An Agricultural Disaster

April this year saw the French minister for Agriculture share with the world the devastating news of an unseasonably harsh frost. The timing and severity of which has not been seen for decades. Initial reports are grave, suggesting extreme levels of damage endured by fruit farmers across the nation. In this article, we will explore what this event means for French wine in 2021 and the likely repercussions for the upcoming Bordeaux En Primeur.

Fear the Frost

A seasoned vineyard manager knows there are many trials that mother nature can impose throughout the season. Not enough sun, too much rain, weeds, pests and disease pressure to name but a few. Over the years, these skilled cultivators have developed combative and reactive measures that effectively mitigate the damage these pressures could impose on their crop. Ultimately ensuring that come the end of the season, there is always produce worthy of entering the cellar. There are however, two natural events that when delivered in their most severe forms, no amount of planning or money can help overcome. Hail and frost, both hosting the capacity to decimate crops before they have even begun to grow.

Due to a very warm spring in 2021, many French vines had undergone bud-burst and the seasons first small, extremely fragile shoots were beginning to emerge. This moment in the season sees all vineyard managers hold their breath. These shoots are crucial to the eventual success of the crop and even a heavy rain can negatively impact their emergence. So for a frost to arrive during this period, and one with the extreme intensity of this years, the results are dramatic.

Many vineyard managers attempted to protect their vines with methods such as vineyard candles, as seen above. Unfortunately, measures like this are only effective from 5 to 0 degrees, with their effectiveness diminishing as the temperature drops. This Aprils frost saw temperatures reach as low as -6. Even the most proactive and extreme measures would not have been enough to stop the catastrophic and irreversible damage to the young shoots. Jérôme Despey, the secretary-general of the FNSEA commented that “frosts are a natural event, occurring in ’91, ’97 and ’03…however this in my opinion, is beyond them all”.

The Fallout From Frost

It would appear that the full extent of this event will not become entirely clear for another couple of weeks but early reports are extremely worrying. Inter Rhone, the governing body for the Rhone region reported some estates have lost 100% of their crops and they expect significant impacts on trade. The Bordeaux council CVIB have stated that every single appellation felt temperatures as low as -5. They commented that the extent of the damage will be varietal specific due to varying stages in the vegetive cycle, but that the entire harvest will be impacted. Even in Burgundy where the varietals are slightly more adept to the cold reports are worrying. Early budding Chardonnay appears to have been ravaged and there are fears over the possible impact -5 degrees could have even on unburst buds.

While it seems almost cruel to do so, it should be considered that the ramifications of this Frost will not be confined to a single harvest. When a vine undergoes an extreme frost event such as this, the loss of fruit for that year is clearly the most immediate and obvious result. However, the effects of the cold are multifaceted and will almost certainly leak into the 2022 vintage.

A vines default reaction to a loss of fruit is to channel the rest of the season’s energy production into growth. This unfortunately creates canes, from which next years fruit is to be produced, that are too large and with buds that are spread too sparsely. The ultimate result of which is a greatly lessened crop volume and potential quality. With fewer, lower quality buds it places the estates on the back foot from the very start of the season.

What Does This Mean for En Primeur?

Clearly the economic toll for many estates from this event is going to be significant and drawn out. With potentially two years of decreased profits ahead, it would come as no suprise if we saw some reactive measures creep into the upcoming E.P release prices.

To learn a little more about what we can expect, we have taken a look at the 3 most recent frost events ’91, ’97 and ’03. In each year of the frost, the E.P release prices were higher by an average of 10%. The critic scores associated with each of these vintages appear to confirm the frost event as the driver and not outstanding quality. Estates recognise the approaching consequences for the following year and attempt to mitigate them immediately.

A further observation relates to the latent impact quality to the wines the following year. After each major frost event, the attained critic scores achieved the following vintage were very poor. Averaging a lowly 93 amongst the major first growths. If this is indeed a trend and not a climatic coincidence, then 2021 may well be the last time buyers can secure high-quality Bordeaux until E.P 2024.

For the Bordeaux investor, collector or forward-thinking drinker, this E.P campaign’s complexion has changed. We may indeed see slightly higher prices than expected, but with the following 2 years likely to be impacted it may be really important to buy your quota in 2021. To both prepare your cellars and to support the estates when they need our custom most. Finally, for those thinking of resale, this may well have added another beneficial element to the equation. After all, scarcity is the elemental driver of price in all areas of the wine market.

The Author

Jake Leighton