French winemakers count cost of 'worst freezing in decades'

Myriam LEMETAYER with AFP bureaus around France
·3-min read
In a bid to ward off the frost earlier this week, farmers across the country lit thousands of small fires and candles near their crops to prevent freezing

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.

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 Jerome Despey, secretary general of the FNSEA farming union and a winemaker from the Herault 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."

In the Rhone 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 Cote-Rotie 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.

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.

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

French Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie 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.

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.