The Sad Reality:
The last few days of April proved to be a disastrous and heartbreaking time for a very large number of winegrowers who make their living in the cooler climate zones of France. And, as typical of the media, the big money areas such as Burgundy and Champagne received the overwhelming majority of coverage. $Oh no, what will happen with the already heavily-overpriced and over-allocated wines?$ Well, also greatly affected was the entire reach of the Loire Valley where, depending on the sub region, anywhere from 25-100% of the crops were wiped out.
This frost or, “gel” in French, did not spare one single commune from the far west to the far east of the Loire; it took its toll on everyone grower and on every varietal. To put it simply: a massive low pressure front of sub-freezing temperatures came in and just sat down on the region at one of the absolute worst possible times. It was just as bud break was beginning and/or as young tender shoots were just unfolding their first leaves in order to receive the sun’s rays. At these sub freezing temperatures the tiny buds pushing from the vines basically freeze dry and the water within cells of the young tender shoots freezes, then thaws and turns into what almost looks like a translucent jelly barely holding its form—very much like freezing lettuce and then thawing it out.
I arrived to the area just a few short days after this deep freeze took place. I was saddened by the news and the brutal reality of it, but as a winemaker here in California I was also very interested in seeing firsthand what the effects were in the vineyards and to talk to the winegrowers themselves. As I mentioned before: no area was spared. There was no way to not see the damage that had occurred. While in areas such as Muscadet, Savennières, and Sancerre, the damage was “limited” to anywhere from 25-60%, in other areas such as Chinon, Saumur, Vouvray, and Touraine it was more like 35-75% destroyed. By far, the worst that I saw was in Bourgueil, St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, and Montlouis sur Loire where they were absolutely devastated with 85-100% of their 2016 vintage totally wiped out. Now, for the bigger producers who have A LOT of land this will of course hurt them, but they will be able to move on. However, those smaller farmers who farm little parcels and only produce small amounts of wine each vintage, it really hurts.
I’ll be honest: I was extremely nervous about showing up and asking producers to taste me on their wines and take up their time after such a catastrophic event—what horrible timing it was! However, as has happened every time I have visited the winemakers of the Loire, I was greeted with smiles, hugs, and an inherent optimism which can only be described as infectious. Even though the full scope of what happened had already sunk in, each and every winemaker was positive and had an outlook which can only come from people who truly know, understand, and love the land they work. Also keep in mind that these people aren’t sales suits from the city that can take a bad can of tuna and sell it as fancy caviar. These are farmers who bleed, sweat, and have an integrity which is hard to match. I have to say, I was so happily impressed with the resilience and the positive long range outlook in which they carried—hopefully some of it rubbed off on me.
We will remember the frost that terrorized France's vineyards in 2016. However, I'm certain the spirit of its most committed winemakers will overcome that immense obstacle.