French winemakers count cost of ‘worst freeze in decades’

Desperate French farmers counted the cost Friday of several nights' of frost this week which threaten to decimate grape harvests in some of the country's best-known and prestigious wine-producing regions.

French winemakers count cost of 'worst freeze in decades'
Water freezes around the vines in a vineyard near Chablis, Burgundy, on April 7th. Photo: Jeff PACHOUD / AFP

The government is readying an emergency rescue package after the unusual freezing temperatures which could be some of the most damaging in decades for crops and vines across the country.

From the Bordeaux region in the southwest to the Burgundy and Rhone valley in the east, winemakers were back out in their fields on Friday inspecting the destruction.

“It breaks like glass because there’s no water inside,” Dominique Guignard, a wine maker in the Graves area near Bordeaux, told AFP as he rubbed the first shoots on his vines. 

“It’s completely dried out, there’s no life inside,” said Guignard, who heads a group of producers in Graves, which is known for its robust red wine.

Many industry experts say the frost damage may be the worst since the 1990s.

“It’s a national phenomenon,” said Jérôme Despey, secretary general of the FNSEA farming union and a winemaker from the Hérault region.

“You can go back in history, there have been (freezing) episodes in 1991, 1997, 2003 but in my opinion it’s beyond all of them.”

READ ALSO: France to declare agricultural disaster over spring frosts that damaged vineyards

In the Rhône valley area, the head of the local wine producers’ body, Philippe Pellaton said that it would be “the smallest harvest of the last 40 years” with losses of 80-90 percent compared with normal. 

Winemakers are “shattered, desperate,” he said, with the famed Côte-Rôtie area particularly badly hit.

In Burgundy, which produces some of the finest white wines in the world, the head of the local producers’ association estimated that “at least 50 percent” if this year’s harvest had been lost.

Mass burning

In a bid to ward off the frost overnight on Tuesday and Wednesday, farmers across the country lit thousands of small fires and candles near their crops to prevent freezing.

IN PICTURES French vineyards ablaze with candles in bid to ward off frosts

The burning was so intense in the southeast that it led to a layer of smog over the region, including over the city of Lyon, and a pollution warning.

Smoke rises from fires lit in the Vouvray vineyard in Touraine. Photo: Guillaume SOUVANT / AFP

As well as vines, fruit trees have also been badly hit along with other crops like beet and rapeseed.

French Agriculture Minister Julien Dénormandie told Franceinfo radio late Thursday that the cold snap had been “particularly difficult” for the sector with “significant losses” registered.

“We are completely mobilised so that the accompanying measures can be put in place as quickly as possible,” he said.

“Specifically, we will implement a regime of agricultural disaster,” saying tax breaks could be envisaged as well as help from banks and insurance and warning that more cold weather could be on the way.

Many wine growers are not insured against frost because of the cost of the coverage, and the industry as a whole has been hit in recent years by tariffs imposed by former US president Donald Trump on French wine as well as Brexit.

READ ALSO: Trump’s US wine tariffs ‘threaten 100,000 jobs in French countryside’

The practice of lighting fires or candles near vines or fruit trees to prevent frost forming is a long-standing technique used in early spring when the first green shoots are vulnerable to the cold.

Some winegrowers use wind machines to keep frost from setting in.

Others use water sprinklers to deliberately create ice which acts like a mini-igloo around branches, preventing the frost from drying out the leaves.

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Scorching summer was France’s second hottest on record

Three heatwaves since June produced France's second-hottest summer since records began in 1900, the Météo France weather service said on Tuesday, warning that scorching temperatures will be increasingly common as the climate crisis intensifies.

Scorching summer was France's second hottest on record

With 33 days of extreme heat overall, average temperatures for June, July and August were 2.3C above normal for the period of 1991-2020.

It was surpassed only by the 2003 heatwave that caught much of France unprepared for prolonged scorching conditions, leading to nearly 15,000 heat-related deaths, mainly among the elderly.

Data is not yet available for heat-related deaths this summer, but it is likely to be significantly lower than 15,000 thanks to preventative measures taken by local and national authorities. 

Most experts attribute the rising temperatures to the climate crisis, with Météo France noting that over the past eight summers in France, six have been among the 10-hottest ever.

By 2050, “we expect that around half of summer seasons will be at comparable temperatures, if not higher,” even if greenhouse gas emissions are contained, the agency’s research director Samuel Morin said at a press conference.

The heat helped drive a series of wildfires across France this summer, in particular a huge blaze in the southwest that burned for more than a month and blackened 20,000 hectares. 

Unusually, wildfires also broke out even in the normally cooler north of the country, and in total an area five times the size of Paris burned over the summer. 

Adding to the misery was a record drought that required widespread limits on water use, with July the driest month since 1961 – many areas still have water restrictions in place.

MAP: Where in France are there water restrictions and what do they mean?

Forecasters have also warned that autumn storms around the Mediterranean – a regular event as air temperatures cool – will be unusually intense this year because of the very high summer temperatures. A storm that hit the island of Corsica in mid August claimed six lives. 

“The summer we’ve just been through is a powerful call to order,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said on Monday, laying out her priorities for an “ecological planning” programme to guide France’s efforts against climate change.