Last week, images of candlelit French vineyards flooded social media. Across the country, winemakers installed bougies, or large wax-filled metal pots, among the vines to prevent cold air from settling in during an especially late frost.
With temperatures in early April as low as 22°F, and following an unseasonably warm March, this year’s frost damage may be the worst in history for French winegrowers. Every corner of France reports considerable losses, from Champagne to Provence, and Côtes de Gascogne to Alsace. As a result, there will likely be very little French wine from the 2021 vintage reaching U.S. shores.
Spring frosts present a threat to vineyards every year. If it happens after bud break, the vine’s first growth after its winter dormancy, it can kill the plant.
Measures to mitigate frost damage include regulating heat or protecting the plant. Straw fires built in oil cans can have a similar effect to bougies, and also create a smoke layer that acts as a physical barrier to the morning sun, which can burn frost-covered buds. Aspersion, somewhat common in Chablis, refers to large sprinklers that, counterintuitively, coat the buds in a shell of ice to protect them from damage. Wind machines blow warmer air near the cool ground, while industrial-sized heaters can regulate temperatures close to the vines.
Of course, most of these methods are expensive and labor-intensive.
“The only measures we take are adaptations of our working methods, such as pruning the most frost-prone plots later,” says Sophie Woillez of Domaine La Croix Montjoie. She farms 10 hectares of Chardonnay in Vézelay in northern Burgundy, just south of Chablis.
“We don’t have the means to implement things like bougies, sprinklers, wind machines. These are used more for premier cru or grand cru plots with much higher selling prices, and even those haven’t even been fully effective this week.”
Woillez estimates her estate lost about 80% of its harvest. She believes this will be the average for her neighbors in Vézelay, as well as many appellations throughout Burgundy.
“I think there’s a need for concerted and cooperative efforts, which will take much longer than just a few years, if we want aspersion or wind or heat generation in a meaningful way that could tackle frost as big as this,” says Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac in Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits. “But combating the effects of global warming with more heat and energy consumption is just not right.”
“This is a France- and even Europe-wide event, and after a year of tariffs on top of it, it’s a real thing.” —Jeremy Seysses, Domaine Dujac
One viable option could be to replant vineyards with rootstocks that ripen and bud-burst later, says Seysses, but pulling out vineyards is hardly an ideal scenario.
He isn’t estimating his losses yet, since many Pinot Noir buds hadn’t yet burst, and it’s a waiting game to see if things grow or not. Regardless, he says, 2021 will be a small vintage.
“I think it’s good for people to understand that this is nature, climate change is real, and to be conscious of the effort that goes into making wine and the heartbreak that is the loss of a crop,” he says. “This is a France- and even Europe-wide event, and after a year of tariffs on top of it, it’s a real thing.”
The expansive damage forces wine professionals to reassess long-held beliefs about each region.
“I think for the moment we can keep hoping that this type of very strong frost remains a rare phenomenon in Bordeaux,” says Jonathan Ducourt of Vignobles Ducourt, which occupies almost 500 hectares in Bordeaux.
However, winegrowers can adopt sustainable solutions, Ducourt says, like planting varieties that bud-break later, noting that “this year, it looks like Cabernet and Petit Verdot will be less affected.”
He suggests “pruning as late as possible, testing new working methods in winter, and maybe installing sprinklers like in other regions. Our work as winegrowers is constantly evolving and we have to think about what we will leave for the next generation.”
“We don’t have the means to implement things like bougies, sprinklers, wind machines. These are used more for premier cru or grand cru plots.” —Sophie Woillez, Domaine La Croix Montjoie
Eighty to 100% of Vignobles Ducourt’s Graves vineyards froze, Ducourt reports. More white grapes were affected at the Entre-Deux-Mers plots, where 50–70% of the vineyards froze, and Ducourt’s Château Plaisance in Montagne Saint-Émilion, which had never frozen, was 100% affected.
“It’s difficult to estimate the losses and there’s still one month of frost risk before we can relax,” he says, noting that some plants can recover from frost damage. “There are still six months before harvest and nothing’s been decided yet. It will be a precious vintage not just in Bordeaux, but throughout France!”
In regions like the Loire Valley, where wines command comparatively lower prices, the high cost of frost mitigation is especially problematic.
“The means we have at the moment are quite expensive, and in our towns our bottles sell for 10 to 15 euros,” says Sandrine Delobel of Domaine Delobel. The estate grows 12 hectares of mostly Sauvignon Blanc in Touraine. While many of Delobel’s vines are more than 50 years old, future generations will need to adopt “long-term solutions,” she says, like “working on new plant material and new varieties which start later in the season.”
Measures taken by Delobel’s colleagues that were previously successful, like antifreeze towers and straw fires, largely failed this year due to idiosyncrasies in ambient temperature and humidity. Conversely, some modest recent efforts proved effective.
“We froze at 80% in 2016 and 2017, but we didn’t have any frost protection at that time,” Delobel says. “Now, we’ve chosen to equip a couple of the most vulnerable plots with bougies, and the protection worked well.”
“There are still six months before harvest and nothing’s been decided yet.” —Jonathan Ducourt, Vignobles Ducourt
Valentin Morel, of Les Pieds sur Terre in the Côtes du Jura near the Swiss border, sent a letter to colleagues reporting an estimated loss of 80%. Even so, he sees these frost-mitigation efforts are part of a long history of people trying to bend Vitis vinifera to nature’s will.
In the note, he says he is looking seriously at interspecific grapes—he doesn’t like the word hybrid, as these grapes share the Vitis genus and aren’t genetically modified—that were once widely planted in France between the two World Wars. He believes that dedicating a small percentage of vineyard land to them could hedge against events like this without expensive or environmentally suspect measures, and notes that the arguments against them are often misguided and outdated.
“The prospect of a vine that would not be ‘phytodependent’ and would require absolutely no treatment, can’t leave us indifferent at a time when there’s so much talk about agroecology and our country remains one of the biggest consumers of pesticides,” writes Morel.
The best way U.S. drinkers can help is to buy the wine, French winemakers say, but they also stress the need for wider reflection.
“Consumers simply have to understand to what extent winegrowers are in direct contact with nature, against which we obviously cannot fight,” says Woillez. “Our business is based on a fragile balance between terroir, climate, grape varieties and the work of the farmers. Any imbalance has lasting and, in our case this week, devastating consequences. And each of us bears the responsibility of preserving this balance in our daily choices.”