Much of Europe has been enjoying the warmest March on record, picnics in the park, sitting on the beach and, even, swimming in the sea. Blossoms are blooming, fruit trees and grapevines are starting to form new buds. But at their most vulnerable time a cruel blast of cold air, a sting in the tail of winter, has decimated certain regions in France and many “agriculteurs” are set to lose hundreds of thousands of euros.
Here in the South of France it really seemed that spring was here – we have been enjoying unusually high daytime temperatures and a glimmer of summer round the corner. With an ever-warming planet many of the fruit trees and vines are coming into blossom as much as three weeks earlier than previously. As you drive past orchards and vineyards you notice that the farmers have painted the trees and vines white in order to reflect the sun and hopefully slow down the new blossoms.
But on the night of 7th April disaster struck. Following a bright, sunny day the forecast was warning of a band of cold air spreading across France that, backed up by clear nighttime skies, would lead to frost. The end of the first week in April has turned out to be amongst the coldest on record with snow and frost at low altitude. At this time of year, with the colourful blossoms at their peak and new buds forming, the trees are at their most vulnerable.
Unfortunately these frosty episodes are happening more often and the “viticulteurs” take dramatic measures to protect their beloved vines. The most common method of preventing frost from attacking the vines is to light hundreds of “candles” around the vineyard – in reality loads of metal drums that are kept burning through the night in an attempt to keep the air temperature up. Other more hi-tech methods include the use of enormous fans to blow the cold air upwards or the extremely expensive use of helicopters to keep the air moving above the vines.
In St Emilion this week helicopters have been used in conjunction with candles to help prevent the frost. But with overnight temperatures hitting minus 6 celsius in many places the damage to the vines is irreversible this year and it is estimated that upto 80% of French vineyards have been affected.
In some regions here in the South of France, such as Languedoc-Roussillon and Herault, some growers are saying that nearly 95% of their vines have been lost and that there will be very few bottles with a 2021 label. There is, however, a government backed fund in place to aid the agricultural industry in France, known as “le régime de calamité agricole”.
Following the extreme cold that swept through France on the night of 7th April the government has activated its plan to support the wine growers and other sectors of the agricultural industry. Although most farmers take out private insurance, the insurance companies will not cover the losses incurred due to weather so it falls to the government to help out. In order to be eligible the wine grower needs to show a potential loss of more than 1000 euros – some are claiming losses in excess of 100,000 euros!
The weather forecast is still predicting more cold weather to come which no doubt will lead to more damage to the vines. The harvest for this year is already looking pretty bleak, so if you find a 2021 from France it may well be a rarity and we will have to wait for the summer to see if it is any good.