Spring frost – A Burgundian winemaker’s battle

Marquis de Laguiche Montrachet vineyard: Paraffin-fuelled burners (known as candles) in smudge pots provide protection against frost

Raymond Blake on winemakers’ battle against dreaded spring frosts in Burgundy – just one of the many nasty curveballs that nature hurls from time to time

Puligny-Montrachet. White wine doesn’t get more patrician than this. Indeed, if ever a wine village were to be designated as the capital of Chardonnay it would be difficult to look past the claims of Puligny-Montrachet village in the Côte de Beaune. The neighbours to north and south – Meursault and Chassagne – might not agree but, valid as their claims might be, in my view Puligny just shades it. As I wrote in my book Côte d’Or a few years ago: “Whatever your feelings about the rival claims of Meursault and Chassagne, Puligny is generally regarded as the village where the Chardonnay grape reaches its apogee. Refinement and restraint, opulence held in check by civilized acidity, sumptuous flavours that never obtrude, succulent fruit counterpoised by mild minerality, integration — harmony — structure — polished power. These wines have breed and plenty of it. A great Puligny has it all…”

That is, until spring frost makes its dreaded appearance. Wreaking devastation and laying waste great swathes of some of the most prized agricultural land in the world. In recent vintages two years are carved in frosty infamy: 2016 and 2021. The night of 26-27 April 2016 will live long in Burgundian memory for, in a matter of hours, a venomous frost hit the vineyards, destroying at a stroke several months of painstaking vineyard work. As if that was not bad enough, the morning’s rising sun added a cruel twist, for the globules of ice on the buds magnified its rays, compounding the damage by burning the buds.

Spring frost makes its appearance —wreaking devastation and laying waste great swathes of some of the most prized agricultural land in the world

Then, to pile woe on woe, this aspect of the damage was even worse in the premier cru and grand cru vineyards for, given that they are on the slopes and not on the flat land below, they are ‘tilted’ towards the sun — usually beneficially, but not so in this case. The damage was so bad in parts of the Montrachet vineyard that seven landowners there, including Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Comte Lafon, agreed to pool their few surviving grapes because none of them had enough of a crop to make their wines individually. Eventually, a little over two barrels of wine were made where, normally, there would have been perhaps two dozen among them.

Delicate buds can be damaged by globules of ice magnified by the sun’s rays

Astute observers that year had noticed that the greatest sunshine damage, with catastrophic losses in some cases, was caused in the southern part of the Puligny-Montrachet commune, for the simple reason that the cloud cover in the northern part had blocked the damaging rays and saved at least some of the crop. This observation prompted les vignerons to create some man-made cloud cover the following year by setting fire to many thousands of hay bales. It worked in a fashion; the smokescreen was effective, but so dense that road traffic was severely affected and the practice was proscribed thereafter.

Five years later the frost was back, aided this time by a week of warm weather at the end of March that advanced the vines’ development, leaving them fatally exposed when night-time temperatures plummeted in the first week of April, just after Easter. The cold lasted for the month and almost destroyed the white wine crop, though it should be noted that the 2021 reds, though reduced in quantity, are better than expected. Which brings us to early April this year…

It is difficult to pass through the village of Puligny-Montrachet without a stop at the excellent Caveau de Puligny run by the ebullient Julien Wallerand, assisted by the equally engaging Emilien Masuyer. My wife and I always stop for a glass of wine and a chat to catch up on wine-land gossip, accompanied by a perusal of the wine list and, inevitably, a purchase that starts out as ‘just a few bottles’ but always seems to morph into a case or more, this time of Chablis.

Thus fortified, we pointed the car towards the Montrachet vineyard and its satellites, driving out of the village up the gentle rise between the Rue Rousseau and Les Meix vineyards. It is a route I have driven many times over the years, but never before have I done a double-take as I approached the more celebrated vineyards.

The traditional and widely used ‘candles’ placed at 10-metre intervals in a Montrachet vineyard

I blinked and looked again, convinced that what I was seeing was a UFO landed in Les Pucelles, finest of all the premier crus. It looked like a giant spider with spindly legs and a massive circular head. Slowing to a crawl I noticed another one in Bâtard-Montrachet, then another in Chevalier-Montrachet, though none in Montrachet itself — had it been spared the alien invasion or was this an elaborate April Fools’ Day prank staged to baffle passing motorists?

