Save our wine! Big freeze spells disaster for French vineyards

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Water is sprayed in the morning to protect vineyards from frost damage outside Chablis, France, April 7, 2021Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
One way of protecting the vines from the frost is to spray water over the buds and shoots

The images are captivating, but across France farmers are counting the cost after three nights of sub-zero temperatures. For many winemakers the 2021 harvest is ruined.

Temperatures have dipped to record lows in some areas, and farmers have used every method they can to save their crops. Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie says he will declare an agricultural disaster.

Image source, Pom. Lefas/Domaine Lejeune-Pommard
Image caption,
The Chardonnay crop at this Burgundy vineyard has been worst hit by three nights of sub-zero temperatures

The deep frosts have destroyed buds on grapevines in the legendary vineyards of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Languedoc and the Rhône valley.

"It's a national phenomenon," warned Jérôme Despey, head of the FNSEA farmers' union, who said these frosts were worse than any he could remember.

Winemaker Boris Calmette, 62, spoke of a catastrophe: "We've got wine co-operatives affected by as much as 90%, which is extremely rare."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Anti-frost candles have been lit in fields across France several nights in a row

Local agriculture officials say 90% of the vineyards in the southern Hérault area have been hit, and it is not just grapes either: peach trees, nectarines and apricots are all damaged.

Among the vines badly affected are those of the Pic St Loup in the Languedoc in France's south, where temperatures fell as low as -8C.

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All 65 wine areas of Bordeaux have been hit by temperatures as low as -5C and wine-growers have lit braziers and candles a few feet apart in an attempt to protect their crops. Another tactic is to burn bales of straw.

In the Sauternes region of Bordeaux, some vineyards have reported 90% of the crop destroyed.

Image source, Reuters

It was not just fires that were lit to protect crops from damage.

Many vineyards and orchards were sprayed with water by overhead sprinklers to cover the shoots and buds with a layer of ice. The ice forms a coating around the buds and protects them from frost.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
A wine grower lights heaters early in the morning, to protect vineyards from frost damage outside Chablis in northern Burgundy

The fires have spread smoke in several areas, leading to complaints of smog in nearby towns and cities.

Green politicians in the Gironde area around Bordeaux have objected to paraffin lamps causing a thick haze and leading to the worst air quality in the country on Thursday.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Heaters are lit early in the morning to protect vineyards from frost damage outside Chablis

Similar problems with pollution have been reported in the south-east, near Lyon further north and elsewhere.

Those farmers who did not have special equipment to keep their trees and vines from freezing burned bales of hay. Air quality monitoring group Atmo Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes said the issue had "rarely been so evident".

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Aerial view of smoke rising from fires lit in the vineyards to protect them from frost at the heart of the Vouvray vineyard in Touraine

The government is preparing a rescue package for stricken farmers which will include tax breaks and other financial help.

"This situation is unheard of," the agriculture minister said.

Jean-Marie Barillère, head of European wine group CEEV, said it was already clear the 2021 harvest would be poor.

Boris Calmette told French radio, "It literally turns your stomach, when you spend the morning in the vines and see the frozen leaves, which after two or three hours in the sun have gone grey or black."

Media caption,

Jean de Saint Venant: "We create a smokescreen like sunglasses for the vines"

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