Who would be a winegrower?

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

04 May 2017

What must it be like preparing your vineyards all winter, seeing the first shoots of life appearing in your fields, then having to live with the grim reality that, with the year barely a third of the way through, your chances of making any profit are as withered as the frost-blackened vines in your fields.

This is the fate that hundreds – probably thousands – of European growers are having to live with following the Arctic air that ripped through the continent from Sussex to Lombardy at the end of April, sending the mercury plunging.

Climate change has, it seems, done two things: it’s made summers more chaotic and winters milder. And this combination is playing havoc with vineyards – particularly, it seems, in France.

One grower was reported in the French press as saying that his vineyards have been hit by some degree of frost damage 11 years out of the last 16

The warm winters mean that vines are often two or three weeks ahead of schedule – making them fatally vulnerable to spring frosts, particularly late ones; while summer hail – always something of a factor – now seems to be an almost yearly occurrence.

One grower was reported in the French press as saying that his vineyards have been hit by some degree of frost damage 11 years out of the last 16. For many, it’s too much. A friend of mine in the Loire told me that many of her neighbours are hanging up their secateurs.

Chablis and Burgundy, too, seem to have had a truly miserable run of vintages, with frost, hail, mildew and God knows what playing havoc with yield levels.

Burgundy has probably lost about 1-2 years-worth of volume over the last five years – though at least in their case the market is mostly prepared to pay extra for what little there is available. If you’re a producer of Touraine Sauvignon or Muscadet the economics must be truly miserable.

This is an industry that has neither the capital nor the stocks to be able to ride out significant tumbles in productivity

I’m also worried for British growers this year. Some have described the frost as ‘catastrophic’ and ‘the worst in 30 years’.

Certainly, after a decade of almost untrammeled good news, this is a chill blast of reality for a region that had perhaps forgotten just how cool-climate it really is.

But it must be devastating for the many small producers who have had half their crop (or worse) wiped out before flowering has even begun.

Many of the country’s sparkling wine producers are little more than five years old. Many, I would imagine, are heavily indebted, with a lengthy repayment programme.

There will, I’m sure, be attempts to put a brave face on the situation, but this is an industry that has neither the capital nor the stocks to be able to ride out significant tumbles in productivity.

Here’s hoping for a stress-free summer – and for a less bad-tempered spring in 2018.

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