A year without a vintage

Severe weather events linked to climate change are reminding producers that farming is not for the faint of heart. Roger Morris reports.

Louis Moreau; Bérénice Lurton
Louis Moreau, producer, Chablis, Photo: Sébastien Boulard; Bérénice Lurton of Château Climens, Photo: Francois Poincet

Château Climens, a first-growth estate in the Bordeaux Barsac region dating back to the 1600s, has been owned through the centuries by only five families, the most recent being the Lurtons. In 1971, Lucien Lurton purchased Climens, raised its prestige and, 20 years later in 1991, handed it over to his daughter, Bérénice Lurton.

There couldn’t have been a worse time for Bérénice to begin her career at Climens: 1992 is the vintage that veteran vignerons cite as the worst within their lifetimes. Plagued by inopportune rains and widespread grape rot, most châteaux made no estate wine that year, and some made no wine at all. But despite this hard-luck start, Lurton has proved equal to the task, running Climens and leading the winegrowers association in Barsac and adjacent Sauternes which serves as the worldwide face for the region’s seductive, sweet wines. 

Then came the spring of 2017 and the night of April 26, a Wednesday. Much of Bordeaux held its breath, the way people do when the threat of a looming danger becomes palpable. The weather had taken a nasty turn, and frost was predicted by morning.

More adverse events

Climate change is not just about global warming. Increasingly, severe weather – especially late spring frosts, violent hail storms, severe droughts and frequent flooding – are proving nightmares for farmers, including those who make wine. Frosts are especially heartbreaking, coming so early in a growing season when the annual renewal is vibrant, yet fragile. 

“We knew there was a risk that night,” Lurton says, “but there are not really good preventive measures for that occurrence, especially for a surface as large as ours – 30 hectares.” During the evening, she watched temperatures drop to dangerous levels. The next morning, Lurton was out in her vineyards assessing the damage. “The effect of frost is not visible at first, but we knew we were severely hit,” she says. “After a few days, the vines were totally brown, as though burnt. Most of our neighbours in Barsac have had big losses, but we were the most severely affected.”

Lurton hoped that the second crop – the berries from late budding – might offer some respite. But as the year stretched through summer and into autumn, she gradually realised that 2017 would be the year there was no vintage. There was not even sufficient fruit for making the château’s second wine, Cyprès de Climens. 

Although Lurton had never before lost a complete vintage, losing a portion of a potential grape harvest is, increasingly, a fact of life for her and many wine producers around the world. Peter Heitz, winemaker at Napa Valley’s Turnbull Winery, says he regularly pencils in at least a 5% deficit annually to crop loss, even before the first hint of spring green appears. 

Chablis winegrower Louis Moreau had his nightmare a year earlier in May 2016, when about 70% of the region’s crop was lost to a hailstorm of Biblical proportions. “Actually, I had never seen before in one hour the vineyard going from spring to winter,” says Moreau, “and hail that stayed on the soil for hours.” Although the ice was less severe on Chablis’ left bank, that area was severely damaged by frost the same spring.

For Jim Law of Linden Vineyards in Virginia on America’s East Coast, late spring in 2014 was an even worse disaster. For two years, Law had been replanting much of his vineyard, but when a sustained hard freeze hit that spring, it killed all the tender new vines. Not only did Law lose that part of his revenue for several years, he had to find funds to plant new vines – and wait years for them to yield. 

Robert Sinskey, owner of the winery of the same name in Napa Valley’s Stags Leap District, had no inkling his vineyard and winery were in mortal danger last October as he and his wife spent an early holiday on the East Coast. Then he received a call late on a Sunday night that wildfires were raging through Napa Valley: he found out two days later that the blaze had razed a five-acre mature vineyard. “We lost about 20 per cent of our crop,” Sinskey says, counting unpicked, smoke-damaged grapes.

Attempts at prevention

There was a time when smudge pots were strewn throughout Napa Valley vineyards to fight frost, like pumpkins in a field before Halloween, but they have largely fallen out of favour. Some areas still use giant wind machines to break up pockets of cold air, and a common practice in areas with irrigation is spraying water across vines to form an ice layer. Counter-intuitively, the ice actually protects vines from damage for a few degrees. 

