30 April 2021
Frost Strikes Burgundy • Part 1
A staggering 80% of all French winemaking appellations have been affected by a wave of frost, which also struck much of northern and central Italy, including Piedmont and Tuscany. Nowhere has the damage been more severe than in Burgundy, where growers endured three successive nights of frost from April 5th.
The effect of spring frost is measured in the percentage of buds damaged or destroyed: growers in Chablis, the Côte de Beaune (including Meursault, Puligny and Chassagne) and the Mâconnais have reported 100% losses in certain sectors. Pinot Noir – less advanced in its vegetative cycle – suffered less than Chardonnay, but the picture from the Côte de Nuits is only marginally better. The coolest vineyards of the Côte de Nuits and Hautes-Côtes, where the nascent buds have not yet shed their protective cottony cloaks, are thought to be the least affected.
Candles lit along the length of the region made for a spectacular sight, but they were of little use as temperatures dropped as low as -7. Frost in humid conditions is especially lethal, so the snow on the night of April 6th was a real kick in the grower’s teeth. Bright sunshine the following morning wrought more havoc yet, burning new buds and leaves despite the smokescreen provided by blazing bales of hay.
The percentage of buds lost at this stage does not equate to the yield loss percentage (versus an average year) come harvest time. Second-generation buds may emerge, meaning even vineyards frosted 100% are capable of yielding fruit. It is, therefore, impossible to predict how limited Burgundy’s 2021 vintage will be. Still, most growers estimate the damage to be far more widespread than in 2016 – the last vintage ravaged by the frost – when the total yield was 30% below the average.
A potentially tiny crop in 2021 comes on the back of two small ones in 2020 and 2019. It is sobering to think growers in villages such as Chassagne and Saint-Aubin, both badly frosted in 2019, may produce in three years as much wine as they would hope to in a single one. Alarmingly, there is the threat of further frost over the coming week or two before temperatures rise.
The frost is unlikely to impact the quality of the wines, though growers will have to carefully monitor the fruit of second-generation buds, which will ripen later. The style of the vintage will primarily be determined by the weather, from now until harvest, but it’s plausible the wines will boast extra concentration thanks to the low yields. 2016 is the most recent in a long line of vintages – including 1998, 1991 and the legendary 1945 vintage – in which many Burgundian domaines overcame frost to produce stunning wines.
Our Burgundy Buyer, Jason Haynes, has been in touch with many of our Burgundian winemakers over the past fortnight. In part two of this blog, we will bring you updates on specific appellations. We will hear from the growers on techniques they’ll develop from this experience to use in the vineyard and combat frost in the future.
By Will Heslop, Wine Buyer, Stannary Wine