Wine and the weather
May 2, 2017
The most talked about election in the world is the run-off for the presidency of France. On Sunday the young, left-leaning upstart Emmanuel Macron will take on the right wing Marine Le Pen in a contest that will determine the direction of the world's second-largest wine-producing nation. OK, so I projected my own personal interests into the lede, but what do you expect? This is, after all, a wine column.
As is the case in the U.S. (the third largest wine producer), both candidates have made promises that will be beyond their capabilities to keep. But I have yet to hear either Macron or Le Pen make any promises about controlling the weather. Hey — if, as a candidate, you are going to make promises you can't keep, then you might as well go huge. And in the French wine region of Burgundy, a national treasure, there is nothing more important than the weather.
THE STORMS OF BURGUNDY
Four of the last five vintages in Burgundy have been subjected to savage hailstorms that have, in the blink of an eye, destroyed both vines and the financial prospects of winemakers. Last April, a hailstorm hit the Maconnais region of Burgundy and damaged more than 5,000 acres of vines. Then, in May, Chablis and Beaujolais were also decimated by frozen stones from the skies. At the end of the 2016 harvest, the yields for the entire Burgundy region were down by nearly a third.
This comes after the 2012, 2013 and 2014 vintages that also saw massive storms. In June of 2014, famed vineyards in the Santenay, Meursault, Volnay and Pommard appellations in the Cote de Beaune were "machine gunned" by hailstones the size of golf balls over a three-minute period. Those three minutes were the most important of the year for many producers.
This is nothing new for Burgundy in particular, or the wine growing regions of France in general. Hail has long been a nemesis. A cynic might say that the storms are simply God's way of adjusting the supply to stimulate demand.
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There must be some way in this day and age to protect the grapes from the wrath of the weather. This month a group of French winemakers announced with some flourish that the entire Burgundy region will be placed under a high-tech hail shield to protect the vines below. This means "covering" more than 100,000 acres of vines and shielding them from the threat of hail. No small task.
The hail shield will not come in the form of netting, which would be prohibitively expensive, labor intensive and questionably effective. Not to mention hideously ugly. No, the shield will consist of 125 strategically placed ground to air generators "that cause tiny particles of silver iodide to rise to the clouds above, where they prevent the formation of hailstones." That is the way the technology was described by the British newspaper, The Telegraph, after an interview with Thiebault Huber, president of both the Volnay wine syndicate (or association), and the ARELFA, a French acronym for the association for the study and fight against atmospheric issues.
The generators are placed six miles apart and surround the vineyards in the region. After farmers and winemakers are alerted by a meteorologist, up to four hours prior to the arrival of a predicted storm, they ignite the generators. Each has a combustion chamber that heats an acetone silver iodide solution and releases the particles up to a half-mile high in the sky. Smoke from the solution and the ice-forming particles scatter in the storm and, hopefully, reduce the potential for large hail stones. Emissions last until the end of the hail risk period, a warning having an average duration of about 10 hours. "The idea is to kill the storm before it arrives and avoid hail forming," Huber told The Telegraph.
This is sort of the opposite of the cloud seeding that some ski resorts have tested, where they drop the same silver iodide particles into water and clouds in hopes of stimulating snowfall. The theory is the particles will alter the composition of the moisture in the clouds and therefore alter what falls to earth. In the case of the resorts, it is hoped that the moisture coalesces into snowflakes, and in the case of the vineyards the hope is that it dissolves the hail into raindrops.
While the candidates may not make promises about controlling the French weather, at least the winemakers are attempting to Make Burgundy Great Again.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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