Frost Damage but No Hail, Please

Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of the night we were badly hit by hail.  The evening of 24th June, 2003 lives long in the memory.  After a period of steamy hot weather, a hail storm swept through part of the region, starting in the Graves to the south west of us and petering out beyond St-Emilion to the east.  Hail on its own can be a bruiser but it’s the combination of hail and gail force winds that inflicts serious damage.  We lost half the crop in just a few minutes, and with it half our income for the year.  Some of our neighbours’ vines were wiped out, whereas Esme Johnstone’s Château de Sours, just five miles away, remained untouched. 

Ironically, we had cancelled our hail insurance policy the year before as the premium had rocketed, and we believed a local pundit who claimed that the geography and shape of the hillsides of Bauduc would force the winds around the estate and that we were unlikely to be hit in just such an event. This turned out, of course, to be complete tosh.

Although the report by Decanter claimed that ‘in the Créon area, virtually every grape has been destroyed’, we were able to save a part of the crop.  But it was twice the work for half the quantity.  Thankfully, our efforts were rewarded by the fact that in 2007, the top selling wine at Gordon Ramsay’s three Michelin star restaurant in London was our top red cuvée from 2003.  And Oz Clarke selected our Clos des Quinze 2003 as one of his top 250 wines of the year in his 2007 Buyer’s guide.  Which is all very gratifying but we took a bath, financially.

This year’s disaster is less dramatic but just as damaging for the sauvignon blanc – a key ingredient in the recipe for our Bordeaux Blanc Sec.  I was worried by the cold snap we had back in April, with a very frosty morning on 7th April and another a week later.  This is the view from the château on the 7th, which may look pretty but it struck a chord of horror for me.  

It was much colder still on the 15th.  Bud break had already begun, and although the merlot (below) was hardly affected, the sauvignon on the lower slopes caught a very bad chill.  The buds were just popping out and the cold snap seriously stunted the cycle, with some buds burnt by the freezing temperatures.  As a result, many shoots have developed much later, with very few potential bunches in evidence.  

Mercifully, we have a new plantation coming into production this harvest, although with far fewer bunches than expected after four years, and we’ve taken out a lease on 5 hectares of old, white vines nearby. Meanwhile, 30,000 young sauvignon blanc vines at Bauduc are not yet in production.

The hunt for sauvignon is on, because we have only until the end of July to find more white vines to lease.  As a château, we cannot simply buy in grapes to make up the shortfall, as you would in New Zealand, for example.   If we are not successful, you might find me standing outside the local cave co-operative come September, inspecting trailers of sauvignon grapes and loitering like a ticket tout outside a football ground.

This is sent to friends on our mailing list.

2 thoughts on “Frost Damage but No Hail, Please

  1. Christopher Godber

    A vineyard owner near Bordeaux has suggested to me that the storms and cold snap in 2008 have been bad enough to 'substantially reduce' the 2008 harvest potential.He also suggests that the result of this will be that the second round of
    2007 En Primeur Reds will show sharply increased prices.
    Does anyone have a view ?

  2. GQ

    Christopher, certainly with the whites in 2008 there will be a low crop of sauvingnon blanc and I'll cover that in a separate post. The merlot, by far the most widely planted variety in Bordeaux, is very uneven after mixed results with the flowering in June. Some of the best vineyards – in Pomerol and St-Emilion for example – have suffered from poor fruit set following wet and cold weather in the first fortnight in June. Others have been luckier. I'll report back with a half-term report (with two critical months to go before the harvest), towards the end of July. As for 2007 en primeur prices, all the major chateaux have released theirs, so we won't see many changes there. There is plenty of highly-priced stock around, and it's a tough campaign. However, if anyone loves dry white sauvignon from Bordeaux, we have had three good years in a row, with the 2007s now on the market being delicious. I would definitely buy top wines en primeur now – some super wines from the Graves (eg Clos Floridene), and from Pessac-Leognan there are few duds: go for Malartic-Lagraviere, Haut-Bergey, Smith Haut-Lafitte, Carbonnieux, and there are many others. Personally speaking, with the reds, I would wait. I am going to taste them all next autumn, probably before RP, so I would like to see how they are in bottle and I don't think prices will be higher then. The 2006 reds, being bottled now, are the ones to look to for increases come early 2009, post Parker scores in bottle.