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Anson: Bordeaux’s worst frost since 1991 – What now?

Damage reports are coming in after 'black Thursday' and the impact looks severe, writes Jane Anson, who also considers how frosts might affect the Bordeaux 2016 en primeur campaign.

These are the two questions that have offered an alternative to the French elections around Bordeaux tables this week:

Answering the first question is easy. It was bad, as it looks to have been in several regions across Europe, in fact. Certainly the worst frost in Bordeaux since 1991. Estimates are that 70% of vineyards have seen at least partial damage to their vines due to temperatures that dropped down to around -3°C, even -4°C, between 5am and 7am over two consecutive mornings.

Around 20% have lost between 90% and 100% of their potential 2017 crop, CIVB president Allan Sichel told Le Point magazine. 

It’s early days, but it seems certain that Bordeaux 2017 yields will be hit. Estates will be hoping for second buds on surviving vines, yet these generally lead to significantly smaller yields.

Damage Assessment

There are stories of vines being affected all over Bordeaux. Château Fleur Cardinale in St-Emilion reported losses of around 80%. ‘For certain plots there is absolutely no hope,’ says Caroline Decoster at La Fleur Cardinale.

Château Grand Corbin Despagne has lost up to 90%, while Benoit Trocard reported that Château Couraze in Fronsac, the Danish-owned property that he has run for the past 17 years, lost 95% of its production in two hours.

Jonathan Ducourt of Vignobles Ducourt who own 450 hectares across the Right Bank estimates 300ha have been affected, and among those at least half 100% wiped out (‘particularly in St-Emilion, Castillon and Montagne St Emilion’).

Helicopters were sent up at Cheval Blanc and Grand Corbin Despagne, among others, but air traffic control laws don’t allow them to take off until 6.30am, by which time the frost had done its worst.

Among other larger estates, Château Angélus said that 80% of vines supplying its grand vin were ‘unharmed’, but the other 20% was affected. Ausone similarly reported that lighting fires in the vineyard had helped it to survive relatively unscathed.

Shall I go on?

Françoise Lannoye, president of Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux tells me that at least 75% of the 250 winemakers in the appellation have been severely affected. Same story in Pomerol, including up to 90% at Château Bellegrave and Château La Pointe, and 80%-plus at Châteaux Garraud and Annereaux in Lalande-de-Pomerol.

The inland Médoc estates, as you would expect, have been more badly affected than those who can rely on the moving air of the Garonne river – so Camensac, Mauvesin-Barton, Angludet all saw serious losses. Over in Pessac Léognan, Carmes Haut-Brion suffered damage to around 25% of its vines, while châteaux further out in Martillac and Léognan lost closer to 60%.

Down in Sauternes, around 50% of vines were wiped out.

‘It looks like winter in the vineyard now,’ says Ducourt. ‘But we will know more clearly in a month’s time at flowering how much we really lost.’

‘One of the key problems this year is that we have enjoyed such a mild spring that the vineyards were between 10 and 15 days ahead of normal,’ says Lannoye. ‘It meant that all the buds had already appeared, and in many cases even the secondary buds that typically can go on after frost to produce at least 50% of a full crop’.

‘And there is a risk that frost will affect the quality of the pollen,’ says Marielle Cazeau at La Conseillante. ‘That means difficulty during flowering. We just don’t know yet.’

To limit damage as much as possible, the team at La Conseillante is this week in the vineyards cutting back any affected vines in an attempt to stimulate the second budding.

And everywhere people are assessing the impact on the buds that will provide shoots for next year’s harvest, hoping that 2018 will not be a write-off.

Fallout for Bordeaux 2016 en primeur

Guillaume Cassat of AOC Conseils, a consultancy firm aimed specifically at the wine industry, has more than 100 clients across Bordeaux, including Château Tour des Termes, Grand Corbin, La Tour St Bonnet and Marquis de Terme. He told me that en primeur is just one part of a more complicated picture.

