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Damaged Vines: Hail, Frost & Flood Across France

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Damaged Vines: Hail, Frost & Flood Across France


To state the obvious: wine is made from grapes that are grown in the ground. This may seem banal, but very few of us are forced to reconcile this simple agricultural fact with the cold quaff of rosé hurling down our gullets.

Reconcile we must. The alternative is willful ignorance, a prophylactic against the most basic of hard truths.

I was sobered last week when Dixon Brooke of KLWM sent his 2016 vintage report from France. But I thought you would want to know. That's why, in an already strange and overwhelming news week, it is with a heavy heart that I bring you a summary of Dixon's notes.

In mid-April, hail ravaged parts of the central Loire, southern Burgundy and northern Rhône, ripping vines apart cordon from cane. One Loire producer we work with lost 80% of their crop.

Later in the month, on the 27th, temperatures dipped well below freezing across vast portions of northern France: the entire Loire Valley including Muscadet, parts of southern Champagne, and the northern aspects of Burgundy, especially Chablis. Over the centuries, certain techniques have been developed to ward off the effects of sudden frost, such as the fires pictured above (called "bougies" or candles) in Chablis. However, this particular frost settled in highly unusual ways, and worse yet . . .

"There was a lot of humidity and the temperatures descended to between -3 and -7 degrees Celsius, freezing the young vine buds. If the ice is able to melt slowly and naturally, the buds can actually survive this to a greater or lesser degree. Counter-intuitively, the worst thing that can happen is a bright sunny morning the next day. This will cause the ice to melt too quickly and the wet, vulnerable buds will effectively be 'grilled' by the sunlight. This is what happened in many areas."

The damage was extensive.

And there's more. In May, Chablis was hit with two more hail storms, roughly two weeks apart. The latter of the two storms also swept through the northern parts of Beaujolais, hitting several of the Cru villages, destroying vine wood so badly that severe losses will extend all the way through the 2017 vintage.

Lastly, as if testing the very core of French winemakers' reserves, May and June have been terribly wet. The rains that threatened Paris also surged through these same growing regions, bringing mold and lethargy to already ravaged vines.

As Dixon puts it: "Flowering is also very sensitive to weather conditions, so if the tiny harvest that remains is not able to flower in good conditions. . . well, there won’t be much left."

As I said, a grim reminder of the volatile nature of wine. Many or even most of the wines we, at Woodland Wine Merchant, are most excited about--the wines I write about and the wines that bring giddy smiles to our faces when we greet you in the shop--are made by small farmers who cannot sustain the kinds of losses we might see in 2016. Hopefully conditions improve. Our hearts are with these growers as they work to make great wines with what fruit they have.

That said, this is not a plea for your sympathy so much as a missive of stewardship on my part. We usually like to keep it lively, celebrate the successes. But every once in a while I feel called to somber reflection. For you, Friendly Wine Lover, you should do what you've always done. Drink the wine you love, learn about the people and places from which it comes, and taste what's in your glass for all the sublime grandeur it deserves. Because, as this report reminds us, wine is a thing of great and fragile beauty.