French winemakers assess the cost of ‘worst frost in decades’ | France


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Winegrowers across France are counting the cost of several nights of frost this week that threaten to decimate the harvest in some of the country’s best-known and prestigious wine regions.

The government is preparing an emergency rescue plan after rare freezing temperatures that could cause some of the worst damage in decades to crops and vines.

From Bordeaux to Burgundy and from the Rhône valley to Champagne, the winegrowers were in their fields on Friday to inspect the destruction.

“It breaks like glass because there is no water inside,” said Dominique Guignard, grape grower in Graves near Bordeaux, rubbing the first shoots on his vines.

“It’s completely dried out, there’s no life inside,” said Guignard, who runs a group of producers in Graves, which is known for its robust red wine.

Many industry experts say damage from temperatures down to -6C could be the worst in decades, in part because frost followed unusually hot weather last week.

“It’s a national phenomenon,” said Jérôme Despey, secretary general of the FNSEA agricultural union and winegrower in Hérault. “You can go back in history, there was [freezing] episodes in 1991, 1997, 2003 but in my opinion it is beyond all.

In the Rhône Valley, the head of the local producers’ organization, Philippe Pellaton, said it would be “the smallest harvest in the last 40 years”, with losses of 80 to 90% compared to normal. The winegrowers are “shattered, desperate”, he declared, the region of Côte-Rôtie being particularly affected.

Vines covered in frost in Chablis, France.
Vines covered in frost in Chablis, France. Photography: Pascal Rossignol / Reuters

In Burgundy, which produces some of the best white wines in the world, the head of the association of local producers estimated that “at least 50%” of this year’s harvest had been lost.

Champagne was not spared, the head of the national association of winegrowers CNIV, Jean-Marie Barillère, affirming that there was “a lot of damage”.

To prevent freezing overnight on Tuesday and Wednesday, farmers across the country lit thousands of small fires and candles near their vines or fruit trees.

Some well-heeled wineries have hired helicopters to try and keep the heat close to the ground.

The burn was so intense in the southeast that it led to a layer of smog over the region, including Lyon.

Besides the vines, producers of kiwis, apricots, apples and other fruits have been hit hard, as have farmers of other crops such as beetroot and rapeseed.

During a visit to the Loire vineyards, the French Minister of Agriculture, Julien Denormandie, declared that it was “an episode of extreme violence which caused extremely significant damage”.

The government has declared an “agricultural disaster,” which means it will start offering financial support to farmers, and Denormandie called on banks and insurance companies to join in the efforts.

He said several hundred thousand hectares of farmland had been affected.

Many winemakers are not insured against the effects of frost due to the cost of coverage, and many growers were already struggling financially.

The Covid-19 pandemic has reduced demand for wine around the world due to the closure of restaurants and bars.

Exports to the United States have also been affected by tariffs on French wine imposed by former US President Donald Trump, while the vital UK market has also suffered from Brexit.

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