Reims, 22 April 2020
Spring frost: A severe cold snap in the Champagne vineyards
With very cold nights caused by frigid air masses from Scandinavia, Champagne experienced nearly an entire week of frost in early April. One particularly cold episode was on 5 and 6 April: temperatures of -9°C were recorded in the Côte des Bar and -5°C in the Marne.
Among the grape varieties, the Chardonnay was most affected, which is not surprising since it is the most precocious of the Champagne grapes.The hardest-hit sectors are in the Aube, the Sézannais, the Côte des Blancs and the Vitryat.
To protect against the cold temperatures, certain winegrowers in Champagne were able to make use of heaters placed in the vineyards; others use the technique of sprinkling water, which paradoxically protects the buds as it freezes. But in either case, there’s no guarantee as to the results.
The final assessment of frost damage in Champagne is still pending
According to Isabelle Tellier, Chef de Cave of the House of Chanoine Frères: “While it’s clear that Champagne as a whole suffered less from the April frosts than our neighbor Burgundy, the frost happened at the worst possible time for the Champagne vineyards. Because of the warm temperatures in March, the vines’ annual vegetative cycle was already well under way. After the bleeding stage, budburst had begun and with it the start of development of the bud – in particular for the Chardonnay, which is the earliest of the grape varieties.
The negative temperatures damaged the vines by ruining the young buds. Certain buds have become completely brown, meaning they’ve been burnt by the cold. For others, only the tip is affected, in which case growth can still continue.
For the moment, I feel it’s too early to be able to evaluate the losses quantitatively. We’ll need to wait for the vines’ flowers to bloom, which should happen at the end of May.”
Spring frosts in Champagne: Historic precedents
The 2021 spring frosts are not an exceptional phenomenon in Champagne; Isabelle Tellier remembers the frosts in the spring of 2016, and above all in 2003:
“At the start of April, for several days, there were hard freezes with temperatures as low as -11°C. That year, the Chardonnay was strongly impacted, with losses of yield of up to 80% in certain sectors. The damage was so severe that we gleaned the vineyards in late September, re-harvesting the small bunches three weeks after the first harvest. But in 2021 we won't be able to glean, since it’s prohibited now.”
Still, Isabelle Tellier puts the possible final impact of these spring frosts on the House’s production capacity into perspective:
“In Champagne, for a long time we’ve had the good fortune of having reserves of quality wines. During good years, champagne houses like Chanoine Frères set wine aside to compensate for shortfalls during the more difficult years. If necessary, we’ll be able to release the reserve wines stored in our vat-rooms to make our champagnes.”