Ice and Fire: French Winegrowers Get Creative in Bid to Rescue Harvest
Photographer: Christophe Petit Tesson
An intense spring frost — the worst to hit France in decades — forced Paul-Etienne Defaix to stay out in the fields with his vines for eight nights in a row, fighting off sleep to save the fragile buds from the unseasonal cold snap.
The unusually cold spring nights threatened to destroy this year’s wine harvest in France, forcing the country’s winemakers to take extreme measures to offset the damage.
To avert what French agriculture minister Julien Denormandie described as “probably the greatest agricultural catastrophe of the beginning of the 21st century,” Defaix and other viticulturalists in the famed Burgundy district of Chablis and across France turned to so-called “anti-frost candles” to keep the vines' buds as warm as possible.
They also tried to sprinkle the vines with water to coat the buds in a protective layer.
But this process, which is very expensive and inefficient, is not a long-term solution to a problem that will only become more frequent.
It is one of the effects of the climate crisis being felt in Burgundy’s vineyards.
Over the past half century, climate change has changed how wine is produced, with today’s harvests coming one month earlier than in the 1950s.
Warmer temperatures mean buds bloom earlier in the season, but that makes them vulnerable to night frosts that occur later in the spring.
The French agricultural ministry said the spring frost had “cut into a large part of the production, which will be historically low”.
The damage was particularly acute on grape varieties that bloom earlier in the year, such as Chardonnay and Merlot, the agriculture ministry said.
Official estimates from last month’s harvest show this year’s crop was almost 30% smaller than 2020’s. It was estimated to be the smallest harvest since the 1970s.
The small village of Chablis and its hillsides, known worldwide for its white Chardonnay wine, were only able to save a small part of their vineyards, 'les Grands Crus'.
Losses of 50% (which reach as high as 70 or 80% on some parcels) are expected by the winegrowers Unions (BIVP) after the frost. The annual haul of 350,000 hectoliters, the equivalent of 45.9 million bottles, will drop to 150,000 hectoliters this year.
Six months on from the biting frost, the autumn harvest has arrived. While the crop was relatively meagre, the Defaix were happy to have any grapes at all to harvest, even if the cost of frost control techniques far outweighs the profits.
The vines which the Defaix were able to protect will have yields close to 70% of a normal year, a big win for the growers, but the vines of 'Lechet', 'des Lys' or 'Vaillon' suffered much more.
Their experience and respect for traditional methods are key to their success. By selling wines that have been maturing for between eight to 10 years, they have a reserve of high quality wines that allow them to overcome some of the most immediate challenges presented by climate change.
"We have 2,000 years of history and I cannot stand the idea of changing it because of the frost. I am in love with my land and I have a patrimonial duty to respect history", concludes Daniel-Etienne Defaix, although he is acutely aware that his son, Paul, will surely have different obstacles to overcome.