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St-Emilion to get hail defence ‘launch’ system

Plans for a network of semi-automatic 'launchers' that send helium balloons into the skies to prevent hailstorms have been approved by winemakers in St-Emilion.

‘Launchers’ are set to be installed to help protect 7,500 hectares of vineyards after St-Emilion wineries approved a collective approach to hail defence this week.

More than 90% of winemakers voted in favour of coordinated action, said the St-Emilion Wine Council. Thirty-seven launchers will be used and a spokesperson said the plan will cost €1.3m in total.

‘Without offering a 100% guarantee, this system should make it possible to greatly reduce the impact of hail,’ the council said.

Areas covered will include the St-Emilion and St-Emilion grand cru appellations, plus Lussac St-Emilion and Puisseguin St-Emilion.

Hailstorms are capable of seriously damaging a vineyard’s crop in just a few minutes, and parts of St-Emilion and the Entre-Deux-Mers region were hit in April 2020.

How will the St-Emilion hail defence launchers work?

There are different anti-hail options available, but the collective St-Emilion system uses helium balloons and revolves around a technique called ‘cloud seeding’.

Radar provides an early warning to winemakers by detecting storm fronts up to 30km away, said the St-Emilion council.

Winemakers are then notified and will be able to remotely trigger launchers that release balloons into the skies.

Each balloons is filled with 200g of ‘hygroscopic salts’, which are dispersed in the clouds once a certain altitude is reached, according to the council.

These salts help to suppress hail formation, creating rain showers instead.

French firm Selerys will supply the launchers, and some individual châteaux were already using them, said a spokesperson for the St-Emilion council.

But wineries believe a collective approach will yield more benefits.

A first phase of installations will begin in June 2021, said the council.

Wineries will finance the move, with payments calculated per hectare (ha) of vineyard. The cost will be ‘weighted’ by appellation, and so will range from €43 per ha to €205 per ha.

Some French winemakers and areas have experimented with other types of anti-hail system. In 2018, French officials approved the use of anti-hail nets for vineyards.

See also: 

‘Unprecedented’ hailstorm hits Bordeaux vineyards (2018)

Violent hailstorms hit Valpolicella vineyards (2020)

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