A Devastating Frost

It became clear from the start of their visit that there was one main conversation topic dominating the region – the dreadful 2017 frost.

The worst frosts since 1991. The awful site of smoke in Bordeaux vineyards on 27th April 2017, a desperate attempt to protect the vines The worst frosts since 1991. The awful site of smoke in Bordeaux vineyards on 27th April 2017, a desperate attempt to protect the vines

‘Did you suffer any frost damage?’
This was the first question from Tim’s lips when we arrived at Château Monconseil Gazin in Blaye, where we were welcomed by Jean-Michel Baudet, a fifth-generation winemaker. This turned out to be the main topic of conversation at each of the properties we visited.

The Bordeaux region was hit by a severe frost at the end of April last year, the worst they’d seen since 1991. Properties were affected to wildly different degrees; Monconseil Gazin was relatively untouched with just 10% loss, but others weren’t so lucky, some losing their entire 2017 crop.

It seems that lower vineyards (generally under 60m altitude), where air circulation is limited, and those terroirs with gravel or sand rather than clay were most severely hit. And the less prestigious châteaux seem to have borne the brunt. The bottom line is Bordeaux production in 2017 was 40% lower than in 2016 – the lowest production for over 20 years.

Most châteaux are not covered by insurance for such eventualities – as well as being prohibitively expensive, you have to lose a minimum of 30% of your crop for any pay-out and compensation is fairly low. So they take their chances. To add insult to injury, vines that suffer frost damage come back with a vengeance – ‘comme le broccoli – meaning that the job of pruning is more onerous and requires more people.

Even those that lost all their crop had to continue to work their vines to ensure they would be in good shape for 2018. This is certainly a character-building life choice and come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I met a faint-hearted wine producer!

There is some consolation as producers that have suffered frost damage are allowed to sell a proportion of wine from the previous vintage to supplement low yields in 2017. Thankfully, 2016 was a generous vintage, so some producers have been able to mitigate the frost impact.

Over the course of three days, we tasted through quite a number of 2017s, mainly whites. The good news is that while yields were challenging, quality is looking good with greater freshness and aromatics than the fuller 2016s.

Devastation for François Despagne and others

Tim and the enthusiastic and passionate François Despagne of Château Grand Corbin Despagne in his vineyards Tim and the enthusiastic and passionate François Despagne of Château Grand Corbin Despagne in his vineyards

LIZ: While some producers weren’t too badly affected, others were not so lucky. Take François Despagne, long-time friend and supplier of The Society, at Château Grand Corbin Despagne in Saint-Emilion (one of the badly affected communes).

Late April 2017 saw his vineyard devastated by frost overnight, just after budburst when the vine is most vulnerable. When it was forecast, some growers banded together to rent a helicopter to hover over the vineyards to increase the temperature and create airflow – but with the worst of the frost at 5am when it was still dark and before helicopters are allowed to take off, this proved fruitless. Basically, the worst-hit vineyards were not on the most privileged terroirs, so those least able to afford it were the most badly affected.

François Despagne is a smart and passionate man, and his vines are like his children. Thinking ahead, once he realised what was happening, in the days immediately after the frost he laboriously went through the vineyard using red spray to mark the trunks of any of his vines which escaped the frost damage. It was a painstaking and depressing job, and he only marked 111 trunks of his 3,000 vines at Grand Corbin Despagne.

Grand Corbin Despagne vines untouched by the 2017 frost were marked red – only 111 out of 3000 vines Grand Corbin Despagne vines untouched by the 2017 frost were marked red – only 111 out of 3000 vines

The reason he did this is that he knew that later, some frost-damaged vines may develop a ‘second generation’ of grapes. These grapes develop about three weeks behind the first generation, meaning that within the same vineyard, there will be a significant difference in ripeness of grapes from one vine to the next. By harvest time, it’s not easy to differentiate the ripeness by eye, so marking the trunks earlier in the year was a sure-fire way to avoid mixing ripe and unripe grapes. Of course, this makes for more work at harvest time too, (though frankly there was still precious little to harvest) but the results show in the bottle.

Looking at the red-marked vines, the frost seemed indiscriminate – though it was clear how some protection is afforded to those vines near trees or buildings and that air currents can make a difference. François described the whole vintage as a nightmare. He normally has a total production of around 150,000 bottles but in 2017 he managed just 6,000 bottles. He didn’t have enough to fill his vats so he had to vinify the wine in barrels instead. None of his first wine, Château Grand Corbin Despagne, will be produced in 2017. He hasn’t experienced such a devastating frost since 1991.

He wasn’t insured and doesn’t hold large stocks of previous vintages that he can sell, so he is nervous – what if it happens again in 2018? I suggested that he’ll be relieved when May comes and goes and the risk of frost at the worst time passes, but he reminded me of the hail and other threats that Mother Nature can deliver; he won’t rest easy until all the 2018 grapes are safely inside his winery in the autumn.

> Caroline Gilby MW wrote an article for us explaining what the effects of frost are on the vine and what vignerons can do to protect their crop. It’s an interesting read.

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