Weathering the storm: hail in Burgundy


Photograph: Stephen Barber

Photograph: Stephen Barber

As, once again, Burgundian producers are left to assess the damage wreaked by a short-but-sharp hail strike, Jasper Morris MW – our buyer who lives in the region for much of the year – weighs up the vignerons’ options for protecting their precious crop.

Which job could be more wonderful than the life of a vigneron in Volnay? It’s hard to imagine a better outdoor existence than this. Except… at least six times since the millennium the unfortunate growers have been struck by hail: 2001, 2004, 2008 were bad enough but now the vineyards have been hit for three years in a row, on June 30th in 2012, July 23rd 2013 and once again on Saturday 28th June this year. Storms were forecast after a long dry period and sure enough, from early afternoon onwards the black clouds rolled in and deposited their vicious hail.

It is not just Volnay either: these recent storms have affected Beaune and Pommard severely and depending on the vintage, Puligny, St Aubin, Meursault, Savigny-lès-Beaune and the hill of Corton as well.

Hail varies in nature and intensity as well. Hailstones without rain are especially destructive. Those that fall within a deluge of rain appear to have less damaging effect. Hail not only damages the berries but also the leaves, which inhibits photosynthesis and the ripening process.

Photograph: Stephen Barber

Photograph: Stephen Barber

Estimates for 2013 suggested damage of between 40 percent and 90 percent. I walked through the stricken vineyards exactly a week after the storm and, for the most part, felt that the damage was nearer the lower figure with occasional small patches of complete wipe-out. A saving grace in 2014 was that a decent crop had set (unlike 2012 and 2013) so there is still something to be salvaged. But it is by no means clear whether the unfortunate vignerons in these villages will be able to pull through after this third catastrophe in a row.

Arming against attack
Old postcards from the early 1900s showing vignerons sending rockets up into the clouds to try to disperse the potential hail. Various local syndicats were formed around 1900 for mutual defence against hail. There were six in the Côte d’Or in 1902, and 25 by 1904. The main weapon was for all the inhabitants to go out and fire their shotguns. Indeed, the President of the Syndicat Grélifuge de St-Aubin, when recommending this course to his villagers, noted that it always poured with rain after a battle.

Modern cannons were put in this place this year, the plan being to seed the clouds with silver iodide which should cause the hail to fall instead as a deluge of rain. For whatever reason (and some suggest the cannons were in the wrong place, expecting the storm clouds to appear from the west, though that seems contrary to experience) they failed to work, or at least failed to work adequately. Possibly the story could have been even worse without them.

Net benefits
In Argentina, where hail is a major problem as well, the vineyards are netted for protection. This is currently against Appellation Contrôlée regulations in France (though perhaps this will now be reviewed). However, while it is one thing to festoon wide-spread vine rows in an arid climate with nets, it is quite another to manage the same operation in the closely planted and much more humid vineyards of Burgundy.

How would it work? Would one net the vines for the whole of the danger period (several months), which might well have an adverse effect on the micro-climate? Or would one rush out to put a net on a prized patch every time the weather forecast threatened which would be impractical if not impossible from the labour perspective?

One grower in Gevrey-Chambertin is trying an experiment on half a dozen short rows (he has let the INAO know about the ploy so that they don’t strip him of the appellation). The nets will stay there in permanence but they are open at the top to let the canopy through, protecting only the fruiting zone, and they can easily be rolled upwards when work needs to be done. We await the results with interest.