some production from the secondary budbreak, so the big question is what happens next.
“The problem is that the secondary buds don’t bear as much fruit, and the growth is usually quite bushy and messy, so you have to keep thinning out – it’s not as successful,” says Gerd Stepp, who makes wine in Germany, where around 40 per cent of his vineyards have been affected by the frost.
The secondary buds also come three or four weeks later, setting back the growth cycle of the vine. This frost hit all the harder, thanks to the mild early spring and the clement conditions that encouraged the vines to grow.
At home, “the whole of the South East was affected in patches, from Essex to Sussex, Kent, Dorset and on into Hampshire”, says Julia Trustram Eve of English Wine Producers. “There’s no discernible pattern to it, though it’s worth noting that Leventhorpe Vineyard, up in Yorkshire, had no damage at all.”
Down at Hambledon, Ian Kellett had varied success with his frost-fighting measures. On the night of Monday, April 24, the temperature dropped to -3.8C and not one bud suffered frostbite. Two days later he was less fortunate: that morning it rained and, later, after nightfall, when the mercury dipped to -3.9C, the combination of cold and humidity bit.
While the Bordelais are happy to be upfront about the damage in their vineyards, English winemakers are concerned that this episode will be seen as undermining to the whole project of English wine. Because of that, many refused to talk about it on the record. Kellett, who was happy to speak, points out that as “the first advection frost [one caused by wind moving air in from cold regions] we’ve had in April in decades, this could be the worst in 50 years”.
In other words, this loss does not invalidate the business model for growing and making wine in the UK any more than it does for Champagne, which suffered in the same way. Sparkling wine – which now forms the majority of production in this country – is aged for several years before being released, so the effects of this year’s English loss won’t be felt until around 2020.
Frost in April is a quantity, not a quality, issue. In other words, it affects yields but not the quality of the vintage. This means that England’s move towards non-vintage styles, which allow blending between years, helps to hedge against the loss in any single vintage – and England produced very good volumes in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
A severe frost isn’t good news for growers around Europe, but as any vigneron will tell you, when you work in wine you must be prepared for everything mother nature throws at you – and anyone who doesn’t have several forms of catastrophe built into their 10-year plan is in for a shock.