France has revived a controversial rule allowing winemakers to buy in grapes to cover extensive losses from severe frost and hailstorms in some areas.

The story in brief

  • Rule allows 80% of crop to be bought from same appellation as hail and frost play havoc with 2016 harvest in Burgundy, Loire and parts of Languedoc
  • Winemakers question whether policy is workable
  • French agriculture minister pledges ‘full support’ to producers

Full story

Officials abolished the rule last year but have relented after a spate of severe frosts and hailstorms across French vineyards ahead of the 2016 harvest.

Last week’s deluge of hail in Languedoc appeared to be the final straw.

Some growers lost their entire 2016 crop in the Pic-St-Loup area, north of Montpellier.

The rule specifies that growers may purchase up to 80% of their harvest providing the grapes come from the same appellation as the grower’s vineyards.

Wines cannot be sold under the usual brand names, but they can be sold as a new cuvée. The wines would have RM status, which stands for Récoltant Manipulant.

Merchants will likely be upset by the move, after succeeding in having the rule revoked in April last year.

The catch

The catch for winemakers lies in finding grapes from the same appellation.

‘We lost between 60% and 75% of our crop to late spring frosts,’ said Boris Desbourdes, from Domaine de la Marinière in Chinon in the Loire.

‘Most of our neighbours are in the same situation, so it will be very difficult to find a suitable grape supply.’

It’s a similar story in Pic-St-Loup.

André Leenhardt, of Château de Cazeneuve, lost his entire harvest in last week’s hailstorm.

‘The appellation lost 50 to 60% of its potential harvest, so this means there is no extra grape supply available.’

‘We only want to use our own grapes’

Leenhardt and Desbourdes also have issues with the spirit of the rule.

‘As independent winemakers, we only want to make wine from grapes we have grown ourselves,’ said Desbourdes. ‘It is the only way to be transparent to our customers.’

Leenhardt described the system as a two-edged knife. It can help growers who have no reserves or who face financial pressure, but it could also tempt people to stretch the rules and buy grapes outside the appellation borders.

‘Pic-St-Loup has invested a lot in its appellation status,’ he said. ‘We need to be extra careful to control the origin as well as the quality this year.’

Leenhardt said that he will use reserve stocks rather than buy grapes.

Decanter.com understands that some producers in Chablis are considering using the rule. But, no one was willing to be quoted on the record.

France’s agriculture minister, Stéphane Le Foll, has pledged the full support of the state for winemakers. He was scant on details, but this will include tax breaks, the ministry said.

Editing by Chris Mercer

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