July was a great month for sunshine in Bordeaux and very little rain – much less than in 2007 and 2006. In fact, we’ve enjoyed lovely weather since mid-June, right up until yesterday at the start of what looks to be a rainy week. But in this corner of south west France, whenever there has been a build-up of heat over a prolonged period, a storm might follow; we’ve witnessed exciting bouts of thunder and lightning during the hottest periods in previous years. Usually, there’s no harm done, but if there’s a mix of strong winds and the much-dreaded hail, the results can be catastrophic. We were badly hit in June 2003 and it wasn’t pretty.
This time it was the turn of several unfortunate growers and Chateaux in Lussac Saint-Emilion, one of the satellite appellations to the north of the famous, medieval wine town. Hundreds of acres were hit, and some estates have lost all their crop for this year.
A few vineyards in Montagne St-Emilion were severely damaged by the storm on 28 July, but it was the area around Le Cros near Lussac which took the brunt of it. James Ryland of Vignobles André Lurton told me over supper the other night that the 25 hectare (62 acre) estate of Chateau Barbe Blanche has lost everything this year. Disastrous as this may be for this branch of the Lurton family – and their winemaker’s car also took a pounding – I feel particularly sorry for their fellow growers who might well be struggling as it is; rows and rows of otherwise beautifully maintained vines – mostly merlot – have been laid waste for this vintage. Even if some of the bunches have remained undamaged, there are insufficient leaves to ripen the fruit over the next six weeks in the build up to the harvest. Growers can insure their crop against hail damage but the premiums are very high, so many vignerons can’t afford it. We had cancelled our hail insurance just the year before we were hit five years ago. Our loss was AXA’s gain.
A local vineyard worker at Le Cros, who saw me standing looking gobsmacked at the scene this weekend, said that the hail attack had lasted no more than a few minutes. Hailstones the size of golf balls, apparently. (I think he thought it strange that an Englishman showed so much interest in the subject and was familiar with the rather specialized vocabulary.)
This rural, pretty corner of the Bordeaux region attracts just a fraction of the number of tourists and wine junkies that descend on nearby St-Emilion each summer. No doubt if this had happened on the famous limestone slopes around the more celebrated town, the gawper’s queue would have stretched to more than just me.
What makes it even more surprising is that within a few paces of almost total wipeout, there are rows of vines that remain completely untouched, as the photos show. For some growers in Lussac it was a disaster, while others could have been relaxing on the beach. They wouldn’t have been if they had known what was happening in the vineyard.
These were smaller hailstones on the very first day of our harvest in 2002 and we dived for cover back then. The sound of loud clattering outside is one of the most frightening that a vinegrower can hear.
Based on what I saw, I would have had the shutters firmly closed if I’d been near Lussac on the evening of 28 July.