Champagne has become the latest French wine growing region to feel the wrath of the heavens after freakishly violent hail storms wiped out the equivalent of eight million bottles of grapes and roughly €125 million (£110m) of fizz.
The extent of the damage emerged barely a week after hailstones “the size of pigeons’ eggs” devastated thousands of acres of prime vineyards in Bordeaux, prompting the French government to promise support for winegrowers, some of whom have lost their entire crop.
The northeastern Champagne region was struck by four particularly heavy hailstorms in late April and May just as the vines were beginning to flower. The latest struck on May 27, and more violent storms were forecast overnight.
"So far 1,800 hectares (4,500 acres) have been damaged of which 1,000 have been 100 percent destroyed, representing three percent of the total champagne-growing area," said the industry’s Champagne Committee.
"Of course storm and hail are not unusual phenomena in Champagne, but what is rare is to see them at this very early stage and with this level of violence,” said Champagne Committee communications director Thibaut Le Mailloux.
“Three per cent of the potential future harvest vanished before our eyes,” he told the Telegraph. “And it happened at a very bad time, as the vines are only starting to flower this week. Of course, flowers are more fragile than fruit or buds.”
Up to 10,000 kilos of grapes are produced per hectare with 1.3kg going into each bottle. Given that wholesale "ex-cellar" bottles sell for €16 a bottle on average, considerably lower than sale price, the loss amounts to at least €125 million.
Thanks to the region’s unique “reserve” system, which allows Champagne producers to mix new product with stocks from previous years, the weather damage is not expected to result in shortages of bubbly for the customer. Nor will there be any effect on quality.
However, some growers will suffer economically, said Mr Le Mailloux.
“La Côte des Bars in southern Champagne was already affected by spring frost last year and the previous year, so some growers may not have enough wine in stock to compensate this hail destruction. It, of course, means a loss of revenue,” he said.
Champagne growers believe that the early, violent hail storms were a “warning or sign of the type of climate events that we are likely to experience more and more in the coming years”.
“Climate change isn’t about regular temperature rise but more chaotic climate because it is so violent and at such an unusual period,” said Mr Le Mailloux.
‘Burning a candle for St Vincent’
Champagne insists it has been a pioneer in sustainable development and the first wine region in France to assess its carbon footprint in the early 2000s.
In 2010, Champagne reduced the weight of its standard bottles from 900g to 840g, the equivalent in emissions of 8,000 less cars on the road per year. Last year it produced 307 million bottles of fizz.
The famed sparkling wine region has also launched a 25-year research programme to find grape varietals more resistant to higher temperatures without changing the taste of champagne.
But Mr Le Mailloux confessed that it was almost powerless against violent hailstorms as solutions like firing rockets to destroy hail inside clouds with aluminum particles have “not proven to be scientifically effective”, he said.
Apart from nets for small hailstorms, most techniques were no more effective than “burning a candle for Saint Vincent”, the patron saint of winegrowers. “Basically nothing can be done.”
French wine and spirits exports amounted to more than £11 billion last year. Revenues from Champagne last year was €4.8bn.
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