Wine Ink: France’s most famed wine regions struggle with frost
May 17, 2017
Two weeks ago this column detailed the extensive efforts that winegrowers in Burgundy were undertaking to protect their vineyards from hail.
Unfortunately, before their investment in a "high-tech hail shield" could produce success, the growers were attacked by a different weather malady as chilling, late April frosts devastated the vines, leaving not only Burgundy, but also many of France's most famed wine regions struggling. It was said that this weather event could be the worst frost to hit French wine regions, including Champagne and Bordeaux, since the disastrous 1991 vintage.
"You could sense that everyone was on edge," said Johnny Ivansco, the director of wine for Carbondale, Colorado's Sopris Liquor and Wine, a major wine retailer in Colorado, who was traveling through France at the time of the big chill. "There was this sense of both panic and camaraderie as they (the vignerons) raced to try and protect their vines."
Ivansco was in Burgundy the last week in April on a wine education trip with Zach Locke, a wine importer whose company, Old World Wine Co., does business with many of the most esteemed names in French wine. They had begun their trip in the sunshine of Provence and drove through the Southern Rhone and Châteauneuf-du-Pape before continuing on to Burgundy. It was there that both were witness to the effects of the vagaries of outrageous weather.
"That Friday, we woke up to zero degree centigrade temperatures," Ivansco explained. There had already been damage as the weather had turned cold earlier that final week in April. "If you have ever driven through the Côte de Beaune, you know the roads are so narrow, just one lane really. Everywhere you could see these little 110 series Land Rovers towing these little white wagons with straw bales." The growers would open the bales, spread the straw on the ground and light fires, hoping to both give heat to the vines and leave a layer of smoke over the top of the vineyards to give some protection from the sun.
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"They told us that the danger wasn't just the cold," Ivansco said. "The farmers were saying that after frost gets on the vines it acts like a magnifying glass. As the sun shines on the frost, it reflects back up and burns the leaves and the small clusters that are just getting started."
Temperatures on that Friday morning in some of the colder hollows of the Burgundian hills were in the 20s, much too cold for the infant grapes that had just gone through bud break. This is the second straight year that weather has taken a severe bite out of the French wine market. As detailed in WineInk two weeks ago, hail and two separate frost events in 2016 had been responsible for 10 percent drop in total wine production.
FIGHTING FROST WITH FIRE
Frost can be a fickle and cruel foe, and winemakers around the globe have a number of ways to fight it, sometimes successful and sometimes not. The first friend of the growers is fire. There is the smoke created by the straw that is spread along the sides of vineyards, but there are also classic photos of candles that have been lit throughout vineyards and placed between the vines to create heat and raise the temperatures. You may remember the scene from "A Walk in the Clouds," the Kenau Reeves film, where the vines combust as the family fans flames to prevent frost damage. While "possible," the odds of such an occurrence are infinitesimal.
Using moving air is another way to elevate temperatures and keep frost off the emerging clusters of grapes. Drive through many of the vineyards in California and you'll see huge wind machines. As the temperatures drop in the vineyards on nights in which frost is expected, you can hear the whirring of the fans as they force air across the top of the vines trying to keep the frost from forming.
Then there is the most expensive option, one that has been used by growers in Burgundy, whose grapes are so valuable that it makes economic sense. "We were told that helicopters cost 500 euros an hour," said Ivansco. But as a final resort, paying the price to hire a helicopter and having it float over the vines with its rotors providing a warming wind may be the only choice.
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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