French vines taken by storm

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 September, 2013, 10:26am

This summer brought hailstorms that destroyed thousands of hectares of vines in just about every region of France. Two masses of air clashing into each another, one cold, one hot, were the cause.

The hot air coming up from the Basque country and the Pyrenees met the cold air in Champagne, Burgundy and Alsace, and, combined with a very hot summer, resulted in some violent storms.

It began on June 17 in Vouvray, where more than 10,000 hectares of vines were severely damaged, and about 4,000 of which were destroyed. Seeing the vines stripped of their leaves, their grapes torn off and scattered on the ground, reduced many winegrowers to tears.

July 23 brought devastation to a large part of the Côte de Beaune, which was hit for the second year in a row Areas of Volnay, Pommard, Beaune and all of Savigny-lès-Beaune lost between 50 to 80 per cent of the harvest.

Worse, the new growth, which would have become the source for next year's harvest, was also damaged. Pruning the damaged vines will be very difficult, and many will die even before they are pruned.

It's almost as bad as it was in 1985, when 20 per cent of the vineyards had to be replanted. Luckily, the hail was much less severe in the vineyards around Meursault. This year the Côte de Nuits was again spared, and even though flowering was uneven and the harvest will be small, this might lead to some truly great wines.

On July 27, some of the best vineyards on the hillsides of Cahors and, in particular, the excellent parcels of Chambert and Les Laquets, were also hit hard, as well as hundreds of hectares in the Cognac region. But all this was a minor calamity compared to what came next.

On August 1 and 2, exceptionally violent storms all but annihilated a good portion of the Bordelais vineyards - in particular, all of the Entre-Deux-Mers and the neighbouring sector of Bergerac. More than 10,000 hectares were destroyed.

Fortunately, the prestigious vineyards of the Médoc and Graves were barely affected. These same storms then worked their way east where they also wreaked havoc in Champagne. At least 1,000 hectares of vines were destroyed in the Côte de Blancs - the Côte des Bars had already lost 15 to 20 per cent of its crop at the end of June. The hailstorms ended their destructive journey through France by hitting a few Alsatian hillsides around Colmar.

The damage has been dramatic for the winegrowers, leading many to buy hail insurance, even though they will receive some help from the government.

The wealthier ones are usually insured, even though premiums have risen sharply, and will rise again after this summer. But smaller growers can't afford the premiums.

It is possible to prevent hail from forming by shooting silver iodide or dry ice into the clouds, which prevents ice from forming. But this process is very expensive. It is often used in the Medoc, but has been abandoned elsewhere.

Some idiots, knowing that their neighbours use these cannons, hope that they'll also be protected; even more bone-headed winegrowers refuse to use them because they think that their neighbour might benefit for free. This is a typical French countryside saga.

But once the hail has done its damage, there's nothing that can be done except care for the ailing vines by spraying them with clay and powdered sulphur. This can help if the vines aren't too damaged. Where the vines are severely damaged, it takes at least two years of careful pruning to encourage the growth of the strongest shoots. But even then, if the winters are too wet and cold, vines will die.

Despite the hailstorms, the weather across France has been remarkable this year, with lots of sun combined with the advantage of a rainy spring. So the undamaged vines are healthy and green.

That cold spring means that the harvest for reds will go on late into October, similar to the harvests of 1978 and 1979, years which were good for reds.

Wines are likely to be more elegant and aromatically complex than they are rich in alcohol. For the whites, the cool nights will make for some very aromatic grapes. Thierry Desseauve and Michel Bettane are wine critics and writers