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Fears of frost damage return to French vineyards

Plunging temperatures have heightened stress levels from Bordeaux to Burgundy in recent days, and some winemakers face an anxious wait to see whether an April frost has again affected vines.

Frost returned to French vineyards early this month as France recorded its coldest April night since 1947.

Temperatures plunged to minus nine degrees Celsius in some parts of the Champagne region on the night between 3 and 4 April, with minus seven reported in areas around Bordeaux and minus six in Chablis.

Some winemakers lit candles and fires between vineyard rows to help protect young buds. Yet while scenes were reminiscent of the devastating frosts that struck French vineyards in April 2021, producer organisations cautioned against jumping to conclusions and noted potentially key differences this year.

In Burgundy, the Bourgogne wine board (BIVB) said: ‘It is much too soon to evaluate the consequences of this latest episode, which was very stressful for winemakers from Bourgogne, and across the whole of France.

‘Over the next few days, technicians will be checking various plots to evaluate the damage, and a preliminary assessment should be possible next week.’

The BIVB also noted that ‘this event is different’ than the frost in 2021. ‘The vines are less advanced in the growth cycle and in general terms, the frost event was shorter and less intense. The weather returned to positive figures on Monday [4 April], and this is set to last until Easter,’ it said.

Some producers reported damage to new buds. Domaine Guilleman, based in Haut Bourgogne near the village of Marcenay, said on Instagram that it estimated losses of around 10 to 20%. ‘Everything depends on the vine’s stage of development,’ it wrote, adding Chardonnay vines more advanced in their growing cycle were most affected.

In Bordeaux, the local chamber of agriculture expressed solidarity with winemakers affected but also called for caution.

‘Spring had begun’ in some vineyards, yet it will take at least a week to understand the impact of frost. Some buds may only have superficial damage, it said, while adding that frost damage can be extremely site-specific – even within a single vineyard.

‘We stand with farmers and winegrowers, and our teams are mobilising to provide them with our technical, economic and financial expertise,’ said Jean-Louis Dubourg, president of the agriculture chamber for the Gironde region, which includes Bordeaux.

Jean-Francois Galhaud, president of St-Emilion’s wine council, said that a major issue with the severe frosts of April 2021 was that vines were running two weeks ahead of their growing schedule. This year, the cycle is more normal, he told the France 3 media outlet.

Bordeaux winemakers were among those seeking to protect vineyards using candles, although Sud-Ouest newspaper reported that smoke consequently settled in some areas of central Bordeaux.

Decanter understands there were cases of wineries halting their blending sessions for 2021-vintage en primeur wines, due to potential risks from smoke.

Other frost defences for vineyards can vary from sprinkler systems to fans to the timing of pruning, while some wealthier châteaux have previously used helicopters flying low over vines.

Researchers have previously linked spring frost damage in French vineyards to climate change.

Warmer temperatures kick-start the growing season earlier, making more vines susceptible to a sudden freeze, said the team from a range of institutions, including France’s national scientific research institute, CNRS, and the University of Oxford.

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