We were hit by hail on 2 August. 5000 hectares of vines in the area have been stripped of this year’s grapes and another 5000 hectares, like us, have seen damage to vines to a greater or lesser extent. Here are a few questions and answers, mainly as far as Bauduc is concerned.
1. Are you insured against hail?
No. You can buy special hail insurance but the premiums are outrageously expensive. Those sharp-suited insurance folk are no fools.
The authorities believe that only 15%-20% of the vineyards that were hit were insured against hail. Henri Feret of Ch Feret-Lambert, for example, makes excellent Bordeaux Supérieur and he’s not insured, which makes us feel slightly less dozy.
It would be surprising if the leading Chateaux of Bordeaux are not insured, but some appellations like Pauillac and St-Julien have not been hit for a long time, so premiums should be affordable compared to the price they get for the wine.
2. Didn’t you have hail before?
Yes. In May 2009 – twice, in fact, a fortnight apart – and in June 2003. So we’ve been hit in three out of fifteen harvests – or, more recently, two out of five. Our recent form isn’t good.
There’s a threat of hail quite often and it’s one of nature’s threats you live with. A hailstorm went past us in September 2011 and landed on nearby Grézillac. They were hit again this year, so there are worse spots to be in than ours – but only just.
3. Is it as bad as 2009?
Yes, but it’s different, and a little too early to say for us. The hailstorms of 2009 trashed our vines in May (left) when the shoots were new and tender. The season’s growth had only just started in April and the little bunches hadn’t flowered into grapes. We lost about 80% of the crop then, before it had even got going.
This time, the hail on 2 August damaged young, unripe grapes and shredded many leaves on the west facing side of each row. Some parcels escaped more than others, mainly because the rows run east to west, rather than north to south (the storm came in from the west and hit the rows side-on) and because some vines had a bit of shelter from our woods.
The cost is higher this year because there has been a huge amount of work in the vineyard to prepare the vines up to this point. The branches on 100,000 vines have been lifted twice between the training wires, for example, unwanted shoots removed by hand, we’ve sprayed five or six times against mildew, trimmed the tops of the rows, and so on.
4. How much have you lost?
The immediate loss of grapes is about 50% – that’s really a guess – and we don’t know just how the other half will cope. There’s seven weeks before the white harvest and around nine or ten weeks before the red.
Daniel, our vineyard manager, now believes there’ll only be a small amount of grapes, if any, that will be worth harvesting.
My feeling is that we’ll only make 10-20% of a normal yield of wine of the right quality, but it’s early days. That’s 500-1000 litres a hectare, instead of 5000+. We have 24 hectares in production, so it might be about 15,000 to 30,000 bottles, compared to 160,000. (We are allowed to produce over 180,000.) It costs about €240,000 to run the vineyard, before bottling and packaging costs at about €0.80 a bottle.
It all depends on the weather and we don’t know if the remaining grapes in a bunch that’s been bashed on one side will ripen. There’s also damage to leaves and branches. Some parcels fared better though.
We also need good weather to stop the battered grapes from rotting and the mould spreading to other bunches, like bananas in a fruit bowl. If they stay dry the knackered grapes should brown and shrivel like raisins. If mould sets in now or later, they’re buggered. As are we.
5. Is the damage localised or more widespread?
The damage is localised – and widespread. The hailstorm decimated vines in a relatively narrow band of a few kilometres across, along a path of more than 40kms.
About 5,000 hectares of vineyard have lost 100% of this year’s crop, I’m reliably informed, with about 10,000 hectares affected in total.
I’ve written two detailed posts, ‘Hail in Bordeaux, part 2 – the path of destruction’ and ‘part 3 – the lottery of storms’ on that point for our blog, and this article for Jancis Robinson’s website.
6. Can you buy more grapes to make Chateau Bauduc?
This is France, and nothing’s that simple. Brits tend to think ‘let’s do our best to get a quality product to our customers’.
The French think ‘Let’s get the rule book out’. Half of them then think ’Let’s find a way around the rules.’
To make a wine with ’Chateau’ on the label, we are only able to buy grapes from another vineyard if we’ve leased the land. It’s like wanting to stay over at a friend’s house at the last minute but asking to sign a lease arrangement first: no-one would put you up.
There is a special type of lease in place for such eventualities but we’d have to find another vineyard and sign for it before the end of August, under the rules (the deadline’s been extended from the end of July, as if that’s some kind of bonus).
This one-year contract is called a ‘Mise à disposition’. In May 2009, when we were hit, we had much more time before the harvest to research, track down and lease another vineyard for one year, and to work with the grower.
To find another vineyard before the end of August, when thousands of hectares have been hit, will be like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. There’d also be no guarantee of course, with a month to go, that the harvest will be any good, so it would be another gamble.
7. Can you buy grapes and make a non-Chateau wine?
Special dispensation has been given for growers to buy grapes from other growers in the same appellation to make non-Chateau wine or ‘branded’ wine like ‘Mouton Cadet’, ’Sirius’ or ’Dourthe No 1’ without the need for ‘negociant’ status.
Normally, you can’t buy grapes because a negociant’s or wine merchant’s winery has to be quite separate from a grower’s winery, and they must separated by a main road to prevent any foul play. (This is France, after all.)
Although UK retailers sell more own-label or ‘branded’ wine than wine from separate vineyards (e.g. wine from Domaines, Chateaux, Bodegas or Estates), our approach has been the old fashioned one of making wine from our own vineyard.
Even if we wanted to make wine from bought-in grapes, there isn’t going to be a lot of good stuff on the market now. Yields were low before the hail, due to poor fruit set on the merlot, and chances now of finding high quality grapes at this price point are slim.
If we can find a sensible way around it, we might, but we don’t really want to compromise.