It took only five minutes one Saturday afternoon in June for some vine growers in Burgundy to lose an entire yeard’s crop of grapes – and therefore a year’s income. In that short period a violent hailstorm ripped through a narrow strip of vines that included Volnay and Pommard, two of the best appellations in the Côte de Beaune. Some will have very expensive insurance against hail, others will have chanced their arm hoping that the disaster that struck the same small area of Burgundy in each of the last two years couldn’t happen a third time. They were sadly mistaken.
This year the hail was not confined to Burgundy. In the Languedoc, on July 6th, a large swathe of vineyards was hit, covering some of Cabardes, northern Corbières and large parts of Minervois. One grower I talked to said he had never seen anything like it. "The leaves were like spinach leaves – spinach leaves that had been eaten by slugs". In early June, it was the turn of the northern Médoc in Bordeaux. Jean-Christophe Mau, proprietor of Château Preuillac, which lost up to 80 per cent of this year's crop, seemed more philosophical; he was quoted in Decanter magazine as saying "It's bad news but that is nature".
I talked to Pascal Rossignol, Burgundian and proprietor of Le Caveau in Kilkenny while he was in Burgundy last week. “I have made eight visits so far and they cannot talk of anything but the hail,” he said. “It followed exactly the same path, a narrow swathe through the vineyards of Volnay and Pommard. In one vineyard, Petits Noizons in Pommard, they haven’t made anything for three years. Some of those who have just started out and invested heavily are talking about closing down – they simply have no stock to sell.”
2009 was the last normal year in Burgundy. The problem can be compounded for many growers who rent vineyards. Those renting under the “en fermage” system hand over a third of the annual crop to the landlord. However, those renting “en metayage” must pay one third of an average crop – for the last three years this has meant paying more than you could possibly earn.
James Kinglake, producer of Domaine de Begude in Limoux in the Languedoc, was not affected by the hailstorms this year, but they did receive 30mm of rain from the storm. As a result, the harvest, which was a few weeks in advance, has slowed down rapidly. “Touch wood, this year the vines are looking better than they ever have; part of that is down to us now growing organically. But we had plenty of rain last winter, which the vines needed, and a good flowering and early summer.” However, they did lose 30 per cent of their crop in 2013 and 2012. “That means”, says Kinglake, “ that we lost money in each of those years. Hail insurance only really works if you grow grapes to sell on to the co-operatives or negociants, but not if you make and sell your own wine. It is also very expensive. The first 10 per cent of any claim is not covered. It isn’t just one year that is affected either – hail can damage the wood for next year’s crop.”
There are three methods used to prevent hail damage. The one measure that does work is hail netting. Widely used in Argentina where hailstorms are common, it shields the vines from hail. Unfortunately it is very expensive, and also blocks out some of the sunlight. This isn’t really a problem in Mendoza. However, all of France, and Burgundy in particular, needs every ray of sun that comes its way.
Cloud seeding, either from the ground or in light aeroplanes, involves using silver iodide smoke or dry ice to decrease the size of the hailstones and therefore reduce damage.
Thus far the damage caused has been limited to small pockets of vines in each region. The Languedoc and Bordeaux both produce large volumes of wine. The hailstorms will cause great hardship to individual growers but, with one exception, should not lead to a shortage of wine or an increase in prices. That exception is Burgundy and the Côte d’Or in particular. The run of small vintages in this highly sought-after region over the past three years, combined with an increased demand from China, has already seen retail prices for the best wines from top estates in areas such as Gevrey-Chambertin and Vosne-Romanée double or in some cases treble. Those in lesser appellations increased their prices by 5-10 per cent this year, and a similar increase seems likely in 2015. The biggest problem in Burgundy however is availability. Most Irish importers have seen their already tiny allocations cut, so buying a bottle of your favourite Burgundy will become increasingly difficult.