It’s another tough year in the vineyards here in France. Spring is the time when, like all plants, they start to bud. Called bud burst in vineyard speak. But these sensitive buds are also very prone to frost. And some years are definitely worse than others.
In the past, I personally wouldn’t have cared that spring had been tentative in coming. It might not have even registered in all honesty other than to complain it was a bit chilly. Since having managed a vineyard and gone on to grow our own food in our homestead garden, my goodness, we are noticing.
In general terms, spring starts where we live at end of January. It’s still chilly, especially in the shade, but there is progressive warmth in the air. This year was definitely different. We have had our expectations raised a number of times these past couple months. A warm sunny week or two here or there, only to be dashed when a particularly cold or rainy spell followed. We are into April now and still spring hasn’t made up its mind.
This past week in fact we suffered freezing night temperatures and frosts. Truly severe ones. Now again, why should most people care? I wouldn’t have in the past, but our vineyard taught us to.
In 2016 we lost probably a 1/3 or more of our potential grape crop to it. In 2017 we lost all of it. In the past France has had to declare an agricultural state of emergency due to the frosts. Many, like us, have lost entire crops, and not just grapes. This goes on to affect quantity and prices.
You see, when we have those odd days of sun and warmth the dormant vines go into action. They begin to sprout. The bud burst is really just that. The buds are not there and suddenly they are. True of much of the plant world really. I don’t know if the bud burst phrase is used as a general term or only amongst the wine makers. But it captures the concept extremely well.
This years bud burst came about a few weeks ago or so. Little bits of green suddenly showing up. And then phwaump! (That’s not a technical term.) The frost hit and the buds, which have quite a bit of moisture in them, freeze. And die.
We, like many others did what we could to protect our plants. We covered our peach and fig trees, as they were just budding. I’m taking off the covers next week. There is some frost damage but I am hopeful it is not bad.
For the vineyards and other agricultural crops, the scale of size means covering with some form of plastic or fleece is really just not possible. Some have in place water systems. They spray with water and encase the plants in a thin layer of ice. Sort of surprisingly it really does protect plants from frost. However, it is an expensive set up. Generally reserved for the Grand Cru’s.
Hateful Smudge Pots
What is more typical is setting out smudge pots. They look like very large candles. They are placed up and down the rows of the vineyard (or orchards). The idea is to create warm air near the plants and keep the colder air above, and away from the delicate buds.
It’s a tiring and labour intensive time. You have to stay up all night to make certain the smudge pots stay lit, replacing when they are about to run out. Lose the warm air even a little and the cold air will descend on plants.
How badly a frost affects the entire vine and its subsequent grapes is unclear and won’t necessarily be known for quite a while. We do know there will be less grape production this year, just how much is lost remains at the mercy of the rest of this spring and summers weather.
If you wish to read more about The Frost and how it affected Burgundy, France in 2016 Wine Spectator wrote an insightful article and have a good picture to show the smudge pots. Fast forward to now, and it’s a similar picture provided by Wine-Searcher.
If you would like to read more about what goes into making wine, check out our ‘What goes into Making Wine‘ section. This covers what is done in each season, and some more of the unexpected elements of this agricultural crop.
More about seasonal work in the vineyard:
Winter is a very busy time : Winter in the Vineyard (January & February)
Dealing with budding vines : Spring in the Vineyard (April)
Shop Wine Lover Gifts
As wine makers ourselves, we are always on the search for interesting and unique and particularly French wine items for our vintage and antiques shop. Here’s a taste of some of the things we have found: