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Jefford on Monday: Heroes of the Vine

We won't know for six weeks or so if damage has been caused to Europe's vineyards by the prodigiously cold weather of early February. It's only as spring's warmth returns that the difference between a dormant vine and a dead vine becomes apparent.

Since this cold spell has come late in the season, the vines will have had plenty of time to acclimatize and establish mid-winter hardiness. In general, all growers welcome a winter cold snap: it’s a natural way of minimising disease and pest risks for the coming season.

The lowest temperatures have been worrying, however. Unless you protect vines by banking the earth up around them during winter, temperatures of -15°C or less (5°F) can kill Vitis vinifera vines, and temperatures as low as -20°C (-4°F) were recorded in Champagne, Alsace and German vineyard regions, in particular over the nights of February 2nd and 3rd 2012. Many regions have had a run of a week or more with temperatures consistently and sometimes substantially below -10°C (14°F). The lack of protecting snow after what had been a generally mild start to winter may be a further aggravating factor. It will be a disconcerting early spring for many growers.

If you want a certainty, though, let me tell you this. I have never been as cold in my life as I was during my latest spot of vineyard touring on those same two days in early February. Was this the Swiss Valais, Germany’s Franconia or Romania’s Dealul Mare? No, it was Châteauneuf du Pape.

Temperatures of -5°C (23°F) or so would, on their own, have been uncomfortable enough, but when you add a Mistral (the north wind which streaks down the Rhône valley) gusting at up to 100 km/hour, the results were skin-stripping, flesh-withering, bone-juddering. (A temperature of -5°C in a 60 km/hour wind feels like -16°C.) Even inside, chill draughts seemed to strafe every room (including the crowded Mère Germaine restaurant in Châteauneuf at lunchtime), while the rage of the wind against the windows of Château La Nerthe as I tasted there was as unsettling as a riot or a siege. Cars rocked, olive trees flailed. The miserable crows had no sooner clambered into the sky in search of a spot of carrion when they were hurled sideway by the wind’s express train.

I ventured up on to the plateau of La Crau with Daniel Brunier of Le Vieux Télégraphe, cocooned inside his 4×4 (4WD). He waved to a band or two of distant pruners, bent over his vines. How did they manage? I toppled out of the car to take a photograph or two and was blown back in, shivering, just seconds later. They, by contrast, worked through most of the hours of daylight. The following day was worse still. “When it’s like this, we find something else for our workers to do,” Gilbert Sabon of Domaine Roger Sabon told me – but someone had still spotted a team at work up in Cabrières, barely less exposed than La Crau.

That was when I resolved to devote a private day of thanks for the work of vine pruners everywhere in the future. It was a rare treat to taste the magnificent Châteauneuf 2010s while I was there, most of them as yet unbottled. It seems at this stage to be a vintage with everything (except quantity – the Grenache was coulure-hit). In particular, the freshness of 2010’s acidity and the shapely poise of its tannins combined with the intrinsic perfume and richness of its fruit makes for a beguiling combination, without the slightly excessive, drying qualities of some of the region’s warmest vintages.  

Tens of thousands of us will enjoy those wines – but not a single bottle would be possible without those who are prepared to go out, day after day, through the clenched jaws of winter to cut and shape vines for the coming season. This is work no machine can yet duplicate (though prototypes exist). If there is physical courage and endurance involved in the creation of wine, it belongs to those who wield the secateurs; I certainly caught a glimpse of it on La Crau the week before last.

You might choose to honour France’s St Vincent on January 22nd; you might prefer Bulgaria’s St Trifon on February 1st (or February 14th according to the old Julian calendar); or you might simply adopt your own date between the two. Don’t forget to raise a glass, though, to wine’s winter heroes.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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