Hannah reflects on the April frost that has wiped out up to 80% of France's wine for 2021

Vignerons in Puligny, Burgundy, attempt to protect their vines from a third night of devastating April frosts (image used with permission from https://www.instagram.com/poetryinawineglass/)

Climate change is planting Syrah in the Loire and -8°C frost in April in the Roussillon. It’s harvest one week earlier than last year – every year – and picking grapes at dawn. It’s summers so hot the vines shut down, and winters so mild that parasites stay alive and the vines can’t rest.

There’s mildew where there should be winds and drought where it used to rain. It’s farmers, not bankers, getting bailed out; and as rising temps lead to new strains of bacteria in the vines and higher pH levels in wine, more and more bottles with mousy taint. It’s what happened this month in France: devastation caused first by the unseasonal heat, then the frost.

While the effects of a one degree increase in average annual temperatures might be too subtle for us beyond mild surprise we can eat outside in February, for the vines, it’s causing chronic stress. Harvest records from Beaune starting in 1354 show that while temperatures swung from the highs of the Medieval Warm Period to Little Ice Age lows, they always returned to a fairly consistent average – until the late 80s when instead they steadily rose.

Of the last 16 harvests, eight were record-breakingly early. In the last 30, harvest in Burgundy advanced by an average of 15 days, from the end of September to mid September. In the next 30, harvest is predicted to start mid August. For winemakers, summer holidays will soon be a thing of the past.

A vine’s phenology – the timing of bud break, flowering and the onset of ripening – is driven by temperature, meaning that as it rises, the vine starts developing earlier, which can cause challenges for winemakers at both ends of the growing season. At harvest, the issue is how to make the most of higher sugar levels and lower acidity, caused by increasingly hot days and warm nights, as well as the out-of-place tannins and aromas that haven’t had time to properly develop over such a short growing period.

Pick too early and risk losing complexity. Pick at phenolic ripeness and you’ll be making jam – and most likely struggle to ferment out all the sugar.

The difficulty in spring, meanwhile, is when there’s frost and your vines are too far advanced.

As grapes develop from bud burst to expanding shoots, the plant’s tissues become increasingly vulnerable to the cold. On paper a vine can survive temperatures down to -8°C while the buds are still protected by their sheaths, but -2°C is enough to grill those that have burst. Nascent shoots will give up around -0.6°C and young leaves are susceptible to freezing from 0°C. From bright sun-lit green to grey, fried by the early morning rays.

It’s a particular grey. A military fatigue mash-up of ‘hope’, ‘maybe’ and ‘obviously dead’. Fifty shades of blueish greenish grey and black, black meaning game over. You’ve been fried.

I put our loss at 80%. Emotionally it’s more than that. 2021 was not a good year to start farming a parcel of one’s own.

But if misery loves company, this year no one’s alone. Very few vineyards were spared, and messages keep coming through from friends north, east, central, west and south:

“Devastating! More on the Chenin, less bad on the Cabernet.”

“100% on one parcel. 50% on another. 30% on a third.”

“There is hardly one green bud left. I’m so sad. Nature is brutal.”

“Aïe. This year no white”.

“We got hit 10-15% which is bad enough, but compared to some of the others who lost 60-70%, it’s nothing.” [Ed: this is from the Ardèche. In the next valley, they recorded -10°C!]

While it’s too early to know exactly what’s been lost, and everyone hangs on to the glimmer of hope that the vine’s secondary buds will shoot, meaning a second chance at growth, the French Minister of Agriculture has pretty much said things couldn’t be worse. Estimated crop losses are 80% nationwide, making it “the greatest agricultural catastrophe of the beginning of the 21st century”.

The government has pledged €1 billion in aid to try to plug the already gaping hole blown open by tariffs and Covid – not to mention the cost of the preventative measures taken by those who can afford to burn €2,500 per hectare on paraffin candles and who-knows-how-much-more on aspersion watering systems, combustion blowers, ‘FrostBusters’ and crack of dawn helicopters.

I can’t help feeling we’re bucketing out a sinking ship. Taking action makes us feel busy, but sticking on a band-aid doesn’t mean the cut goes away.

There is no quick fix. When I asked what I could do to save my vines, most people told me the best thing was to try to get a good night’s sleep. It’s not knee-jerk but long term solutions that we need. Keep ground-cover. Plant hedges and trees. Choose vineyard sites better. Train vines high or at least higher. Re-plant varieties that ripen late. Prune (even) later.

Working with plants is working with the future, so having to think ahead is nothing new. But it takes a different kind of thinking to future-proof. That one degree increase will be easier to notice when there’s nothing left to drink.

Healthy bud versus frost-damaged bud