After the 2017 frost, 2018 mildew and 2019 heatwave, winegrowers in France faced another severe hit from the April spring frost described as “century’s worst agricultural disaster” by France’s agriculture minister this year.
Vino Joy News talked to Frédéric Pacaut, Managing Director of French wine group Badet Clement, which owns wineries in Burgundy, Languedoc, Provence and Rhone Valley, to unfold the challenges faced by French winemakers and their prediction on the possible price hikes on the 2021 vintage.
While some of the French vineyards haven’t fully recovered from severe weather conditions in previous years, they came across “black frost” with freezing temperatures during the week of April 4. “Black frost” is more detrimental than “white frost” as it can damage plant tissue instead of just forming frost on vine surfaces.
What adds to the merciless frost was its arrival after unusually warm weather in March, causing advanced bud break in vineyards. In April, these young buds are still in their early stage of vegetarian period thus were too vulnerable to frost attack.
At that time, National wine union CNIV said 80% of French wine regions were affected by the nationwide frost including Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhône and the Loire. French farming union FNSEA estimated the total agricultural losses could be €3 billion.
Recent figures published by the Agricultural Ministry in France forecast this year’s wine production would be 34.4 million hectolitres, which would be an “unprecedented” harvest drop of 27%, according to the ministry. The report also mentioned another critical factor hitting the production volume which is the heavy summer rainfall resulting in harmful mildew and consequently reduced production.
The estimated wine output will make it the lowest harvest for France in 40 years. Impacts on wine regions are severe but degrees vary. Jura was hit the hardest, with 82% of its wine production wiped out. Total output from Champagne region plunged by 28% from last year. Burgundy-Beaujolais output declined more than half by 51%, while Bordeaux suffered a 21% drop.
Unprecedented harvest decline
Frédéric Pacaut from Badet Clement said he expected a 51% harvest decline in Burgundy as the Chablis or Maconnais area are heavily devastated. The French wine specialist owns the historic Bourgogne estate Edouard Delaunay, Les Jamelles and Abbotts & Delaunay in Languedoc, as well as La Promenade in Provence, and it has just recently launched a Chablis project – Grand Calcaire.
For Languedoc, he says their organic vineyards on higher altitudes such as domaine de la Métairie d’Alon and domaine de la Lause have not suffered too much as the frost mostly affected lower vineyard sites closer to the shores.
But he expected a 34% crop decline from the region due to the worsening situation caused by summer drought. The most affected grapes in the Languedoc are the early-ripening varietals, particularly Chardonnay and Viognier, as well as Pinot Noir.
As a result, their domaine du Trésor, emblematic sourcing for the group’s varietal specialist wine brand, Les Jamelles, has produced 60% less white grapes than expected.
However, he warns the overall squeeze on 2021 vintage volume might be more dire than expected since the categories with the most dynamic sales and less stock from previous vintages are those that suffered the most from the frost.
“This is what the overall average -27% does not show,” he says referring to the estimated overall 27% drop for France. “For some categories, the availability will drop between -50% and -80%. Worse, these categories are exactly those where the stock left from previous vintages is small or non-existent. Basically, every other white wine bottle ordered won’t be delivered in the next year.”
The historically low yields mean that it will impact wine supply to the market. Mindful of supply shortage to the global export market, Pacaut said the availability factor became his company’s “uppermost priority” since the frost.
The situation will be particularly difficult for their fast-moving brands including Les Jamelles, La Belle Angèle, and Edouard Delaunay Septembre, which are favourites on by the glass wine lists.
“It was unthinkable to forsake these placements, for which our importers and distributors have fought for years,” Pacaut says.
The long-term contracts and relations with a faithful club of growers developed since 1995 will pay off in such a year and allow the group to maintain supplies afloat. “Commercially, we will prioritize our strategic brands and partners,” he says.
“Altogether, we trust that we will ensure continuity of supply for most categories including Les Jamelles Chardonnay or Sauvignon blanc.” he affirms, adding that supply pressure on Edouard Delaunay Septembre and Viognier lines are more palpable but the company is working on solutions.
Low yield, lack of previous vintage stock, aggravated by the global supply crisis, all at once translated into inevitable price increases for most French wines.
While there is no accurate estimation on price increase of the 2021 vintage, Pacaut is expecting a 15-20% increase on Badet Clement group’s southern France white wines and 5-10% for the red wines.
“We decided to mitigate the price consequences, reasoning across vintages and calculating with lower margins as much as we could,” he says.
The company will communicate with commercial partners by the end of October with exact figures.
Given the catastrophic aftermath of a series of unusual climate conditions, Pacaut said the company is focused on ensuring continuous supply of wines, and not to take any advantage of the situation.
“We want to nurture our bounce-back potential with the next vintage, and we deserve the trust that our distributors have placed in us for years,” he says.