‘There is no doubt that some smaller properties, or those who are heavily in debt to the bank, will have real cash flow issues,’ he said. ‘If these become too problematic, we are likely to see certain larger producers increase their vineyard holdings through purchases and consolidations’.

This is why, Cassat says, there is now an immediate need to be strategic about monetising the 2016 campaign.

Up to the frost, we had only had one significant release; Cos d’Estournel came out at the same release price as in 2015 at €120 ex-Bordeaux or around £1,400 per case of 12 in the UK market (a rise of 10% on last year, thanks to Brexit-induced sterling issues). It went down extremely well with the market, with most négociants reporting that they are still fielding numerous calls from clients even though Cos has now sold out. The signs were that châteaux were planning to be restrained on price, mindful of the global uncertainties.

What will happen now is less certain. Several courtiers who I spoke to this week expect the frost to have three major impacts – firstly slowing down the campaign as estates assess damage, secondly reducing the amount of wine put on the market to ensure there are stocks to sell next year and thirdly – well, as ever in Bordeaux – prices are a law unto themselves, and less clear. Some châteaux will undoubtedly raise the prices higher than they might have done, while others will be even more aware of the need to sell in order to get cash flow into their accounts, and therefore remain reasonable.

Cazeaux tells me that the most likely impact will be in stock control.

‘At La Conseillante we normally sell around 95% of our production en primeur,’ she says. ‘But we will certainly keep a little more back to ensure stock for the future. On that point the frost will affect the campaign.’

Cassat suggests that one route could be for producers who normally sell in bulk (‘en vrac’) to put their 2016 in bottle, where they could then make more of a margin.

A good idea in theory perhaps, as it is certainly true that those who sell in bulk are always hardest hit by episodes of frost and hail because they don’t keep stock back and instead sell the entirety of their production each year.

However Lannoye replied the idea was ‘utopian’, and ‘a fantasy’ for most small producers. ‘Those who sell in bulk are usually doing so because they need immediate cash flow,’ she pointed out, ‘and do not have the funds available to buy bottles and then drum up the sales channels to get them to clients. Most will have already sold their 2016 at their usual fixed price, even if it remains in tank or barrel at their estate for now’.

Bright spots

There were some good news stories. Lafleur, Petrus and L’Eglise-Clinet worked together and kept hundreds of fires burning that saved their vines from the worst effects. Over at la Fleur Cardinale, there are some positive signs that their late-ripening terroir means at least some of the secondary buds should still come through.

And there’s Lionel Kreff from cooperage firm Tonnellerie Baron. Kreff lives in the vineyards between Bordeaux and St-Emilion, and looked out of his window on the morning of Thursday 26th to what he describes as ‘total devastation’.

‘I called friends and clients to see if I could help, and realised that many of them had not been fully prepared, because this type of frost is so rare in Bordeaux, and because there is a shortage of paraffin candles and other anti-frost measures because vineyards across France have suffered so much in recent years. And we had another night of frost forecast’.

‘I knew that we had many tons of oak logs and briquettes at the cooperage. I worked out that 5 kilos of briquettes would burn for 1.5 hours, and that one tonne would protect one hectare of vines. If estates burned them through the vineyards from 5am to 6.30am it would take them through the coldest part of the night’.

By 3pm Kreff had worked out the logistics of this, and began calling as many of his 300 clients as he could get hold of. Many weren’t answering the phone, or simply told him that he was too late, but he was able to donate the briquettes to Château Carmes Haut-Brion in Pessac and Château le Chatelet in St-Emilion. Both worked through the night to get the system set up in the vineyards, and were protected by the time of the next morning’s temperature drop.

‘This was a last minute thing’ says Kreff, ‘and I didn’t get to enough people. But it worked’.

More articles on the vineyard frosts

Burgundy hit by ‘worst frost since 1981’

Worst frost in 30 years may hit 2016 harvest.

Frost leaves vines ‘looking like dried tobacco’

Frost fears spread across France and Europe...

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