Vintage 2021

basking in the sun part 2… the 2021 frost…

By billn on April 19, 2021 #vintage 2021

Frosted VinesBasking 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!

April 2021 Chablis Fourchaume -

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 (

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

basking in the sun as if nothing had happened… the 2021 frost…

By billn on April 08, 2021 #vintage 2021

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…

Frost fighting - Aloxe-Corton
The view towards Aloxe-Corton, early 06 April 2021

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.

There were some candles burning on the east-facing side of the hill but most were south-facing coming out of the village of Aloxe and in the Corton-Charlemagne heading towards Pernand. I was a little surprised that there were so many candles as all was dry and the temperature seemed a steady 0°C – perhaps there were some cooler pockets of air, but not by much. This seemed a more prophylactic approach than a ‘saving the vines’ approach – but I’m sure it was good training for the nights that followed! From the autoroute I did note a parcel with (lit) candles that was high up in Savigny – I have to assume a white 1er cru. Anyway – off to Chablis and my first stop, candle-smoked Les Clos:

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.

08 April, frosty again

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!

Basking in the sun part 2

Burgundy Report

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