Devastating frost damage in France

Minister of Agriculture speaks of the greatest agronomic disaster of the early 21st century. 

Impressive sight, sad background. As here in Burgundy, winegrowers tried to limit the damage / Credit: Aurelien Ibanez
Impressive sight, sad background. As here in Burgundy, winegrowers tried to limit the damage / Credit: Aurelien Ibanez

Already at the beginning of March, experts warned of an intense situation with regard to frost damage, after distinctly mild temperatures at the end of February caused a rapid entry into the vegetation period. Finally, in early to mid-March, the first buds broke open in the Mediterranean south, and it was not take long until the circumstances  became serious nationwide. Since then, the French media have been full of reports on the situation.

As in previous frost years, Burgundy - especially the Chablis satellite - and the Loire Valley were affected. This year, however, conditions are also disastrous in other growing regions. "This is probably the biggest agronomic disaster of the early 21st century," French Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie commented in a television interview on 13 April. His summary also includes other agricultural products such as cherries and apricots. Vintners and farmers are now to be granted financial aid thanks to disaster regulations.

After our original report on initial damage and the efforts of winegrowers to limit the damage, here are some updates from the regions.

 

Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon

The Mediterranean climate ensures that the growing season starts here first in France. The first leaves appeared in the vineyards of Languedoc-Roussillon as early as the beginning of March. That was about a week later than last year, but about three weeks earlier than the long-term average. After the winegrowers feared frost damage on the nights of 21-24 March, which then mostly failed to materialise, the cold air spell from April onwards caused great concern for winegrowers nationwide. Even before Easter, there were first reports of frost damage of up to 80 percent to early Chardonnay in cold air depressions in the Département Gard (Languedoc). 

A turning point in the chronicle of the frosty catastrophe was the third and most serious night of frost from 7 to 8 April: Negative temperatures were reported everywhere, causing damage to the vineyards. Only near the coast was the night less destructive. 

Around Brignoles in the middle of Provence, losses of up to 80 percent were reported for Département Var due to temperatures between -4°C and -9°C. The regional government in charge is initiating the necessary measures, namely an aid fund of €500,000 for particularly hard-hit farms. The situation is even more dramatic further west: In the Languedoc departments of Gard, Hérault and Aude, experts report losses of up to 90 percent, for example in Corbières or Limoux. Temperatures there dropped to as low as -7°C. Further south, Roussillon was spared, with a few exceptions, as was the coastal region around Fitou. 

 

Rhône

The icy temperatures of the fateful night of 8 April also caused enormous damage to the vineyards in the Rhône. The mistral, which provides a cool breeze in summer, was able to prevent worse during the first two nights of frost. Nevertheless, the winegrowers were forced to take countermeasures such as sprinkling - in Hermitage by helicopter - or burning straw fires or candles. 

When the mistral died down on the third night of frost and the temperatures dropped to -6°C, in some cases to -9°C, the catastrophe could hardly be averted. In the 66,000-hectare wine-growing region, almost all appellations were affected, in some cases with complete losses of 100 percent. Lirac and Tavel got off lightly.

 

Bordeaux and the Southwest

The Atlantic climate normally ensures that France's largest wine-growing region is spared major frost damage. Not so in 2021. The thermometer there dropped to -6°C and caused damage of 80 to 90 percent in the southern appellations such as Graves, Sauternes or Barsac. Along the Gironde, the proximity of the river mitigated the icy temperatures, so that hardly any damage was reported from Côtes de Bourg, for example.

The climatically and geographically heterogeneous southwest was also hit hard. There, as everywhere, proximity to bodies of water led to milder temperatures, but if these were far away, as in Armagnac, losses of up to 90 percent were not uncommon.

 

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Frost damage to the vine / Credit: E. Müller, DLR-RNH

Burgundy

Burgundy, and Chablis in particular, was hard hit. In addition to low temperatures, precipitation caused higher humidity. Combined with the basin-like topography of Chablis, which favours cold air lakes, the losses there due to temperatures around -5°C amount to up to 100 percent. 
The rest of Burgundy also suffered badly from the late frosts. Despite numerous countermeasures, the winegrowers complained of high losses. The figures vary widely, but it can be assumed that at least 80 percent of the grapes were lost, while other press reports indicate losses of over 90 percent.

 

Jura and Savoie

The Jura is the coldest region in France. Due to unusually high temperatures, vegetation there was also comparatively advanced. When the frosty nights began around 6 April, snow began to fall around Arbois and elsewhere, which could have meant some kind of natural protection in the eyes of many winegrowers, despite temperatures around -4°C. This hope was not confirmed. Although the losses, which are estimated at 80 percent for the growing region, were lower than in the south, locally, e.g. around Arbois, producers have to face the bitter truth of a total failure.

The situation in Savoie is similarly uneven. From the growing region in the Alps, overall losses of around 50 percent are reported, locally up to 80 percent or more. The differences result from a complex topographical structure where wind conditions on frosty nights proved paramount - or devastating.

 

Loire

As expected, frost events vary greatly in this large and heterogeneous growing region. Despite the proximity to the Atlantic, the thermometer in the west around Nantes dropped to as low as -7°C and devastated around 80 percent, locally up to 100 per cent of the sprouts. Further inland around Saumur and Angers, the damage was much less severe. In the easternmost sub-region around Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, the damage is estimated at up to 60 percent. Viewed in the overall context, the Loire thus got off comparatively lightly, even though the Touraine suffered the greatest losses of 90 to 100 percent.

 

Champagne and Alsace

The Champagne and Alsace wine-growing regions, which are furthest north, have survived the frosty nights best so far. However, the all-clear has not yet been given for the winegrowers there, just as it has not yet for their colleagues in Germany either. Even though budbreak on both sides of the border is much less advanced than it was further south in France, the next few nights will give vintners cause for concern. After the first reports of damage came from Baden, the situation on the other side of the Rhine in Alsace remains tense because only minimal damage has occurred there so far.

The situation in Champagne is a little different. As expected, the late budding Pinot Meunier has been spared by the nights of frost. Pinot Noir and especially Chardonnay, on the other hand, were not. Nevertheless, losses of about 15 percent are reported, which is comparatively low.

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