Frost damage in Europe

Frozen vineyard

Members will know that over the last few weeks here in the UK temperatures have dropped after a warm spell of weather at the beginning of the month. In France the situation has been quite serious with the warmer spell lasting longer, bringing on crops and with temperatures dropping well below freezing during the second week of April. Spring frosts are not unusual but what marks out the episode this year, is that it has covered large parts of France, from Champagne and Chablis in the north to the southern Rhône, even the Languedoc-Roussillon. There have also been pockets of vineyards affected in northern Italy and the UK.

Reports so far suggest up to 30% crop loss in vineyards and our buyers have been keeping a close eye on developments and talking regularly with our growers. It is still too early for us to be conclusive as fine weather over the next few weeks could help the vine generate new buds. However, there is no doubt that it could be tough on the smaller producers who may have lost most of their livelihood this year. Once we fully understand the implications we will be deciding what The Wine Society can do to help support those growers who most need it and to ensure that we can continue to keep the wine flowing for members next year which is when we will feel the effects of any shortfall.

It is important to emphasise that frost damage results in reduced yields (due to loss of buds on the vine and therefore fewer grapes) but doesn't negatively affect quality; in fact, it can improve quality.

News from some key areas:

In Burgundy initial estimates suggest the earlier-budding chardonnay may have up to 50% loss, pinot noir a bit less. Growers say they need to wait a couple of weeks to see what growth emerges from the buds. Toby Morrhall writes, 'The buds that are black now we know are dead. It's the half dead ones and/or secondary or tertiary buds one needs to wait for.'

Chablis frost
Smudge pots and aspersion used to defend the vines in Chablis

In Bordeaux Tim Sykes is still waiting for more information but the Médoc is not too badly affected, bits of Saint-Emilion and its satellites were badly hit, as was the Graves and Barsac.

Beaujolais has been badly affected in the south, mainly straight Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages, and more positively appears less serious in the cru villages.

From Champagne, Nicolas Jaeger chef de cave at Alfred Gratien reports 'There is real risk in the Aube where yesterday temperatures were between -4°C and -7°C. On the Côte des Blancs yesterday, however, it was only -2°C and today -1°C, and for the moment very little damage. At this point, it's difficult to say but in my opinion we have passed through. Not much info for the Montagne of Reims but they lit the heaters this morning.'

Marcel Orford-Williams has heard that in the Rhône there are growers who have lost 90% in Côte-Rôtie. Hermitage has been spared, possibly mitigated by lighting special candles amongst the vines which brings temperatures up. In the south, some of the low-lying vineyards in Châteauneuf-du-Pape were very badly hit. But vines on Mont Redon and La Crau escaped the frost. In Vinsobres, the Jaume family lost all that they have by the river and which is non appellation. Other than that they were spared.

The Languedoc-Roussillon has unfortunately also been badly hit which is really quite unusual for this far south.

In Alsace and the Moselle the Vosges mountains are hugely important, and they have perhaps played their part once again. That and the fact that Alsace had cooler temperatures when much of France was enjoying the early spring warmth which encouraged budding. The drop in temperature was not as severe here, so damage is limited and localised. Gewurztraminer being an earlier budder is likely to have been most affected but damage appears limited. Happily the later-budding varieties at Château de Vaux in the Moselle region have not been hit.

There are reports of widespread frost damage in the Loire, with below-zero temperatures sustained over several nights. The impact varies by area, even by vineyard and producer, and including some parcels rarely affected. What is clear is that it is very serious this year – perhaps as bad as the infamous frost of 1991, according to Chéreau-Carré in the Nantais. Losses of between 30% and 90% are predicted across the region. Certain pockets have been badly hit – Emmanuel Delaille in Cheverny for example, who is currently looking at c.95% damage. Pouilly-Fumé, Quincy and Reuilly appear to have fared a little better than some communes in Sancerre (though Domaine Laloue to the east of Sancerre have not had a lot of damage). Earlier budding varieties like chenin blanc and chardonnay in Touraine and Saumur are at high risk. The only upside is that it is still too early to know for sure the full impact of these damaging frosts, and nature will do all she can to help the vines recover and deliver a crop. Growers will be waiting anxiously until the middle of May for the frost risk to pass.

Sarah Knowles MW has also heard that pockets of Italy have been affected. Parts of Tuscany and Piedmont have had severe damage but across these regions it is hard to really measure the impact yet on yields.

Matthew Horsley tells us that in UK vineyards will be more at risk from frost damage in mid May. Ridgeview did light some candles in their vineyards a couple of weeks ago but they have not lost anything we understand.

Read our article for more on what winemakers can do to protect the crop against frost

Pierre Mansour

Director of Wine

Pierre Mansour

Pierre joined the Buying Team in 2003 and was promoted to the position of head of buying in 2017. He is responsible for Spain and Lebanon.

Back to top