It has been raining sporadically since this Friday morning July 4th, with overcast skies that seem to be struggling to clear. The forecast here in the Cote d’Or is for rain and possible thunderstorms through the weekend. As Americans fire up their grills for Independence Day celebrations, here in Burgundy there is a sense of foreboding, a background of wary anticipation of what may lie ahead after last Saturday’s devastating hailstorms. Is there more destruction to come? Will there be gentle rain to nourish the grapes, or violent winds, heavy downpours, and potentially destructive hail? A sense of resolution hangs in the air with the humidity. What can be done in the face of natural calamity?
Last Saturday this writer followed the storms as they moved through the Cote d’Or, wreaking their localized havoc. This week has been spent talking with vignerons, negociants, and others about the damage inflicted, possible solutions, and what will follow as the growing season follows its course. Happily, areas unaffected by hail show delightful prospects, with swelling berries and full crop loads, a benefice of the rain on Saturday, and the warm sun that shone brilliantly in the five days that followed.
Two major areas show damage in the Cote d’Or, ranging from near total devastation of vines and grapes to difficult partial leaf loss and berry damage in a small amount of clusters in some vineyards. The Cote de Beaune villages of Meursault, Pommard, and Beaune show the most damage in a swath mid-slope in the 1ers Crus, while the middle Cote de Nuits villages of Vosne-Romanee, Flagey-Echezeaux, Vougeot, and Chambolle sustained considerable damage, again mid-slope, in the Grands Crus and 1ers Crus ranging from La Tache north through to Chambolle 1er Cru Amoureuses. Having driven and walked these areas multiple times in the last week, I am astounded by the damage inflicted in only a few minutes, merely moments in the early evening of Saturday, June 28th. Moments that felt like hours as the hail pelted down ferociously on my car on the small road between Grand Cru Musigny and Bertagna’s monopole Vougeot 1er Cru Clos de La Perriere during the second wave of the storms around 5:45pm. My zero deductible auto insurance will be needed.
Several villages were spared significant damage. Maranges, Santenay, Chassagne, the Montrachet Grands Crus, and southern Puligny vineyards show very little signs of damage to leaves or fruit on the vines. Across the A6 motorway into Savigny, Pernand, Aloxe, and Ladoix there is some erosion from the rains at higher and steeper elevations, but no hail damage. On through Corgoloin and Comblanchien, Premeaux, and Nuits St. Georges things look very healthy. The vineyards north of the village of Chambolle, into Morey St. Denis and Gevrey-Chambertin saw minimal damage, with some leaf loss in the Chambertin Grands Crus.
So what does hail do to the vineyards that can be so destructive to the leaves, grapes and the vine in general? The first point to make is that while the thunderstorm may cover a broad reach of territory, hail falling within the thunderstorm can seem very localized, almost capricious. It tends to fall in sheets or bursts, as the thunderstorm recycles its moisture upwards multiple times where the water freezes into pellets that can vary from sleet sized to pea, raspberry, or even golf ball sized nuggets. Imagine it raining golf balls! Hail pellets are frozen water, ice, and they are heavy and destructive when they hit. And they usually hit with force, as they are carried downward by wind and gravity with what are usually torrential downpours of rain.
Those of you who have visited Burgundy know that agriculture here is more akin to gardening than agribusiness. Plots are small and extremely parcellated and divided through generations of inheritance, and they are tended with small tractors, by hand, and in some cases still cultivated with horses. When hail strikes a vineyard, its sheer force of impact shreds and decimates leaf cover, spreading a carpet of green onto the ground and exposing the bunches of grapes. This has an immediate impact on photosynthesis if leaf loss is substantial, and can delay or retard the ripening process for a week or more as the plant regenerates its foliage.
If the hailstorm continues more than a few moments the grape bunches can also be severely impacted, from splitting open individual grapes to shredding the bunches and leaving nothing but stems. Profound damage can also include stripping the wood bark from some of the branches, especially in vineyards pruned en cordon. Such damage cannot be overcome, and the vintage is lost in such areas that are so severely impacted.
