Violent hailstorms wipe out R20 billion worth of bubbly in Champagne region

by | Jun 28, 2018 | Blog, Lifestyle, News

After freakishly violent hailstorms ravaged the Bordeaux and Champagne wine growing regions of France earlier this year, the extent of the damage has been revealed, and it’s not looking particularly pretty for the vineyards or the producers ….

Chablis and Beaujolais hit by hail (Christopher Piper Wines)

The French government has promises to help winegrowers in the Bordeaux region, some of whom lost their entire crop in the storms on 27 May 2018. The northeastern Champagne region was struck by four particularly heavy hailstorms in late April and May just as the vines were beginning to flower.

Hailstones “the size of pigeon eggs” devastated thousands of acres of prime vineyards in Champagne and Bordeaux. The violent hail storms wiped out the equivalent of eight million bottles of grapes and roughly €125 million (R20 billion) worth of bubbly in the Champagne region alone.

“So far 1,800 hectares have been damaged of which 1,000 have been 100% destroyed, representing 3% of the total champagne-growing area,” said the industry’s Champagne Committee.

A combined 7,100 hectares were affected by two hailstorms on 26th May, including 3,400 hectares that were 80% destroyed.

The Bourg and Blaye regions were the most heavily damaged, followed by Médoc, Entre-deux-Mers, and Pessac-Léognan.

It is impossible to tell precisely the volume of loss, as a significant portion of the branches are still in place and not all leaves are broken. Let’s say that the area affected by the storm covers about 40 hectares out of the 92 hectares in production on the estate,’ Philippe Dambrine, general manager of Château Cantemerle, told Decanter.com.

Hail damage in Côtes de Bourg. Credit: Côtes de Bourg / France Info

“Storm and hail are not unusual phenomena in Champagne, but what is rare is to see them at this very early stage and with this level of violence,” said Champagne Committee communications director Thibaut Le Mailloux.

“Three per cent of the potential future harvest vanished before our eyes,” he told the Telegraph. “And it happened at a very bad time, as the vines are only starting to flower this week. Of course, flowers are more fragile than fruit or buds.

Up to 10,000 kilograms of grapes are produced per hectare with 1.3 kg going into each bottle. Given that wholesale “ex-cellar” bottles sell for €16 (R256) a bottle on average, considerably lower than sale price, the loss amounts to at least €125 million (R20 billion).

In Pessac-Léognan, the hailstorm was particularly violent at Martillac, near the plateau of Rochemorin, where some vines were extensively damaged.

Guillaume Pouthier from Château les Carmes Haut-Brion said, ‘We were hit on the vines of Martillac, but luckily our urban vineyard, where our winery is located, was not damaged.’

Almost the entire vineyard of Château Smith Haut Lafitte was hit by the hail. ‘We were hit pretty hard, more on the white grapes than on the red,’ explained Fabien Teitgen, the technical director at Smith Haut Lafitte, told Decanter.com.

Hailstorm shield

In June last year, the vineyards of Burgundy was also hard hit by hailstorms, which prompted the region to become the first in France to be totally covered by a ‘hailstone shield’ to protect crops against destructive storms that have blighted the famed wine growing region in recent years.

Infographic credit: behance.net

In June, the entire area received protection by a network of 125 ground generators that cause tiny particles of silver iodide to rise to the clouds above, where they stop the formation of hail stones, and thus reduce the risk of damage. The move to total ‘cloud seeding’ cover follows several years of severe hailstorms in the region.

Burgundy’s regional association for the study and fight against atmospheric issues, or ARELFA for short, has stumped up funding from producers to employ the technology in vineyards.

“Hail storms have increased in recent years, the intensity is greater,” said Thiébault Huber, president of ARELFA, as well as president of the Volnay wine union. He owns four hectares (10 acres) of vines making Burgundy reds and whites in three parishes: Volnay, Pommard and Meursault.

“Since 2001, it’s been terrible; when it hails, sometimes 90 or even 100 per cent of the grape harvest is lost. It’s more and more frequent,” he said. “In 2012, we lost a huge amount to hail in the Côte de Beaune and Côte Chalonnaise. Last year, the Maconnais was hit, as was Chablis two or three times, and we had 11 alerts elsewhere.”

“We lost a massive amount of money and feared for our future, and decided we couldn’t just sit here arms crossed waiting for the hail to rain down and imperil our crops.”

Some generators were installed in 2014 after major destruction, covering 15,000 hectares. but last year, the entire 42,000 hectares area was protected, including the Maconnais, Beaujolais and Chablis areas.

This cloud seeding system is also used in the wine regions of Bordeaux and southwestern France, but does not provide such extensive coverage.

The generator has a combustion chamber, which heats the particles sending a cloud  to an altitude of up to a kilometre. A generator is installed every 10 kilometres to protect the entire region, and producers are planting them up to 50 kilometres before the vineyards.

A weather forecaster sends them alerts four hours ahead of a predicted storm and the generators are switched on as soon as the risk surpasses 40 per cent. A message is sent to every wine grower with a generator, thus sending enough molecules into the sky to form a shield to stop the hail.

Wine growers are not the only beneficiaries, said Raphaël Dubois, winegrower in charge of the shield system in Nuits-Saint-Georges en Côte-d’Or.

“This system also serves farmers and citizens who have a verandah or vegetable garden. When hailstones the size of golf balls fall from the sky, it’s not just the vines that are hit,” he told AFP.

With the technique only effective in 48 per cent of cases, alternative solutions do exist, but they have other drawbacks. One is to protect the vines with netting, but this is hugely expensive – around €30,000 (£25,000) per hectare and many deem the nets an eyesore in a region that has just been awarded UNESCO world heritage status for its “climats” – its famed grape-growing plots.

Original article appears HERE (Telegraph.co.uk) and HERE (Decanter.com)

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