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There is nothing romantic about the fight against spring frost. It is a grim, David and Goliath struggle where Goliath has no weaknesses

In truth the explanation was more prosaic, allowing my fevered imagination to stand still and take a rest from conjuring elaborate war-of-the-worlds theories, replete with threats of impending doom. What I was seeing were large, trailer-mounted mobile fans whose purpose was to stir the freezing air on nights when the temperature dropped below zero, preventing it from settling and damaging the vines. Parking the car, I set about taking a closer look.

On that day, the big fans were just one of four different methods I saw being utilised to combat the frost threat, as I walked hither and thither, marvelling at the lengths the winemakers will go to, to protect their precious crop. But why marvel? Those vineyards provide the farmers’ yearly income, which could be wiped out or severely diminished in a single night. Who wouldn’t fight hard to protect their livelihood and the security of their family? And in this context it helps to think of the winemakers as farmers; ‘winemaker’ has a touch of romance to it, and there is nothing romantic about the fight against spring frost. It is a grim, Davidand- Goliath struggle where Goliath has no weaknesses and David is fighting with one hand tied behind his back.

Large mobile fans in the vineyard prevent the freezing air from settling and damaging the vines.

In the Cailleret vineyard I came across a different type of fan, standing tall like a windmill, made more sophisticated than a simple fan by its being allied to a hot air generator, to throw a warm waft across the vines and hold Jack Frost at bay. Meanwhile, in the Marquis de Laguiche section of Montrachet itself, the more traditional and widely used ‘candles’ were standing ready for use. ‘Candle’ in this case is the English translation of the French word bougie, and these are paraffinfuelled burners that should be more accurately called smudge pots. In round figures, it takes about 400 of them to protect one hectare of vineyard and they burn for eight to ten hours. Placing them at roughly ten-metre intervals in the vineyards is tough repetitive work — and then returning to light them in the middle of a freezing night is equally challenging. Also placed at strategic points in the vineyards are temperature sensors that will send an alarm to the winemaker’s phone at perhaps 2am, alerting them to imminent danger and the need to get on with lighting the candles.

As with every measure the bougies are an imperfect response to a problem with no failsafe solutions. If, for instance, the freezing temperature extends into the daytime, then they might not provide protection for long enough, and if the dip below zero lasts only for a couple of hours then they need to be extinguished again to preserve the remaining fuel for future use.

Imperfect also is the ‘Frostguard’, first spotted about two kilometres away in Clos Pitois, a climat within the Morgeot premier cru vineyard, right at the southern extreme of Chassagne-Montrachet on the border with Santenay. From a distance it looked like a crude army tank, something that a child might have constructed from Lego or such like. Closer inspection revealed four large gas cylinders used to generate hot air that was then pumped over the vines through a horizontal flue.

These days winemakers are better prepared to cope with the threat of spring frost. But if Mother Nature turns nasty, really nasty, then winemakers are largely helpless

“Frostguard” with four large gas cylinders generates hot air to pump over the vines

What my afternoon spent tramping the vineyards taught me above all else is that these days, the winemakers are better prepared than ever before to cope with the threat of spring frost. Yet, subsequent reflection also prompted the realisation that if Mother Nature turns nasty, really nasty, then they are largely helpless in the face of her ire. And over the course of the growing season it is not just frost that threatens the vines. As soon as that danger recedes the subsequent concern on the horizon is summer hailstorms, equally destructive though probably more localised. The next worry in the roster is that excessive summer temperatures will ripen the grapes to a level of richness that results in heavyweight wines that lack the grace for which Burgundy is renowned. Yet the winemakers persist and persist, frequently pulling victory from the jaws of defeat, confounding the gloom-anddoom merchants who seem only too willing to write off a vintage before a single grape is picked.

It pays to reflect on these challenges and difficulties when sipping your next glass of Meursault or Chambolle-Musigny, Chassagne- Montrachet or Vosne-Romanée.

Honestly who’d want to be a Burgundian winemaker?