Even when hail damage is only “minor”, the effects can be devastating. When only a few berries are affected, the entire bunch can quickly develop rot if left untreated. If the berry heals, the skins of the affected grapes often become thicker and scarred, resulting in higher tannin levels and a hard, drying, sometimes green, unpleasant overly-tannic flavor in the resulting wine called “gout de grele”, the flavor of hail. When hail effects are more widespread, the only real solution is sorting and eliminating the affected grape bunches, and even individual berries after destemming must be carefully sorted on the table de triage. If the wood of the vine is also severely affected, a “lost year” can also be the result as the vine must heal its branches before it can bear fruit again.
On the whole, the major effect of a hailstorm in the vineyard is the loss of yield. One cannot grow berries back when they have been destroyed. So a crop is reduced or lost. In the Cote d’Or, the losses over the last four years to weather events and hail have resulted in wine production levels that approach an average of half a normal crop. So some producers have had the equivalent of only two years’ normal harvest in the last four years. Others have seen the same vineyards wiped out for three years running. While yields of 15 to 20 hectoliters per hectare may make for intensely concentrated wines, they do not a livelihood make. The intense pressure on supply with increasing world demand for Burgundy is having a significant impact on prices, that’s for sure. But it is also having a psychological effect, where growers who have been practicing their art for multiple generations are being deprived of income, livelihood, and the practices through which they organize their daily, monthly, and yearly tasks. These are not happy times here, and many point to human-influenced climate change as a major factor in their losses over the last 10 to 15 years.
To return to an assessment of the damage to each village, I will begin from the south. As I wrote earlier, from Maranges through the Grands Crus of Montrachet appear fine. The northern and upper slope 1ers Crus of Puligny Pucelles, Clavaillon and Caillerets show damage that may result in the loss of 10% of the crop. Further north into Folatieres, Truffiere, Combettes, Champs Canet, and especially Chalumeaux, I estimate the losses at between 25 and 30%. The border of Puligny and Meursault, below Blagny, was also hit pretty hard.
It is when you get to northern upper Meursault, the 1ers Crus of Santenots and Les Cras that things turn ugly. Some growers estimate losses of 60 to 75%. Crossing into the upper Volnay 1ers Crus the damage intensifies. Clos de Chenies, Caillerets, and Taillepieds suffered 90% losses, and Fremiers, Clos des Ducs, and Chanlins did not fare much better.
Moving into Pommard there is utter devastation through most of the 1ers Crus on both sides of the village. Many growers sadly report that this is the third year in a row of nearly complete losses in some Pommard vineyards, in spite of the installation of hail cannons which launch iodine-based compounds in sonic waves, supposedly to disrupt hail stone formation. 1ers Crus Charmots, Pezerolles, and the upper parts of Epenots are in tatters.
Probably the most significant damage that this writer saw was in the line of Beaune 1ers Crus from the Pommard boundary to the autoroute A6. Clos des Mouches, Aigrots, Avaux, Teurons, Greves, Bressandes, Cent Vignes, Marconnets, and Clos du Roi will make very little if any wine in 2014.
The Cote de Nuits did not escape unscathed, though the level of damage was not nearly as catastrophic. From La Tache through La Grande Rue and into Richebourg and Romanee St. Vivant, 30 to 40% of the crop will be affected. The damage continued through 1ers Crus Beaux Monts and Suchots, and seems particularly acute in Grands Echezeaux, the upper parcels of Clos Vougeot, Musigny, and into Vougeot 1er Cru Clos de La Perriere across from the Clos Vougeot Chapter House, as well as into Chambolle 1ers Crus Les Amoureuses and Charmes. Between 25 and 40% of the parcels were affected in these areas.
The hail seems to have petered out a bit at Bonnes Mares, without significant damage in Morey St. Denis. Likewise I have heard reports of only 5% losses in the Grands Crus of Chambertin, with minimal damage in Gevrey and only small damage reported in Brochon, Fixin, and north to Marsannay.
As I write, now into afternoon in my gite at Domaine Henri Richard in Gevrey, the sun struggles through patches of clouds with darker skies to the south. Will luck hold through the evening and perhaps through the weekend forecast?