Late yesterday afternoon, before driving back to Beaune, I took a jog through the Petit Chablis above Les Clos, tracing the route to Fontenay, then the road back to, and through, the grand crus to my car. The lizards were out, basking in the sun as if nothing had happened…
Actually, just before I started my run and was changing at the back of my car, a traditional white van of the vineyards drove past and its driver looked to see who on earth would be wearing shorts – in my defence it was sunny and the temperature was back up to 15°C! Bemusement turned to recognition, so he reversed, parked and we had a short chat. It was Vincent Dauvissat. He was wearing the look of someone who’d had almost no sleep in the last 48 hours – and of course, he probably hadn’t – all red-eyed and tired. I offered my condolences about the weather and we chatted – I suggested that it was looking like 2016 all over again – Vincent shook his head and said “Oh no, I think it’s much worse than that…”
We should consider that the frosts of 2016 were not forecast – at least, not in the Côte d’Or. This week’s frosts have been signposted for the best part of two weeks so there was ample time for preparation but nature can be harsh and farming is not all straw hats, suntans and sitting on tractors. But let’s start at the beginning – at least my beginning…
Tuesday and Wednesday were Chablis days for me, staying overnight. Of course, like everyone, I’d seen the weather forecast – on Monday, I’d already returned a whole bunch of garden plants back to my garage for protection! I was anticipating the water-sprays in the vineyards of Chablis so planned an early start to Tuesday, aiming to arrive before daylight. Duly underway from Beaune at 5am and just before the autoroute, I saw the candles burning on the hill of Corton – so I decided to make an early detour.
The road to Chablis slowly cooled from 0°C in Beaune to -4.5°C along the way. Because of my detour in and around Corton, it was already becoming light when I arrived in Chablis, where I was ‘greeted‘ by the sight and smell of many candles. At the foot of the Chablis Les Clos grand cru we had -4°C – ouch – and of course, it was likely that pockets of colder air in other valleys existed! Whilst it had been dry in Beaune, it had rained in Chablis – just a couple of mm on Monday evening – but that was going to make life much more difficult here. The candles were mainly towards the bottom of the hills – as would be seen for a classic Spring frost where the coolest air collects at the bottom of hills and in depressions but as a vigneron later that morning told me, ‘No, it was a proper winter frost – a black frost – as low as minus 6 in some places – so it’s not just the bottom of the slopes – it will be small vintage in 2021…‘
It felt voyeuristic but I couldn’t avoid taking photos and videos – there’s something mesmeric about the water-sprays as the ice builds. The vignerons had already started their aspersion (the water sprays) at 23h30 on Monday night, the candles were lit between 1 and 2 am. Economically and humanly it’s not possible to protect everything. From an economic perspective, it’s 400 candles per hectare at €10 per candle and this cost ignores the people doing the work. You can already see that for Petit Chablis and the majority of Chablis production, the price of the finished wine is too small to cover this cost for even 1 night – a candle will be spent in 8 hours. There’s also the question about the environment – the burning of paraffin wax is clearly not part of the esprit of biodynamic or organic approaches, even if it is not in the list of banned treatments. I like the idea of the windmills that have popped up in the Côte d’Or since the frosts of 2016 but they were of little use in this case as there was no warm air above the cool to circulate.
Whilst many shops are ‘lockdown-closed’ the centre of Chablis bustled with tractors on Tuesday and Wednesday, ferrying supplies of replacement candles to the vines. Tuesday was to be just the first of three nights of frost – but it had been a very tough start. Already at 10h00 on Tuesday one vigneron told me he could see leaves blackening from the frost. I thought that, maybe, some cold-comfort could be taken from the fact that the majority of buds had not yet opened, but that was, quite likely, overly optimistic. Emphasising the point, another vigneron in the afternoon told me ‘We’ve got a couple more difficult nights coming but the damage is largely done. It’s much more a 2016 style of frost than what we had in 2017 and 2019. A host of domaines chose to exit organic certification in 2016 because after the frost some mildew developed before the flowering – which was one of the drivers – it’s certainly not impossible that it will be the same this year.‘ The afternoon in Chablis alternated between sunshine and snowy squalls.
Overnight Tuesday to Wednesday things were fractionally colder in Chablis – they were a lot colder in the Côte d’Or. In both areas there was snowfall late on Tuesday evening – no more than a centimetre or two – given the minus temperatures it might even have helped insulate the leaves but by 10 am the sun (and candles) had burnt the snow away! In Chablis, the candles were lit already an hour earlier than the previous night. The Côte d’Or saw temperatures between -3° and -6°C – if there had been no damage on the first evening here there certainly was on the second – the prophylactic approach of the Côte d’Or during first night had turned a real battle.
This morning, Thursday 08 April, has seen no respite – maybe a degree cooler in the Côte d’Or and Chablis but again properly minus – even the cars in (warmer) Beaune centre with a layer of frost. In the Clos de Vougeot early this morning an enterprising soul had even been using a helicopter to try to keep the air moving around their vines. The air is heavy with the pollution of paraffin wax candles and for a short time, at least, the frost is now over – but there is still the chance of a frosty reprise on Monday or Tuesday next week.
The Beaujolais had largely escaped this wave of cold for the first night as it was quite windy and dry – temperatures much closer to 0°C. The Mâconnais was colder in the north than the south to start with – but still with temperatures in Fuissé of -3°C on the first night – so colder than the Côte d’Or. The Côte Chalonnaise was properly cold – so we can expect similar damage to the Côte d’Or. It’s far too early to contemplate yields – a proper idea of that will only come after the flowering – say early to mid-June. That said, we already know that, regionally, it is going to be a very small volume in 2021, the whites will be the worst affected as they have the earlier growth.
The black humour of the Chablisiennes was on show this week – ‘Well, because of covid, closed restaurants and Trump taxes, we already had a little too much wine in our cellars!‘