Basking in the sun… Part 1
It’s still much too early to properly take stock* other than to say that the frost of April 2021 – a month not yet over – was both a rare and a severely yield-limiting event. You will have to go back more than a generation to find anything close to the losses suffered across, not just, Burgundy but practically the whole of France last week.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that it was not just the vineyard owners that were affected – many areas of agriculture were hit – particularly the producers of soft fruits – many, many trees were in blossom when the cold-front ripped through Europe. But from here on, I shall concentrate on Burgundy.
*In another 10 or so days time, the opposing buds of the ones frosted, originally dormant, will now come into play. The question will be how many of them and to what extent they are fertile. Only at the flowering will the vigneron(ne)s be able to make a reasonable judgement of the yields – and then of course, the losses.
What are the growers saying?
One of the first statements I heard came from a producer in the far north of Burgundy, Domaine la Croix Montjoie, who make Vézelay that I myself buy. Their announcement was short and to the point: “The blow is hard and we have just lost, quasi, all of the 2021 harvest in a few hours.”
One of the largest producers of Chablis, Jean-Marc Brocard, later, released the following statement:
“The frost destroyed 80% of the crop, on average, with some parcels at 100%. Pending the secondary buds which should appear within 15 days, the vineyard team are mist spraying the vines with Valerian. This plant destresses the vines which, as a result of the severe thermic shock they have undergone, tend to focus their energy on survival by aborting future fruit.”
This was underlined by Didier Seguier of Domaine William Fevre who, last Friday, told me, “We are a little tired but fine… Since last week we have experienced 10 freezing nights. We lit the sprinklers on 9 of those nights, and we still have another night to get through, which we hope will be the last. The damage is significant over the entire vineyard, in particular the higher slopes and the plateaus*. The lower slopes are doing a little better. There should be 40 to 100% frozen buds depending on the sector … that’s apart from the protected vines which are doing quite well but they represent only 500 hectares out of 5,600 in Chablis…”
*It was the Petit Chablis on the plateau above the grand crus where Vincent Dauvissat told me he thought that all possibility of a harvest had been lost.
Nathalie Fevre agrees: “We can say that, for Petit Chablis and Chablis, the harvest has already been done – about 80-100% destroyed! The damage was mainly done in the 1st week (6.7 & 8 April), where temperatures dropped to -7 / -8 °C !!! With a lot of humidity and even snow! In short, unheard of! Last week was trying, because long (-4°C in Fourchaume) but it was also dry, so we managed to contain the damage. As our Grandfather says: A year in 1, a year of nothing!”
It is the whites that are typically the worst affected as their buds open sooner than those of the red varieties but Richard Rottiers of Domaine des Malandes in Chablis and his eponymous domaine in Moulin à Vent confirmed to me that he’s been hit very badly in both locations. The same for Château Moulin à Vent where Edouard Parinet told me “It’s not always easy to see the logic; under 250 metres of altitude we have more damage, 80% of the buds were frozen – ‘Champ de Cour‘ is very much impacted for instance. Above 250m it really depends but on average we see about 50% of the buds are frozen. For us, it’s even worse in Pouilly-Fuissé; above 250m all seem gone, under 250m 70% are frozen – of course, these are just first estimates.”
One vigneron(ne) of Morgon, who considered themselves blessed described to me a much better result – losses of 10-20% in Morgon and Moulin à Vent, though 70% of their chardonnay was lost.
From a financial perspective, there’s more that can be done to protect the vines with candles in the Côte d’Or, but from Gevrey-Chambertin to Meursault they are still looking at a lot of damage. Dominique Lafon explaining “In both Meursault and Mâcon it’s rather ugly! It’s hard to give figures today but it’s worse than 2016, especially since our Mâcons were not affected in 2016! There are a few buds left on the Pinots but it won’t be too heavy a harvest!”
A perspective on the severity of the 2021 frosts:
In 2021, France experienced its biggest agricultural disaster due to frost since at least 1947. A frost remarkable for both its duration and geographic extent.
I say 1947, not because it was a particularly bad year for frost, rather because this is when proper recording (the Météo-France thermal index) began. It’s not possible to give the information reflective of only ‘Burgundy’ but from the perspective of the amount of France (percent) that was frosted, we have the following, non-exhaustive, list of the main frost events, put together by weather researcher Dr Serge Zaka (https://twitter.com/SergeZaka):
6-8 April 2021 – 98% of France affected with already 12 nights of frosts in the first 17 days of the month
21-22 April 1991 – 90% of France
Start April – 1975 – 90%
20-29 April 2017 – 85%
21-24 April 1997 – 80%
8-11 April 2003 – 75%
1-3 May 1945 – 70% (estimated)
9 April 1977 – 70%
1-2 April 2020 – 65%
17 April 2012 – 65%
26-27 April 2016 – 60%
6-7 May 1957 – 50%
6 May 2019 – 50%
5-7 May 1979 – 50%
And years with lower intensities of Spring frost:
2013, 1973, 1968, 1961, 1960, 1955, 1953, 1938, 1935, 1906, 1897, 1879, 1874.
Not for nothing do the Burgundians have their ‘Saint Glace’ – the saints day that indicates that all frosts should now be behind them – and that’s the 13th of May.
So, as noted in my opening remark, 2021 is a very rare event, yet of the last 6 years, only 2018 is absent from our list of worst frost events – the return of frosts the like of which we’ve hardly seen since, in some places, since 2016 and more generally since 1991. Given the number of recent hot years, it seems that whilst we have entered a phase of very hot years, we also have the extra concerns about frost. The two are hardly mutually exclusive, the higher (average) annual temperatures being driven by warmer winter and spring weather, which are, in turn, promoting earlier growth in the vines and earlier harvests. It is this earlier growth that is the issue – April frosts remain common but vines with open buds in April are, generally, a more recent phenomenon.
Hopefully, that’s enough about frost from me for this year, at least until a representative idea of the crops can be judged at flowering – so not before mid-June