A relatively new approach is applying a potassium-based fertiliser on vines when frost is expected. “I use KDL – potassium – plus copper,” says Pennsylvania winegrower Anthony Vietri of Va La Vineyards. “The copper fungicide works to combat microbes/bacteria that cause frost to form on plant tissues. The KDL works to increase sugar and potassium levels within the vine to increase cold hardiness in the newly formed green tissue.” So far, few scientific studies have been done on the process.

One of the most creative – and most expensive – weapons against frost has been employed in New Zealand’s Marlborough vineyards. There, flotillas of helicopters hover over the most-vulnerable vineyards in early morning hours to circulate air. Another radical global-warming approach is to simply replace traditional vines, where permitted, with later-blooming clones or less-vulnerable grape varieties. 

Where hail is a major threat, as it is in Argentina, some vineyards have netting across their vineyards to protect against falling ice – an expensive if effective remedy now being tested in Europe. Recently, France has introduced cannons to combat frost. “They are placed all over the vineyards in order to create a blanket, and that action will reduce the potential ice – hail – into water,” Moreau says. “It is a collective initiative; every winegrower pays a fee per hectare on an annual basis, and the national office sends messages when there is a potential threat above 40%. The cannons are turned on, and the silver iodide diffuses into the clouds, and we tend to have more water. Is it effective? I tend to think so. This year in May, [there were] 15 alerts of hail and no damages.”

There are fairly effective chemical sprays to protect against rot or mildew in wet climates, but those farmers who grow organic or biodynamic fruit are not permitted to use them, resulting frequently in double-digit losses during wetter years.

When disasters cannot be averted, life is particularly depressing. Maintenance work in the vineyard must continue even if there is no prospect of a normal harvest. “We had to go through the vineyard to cut dead stalks in order to liberate the growth of the second buds,” Lurton recalls, and she and her crew continued to work during the season to protect that meagre crop. As harvest commenced elsewhere, “well, it was sort of quiet here,” Lurton says. “One of our cellars was almost empty. And right now [in early summer 2018], there is no drop of wine in the cellar of Climens.” 

Many small or medium-sized businesses in other industries would go bankrupt faced with both income loss and the need for funds to recover. What saves producers such as Climens are three things. First, contingency planning that recognises bumper crops help make up for disasters over a period of years; second, relying on insurance for a partial rescue, and third, cutting expenses while raising wine prices.

“We look at five-year blocks in business planning and try to average things out over that period,” Sinskey says. In his case, he is not immediately replanting his fire-razed vineyard, deferring the expenses of doing so to next year.

It pays to insure

Robb McMillan, who heads Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division, is well-known for his detailed annual analyses of the wine industry. He says that significant crop losses are rarer in California than in Europe, mainly due to occasional fire damage or flooding. The last significant loss, a major replanting due to a phylloxera outbreak in the 1990s caused by wide usage of the wrong rootstock, “was the best thing that ever happened to Napa Valley,” McMillan says. “It allowed them after years of experimentation to plant the right grapes in the right places,” especially highly prized Cabernet Sauvignon.

Insurance against crop loss in the US is mainly provided by the federal government through the United States Department of Agriculture. “It makes common sense that you need insurance if you are a grower,” McMillan says. “But a lot of people don’t have it although it’s almost free.” However, Sinskey and others argue that the US programme only lessens the sting, providing limited reimbursement. Catastrophic insurance, which would cover replanting and loss of income, doesn’t exist in the US.

Crop insurance is becoming more popular in France in response to significant losses over multiple recent vintages. Cécile Ha of the Bordeaux Wine Council says two types of insurance are currently available. “One is called multirisques climatiques, covering crop losses following hail, storm, frost,” she says. This insurance is partially funded by the European Union, requiring time-consuming and “fastidious” administration, but it does cover 30% to 40% of winemakers in Bordeaux. “The other is grêle parcellaire, insurance covering exclusively the consequence of hail. The winemaker can insure only some plots and not all his planted surface area.” 

Ha says her organisation strongly encourages members to buy insurance, noting that about 70% of châteaux badly hit by this spring’s hailstorms in Blaye, Bourg and the Medoc had insurance. For her part, Lurton has become a believer. “Yes, we took out insurance,” she says. “We were thinking that while we didn’t have the means to do so, we even less had the means to lose another crop.”

Lurton, Sinskey, Moreau and Law have all come to the inevitable conclusion which crop losses force on winegrowers. This year or next, prices will need to be raised to cover lost revenue and the added expenses of replanting..   

For full access...

Please log in or register now»               No subscription?  Try out our free 14 day trial»

Latest Articles