First came American taxes on French wines, then the pandemic and dumping of liters of unsold wine and champagne when France was shut down and alcohol consumption fell. Now wine producers and fruit growers are facing one of their gloomiest harvests after a three-day agricultural disaster covered frost. Although the government has promised financial support, many are staring into the financial ruin.
It took only three days, from the evening of April 5 to the morning of April 8, for a rare cold moment to drop temperatures to off-season levels below zero, with frost falling over vineyards and orchards across France in one of the worst episodes of its kind on record.
“It’s a national phenomenon,” said Jérôme Despey, general secretary of the FNSEA Agricultural Association and winemaker from the southern Hérault region. “You can go back in history, there have been (freezing) episodes in 1991, 1997, 2003 but in my opinion it is beyond them all.”
Frost has always been the enemy of winegrowers, but it was a combination of off-season and extreme temperatures that made this year such a disaster.
After an unusual heat in mid-March, when temperatures peaked around 26 ° C, causing the vegetation to bloom early, temperatures suddenly dropped to near -5 ° C to -7 ° C, resulting in decimation of budding crops. Whether in the north or the south, France recorded exceptionally off-season temperatures. Record low temperatures for April were broken in the usually warm southern city of Nîmes, which reached -0.7 ° C, while in the northern city of Beauvais, the off-season heat in March saw its mercury drop to 25 ° C.
Remember to support your local winemakers, they need you now more than ever. The picture is from one of our Merlot packages with about 50% damage. We have minor damage and most wineries look good so far, we are extremely grateful for that. 🌿❄️⁰ # springfrost #gel pic.twitter.com/O8OqKAdTYr
– Chateau Carsin (@chateaucarsin) April 8, 2021
Every wine-producing region in France has been affected, from Val-de-Loire to Provence, from Beaujolais to Corsica, from the Rhone Valley to the Languedoc and in the famous red wine regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Only Alsace and large parts of Champagne and the Cognac region have saved anything.
As in so many other regions, there are winegrowers in Bordeaux who have had their entire vineyards destroyed.
“There will be winemakers here who will be financially devastated by this,” said Christophe Chateau, who represents winemakers and wine merchants in the Bordeaux region.
“We just do not know how many yet.”
In the Rhône Valley area, the head of the local wine producers’ body, Philippe Pellaton, said it would be “the smallest harvest in the last 40 years” with losses of 80-90 percent compared to a normal harvest.
Winemakers are “crushed, desperate”, he said, with the famous Côte-Rôtie area particularly badly affected.
In Burgundy, which produces some of the finest white wines in the world, the head of the local producers’ association estimated that “at least 50 percent” of the 2021 harvest had been lost.
Early estimates indicate that up to 80 percent of French vineyards have been affected. Farmers who grow fruit and arable crops, such as rapeseed, apples and apricots, are also facing heavy losses.
Since France declared an “agricultural disaster” on April 8, Prime Minister Jean Castex has promised “emergency aid” and abolished ceilings on compensation for agricultural disasters. The government has also requested support from banks and insurers.
Wineries and fruit growers met with the agriculture minister on Monday to present their demands to help the industry navigate back to recovery. Aside from financial support, they want bank loan repayments suspended and insurance improvements in a sector where only a third of wine producers are insured.
To refute Trump’s taxes, pandemic
But emergency aid cannot come fast enough, with the recovery likely to be long and difficult. Before the frost hit, wine growers had spent the past two years on a rough course thanks to taxes introduced by Donald Trump that reduced the flow of wine exports to a comparative seepage. In the last quarter of 2019, French wine exports to the United States plummeted almost one-fifth.
Then came the Covid-19 pandemic. Bar and restaurant closures led to a reduction in alcohol consumption with slower sales at one point, which gave producers no choice but to dump liters of unsold bottles of champagne, beer and wine. Meanwhile, a halt to tourism due to lockdowns and international border closures has had an impact on the wine sector, which relies on dollars from tourists who visit French wineries en masse.
In January, however, French wine producers spoke of their prospects for a better year: Trump’s postponement ended taxes on their wines and signs of an economic boom in Asia and other markets rose well.
Chateau said there was a feeling “we got through the bad times and things would get better again”. Even with raw materials lost to the frost this year, winemakers may fall back on stocks stored in large cellars from previous years’ harvests, but many are worried about their deliveries by 2022 and even 2023. Serious damage to vines will make it even more difficult to recover losses and for winemakers to recover from the pandemic.
“If there is less wine, even if the price is high due to lower deliveries, it will affect,” Chateau said.
French wine and spirits exports in 2020 were valued at around 12 billion euros, which reflects a decrease of 14 percent compared to 2019, according to the Federation of Exporters of French Wines and Spirits.
After seeing so many winemakers try to protect their crops from the frost with fire, fans or even helicopters – often in vain – Chateau said he would like some of the government’s aid packages to be allocated to innovative technologies to help winegrowers better adapt to climate change. A growing number of techniques such as scanning devices are used by growers to track nitrogen and sap flow and even control the health of vines.
Some, such as Laetitia Allemand, whose vineyard is located in the Hautes-Alpes, adhere to more traditional methods. She relied on an old vine, Mollard, which blooms later in the year, and her grapes do not suffer from the frost. “No one was interested in this variety 10 or 20 years ago,” she told Franceinfo, although the recent crisis may lead others to follow her example.
Chateau is still optimistic about the future of the wine industry. “We will be strong enough to get through because of the strong wine culture in France and its image abroad,” he said. “But we get less [winegrowers] in the coming years because many not only will not get through this crisis, but those who do will become stronger. ”