Fatal Frost and Vines – Springtime in the Vineyard

Harry Lambourne
24th February 2022

Springtime in the vineyard sounds idyllic in my mind. Nature is beginning to wake up. Plants and trees are beginning to flower and the end of winter is signalled by the start of growth. Budding vines which will form the next year’s vintage. Yet, however nice things may appear in this Disney-esque picture portrait that’s happening in my own head. It’s sadly not the case in reality. Frost and vines, at this young age, are a deadly combo.

Frost and Vines - A Deadly Combo
Frost and Vines – A Deadly Combo

Springtime is actually often characterised by cold snaps. In the first week of April 2021, France saw temperatures reach as low as -9℃. Springtime in the vineyard is actually hard graft and wrapped up winemakers carefully tending to young vines with their breath visible in the air. It’s a time when low temperatures and the presence of frost can be detrimental to the year’s crops.

Early budding grapes are susceptible to sub-zero temperatures. Climate change has brought the growing season forward, so these flowers are effected by temperatures they’re not able to cope with. Hotter temperatures allow for ripening, then unseasonable cold snaps kill the buds.

Indeed, Jack Frost clearly revitalised after the busy winter season wreaks havoc on vines at this time of year. Frost and vines are two things that you don’t want interacting. Frost and vines is also a problem which is only becoming more frequent and disastrous.

Frost and Vines – How Does Frost effect Vineyards?

In the cycle of life in the vineyards, the beginning of April makes a period in the vines’ growth called budbreak. Here the buds take their first tentative steps into the environment. It’s the first point in the cycle where flowers appear. However, it is at this time that frost and vines can form a deadly partnership. Vines are incredibly fragile at this time, which is why they can be so susceptible to adverse weather conditions.

Frost in particular can completely destroy vines before they’ve had the chance to really start growing. It does as you’d expect. It simply freezes the bud on the vine. This is a problem that is increasing in severity. Climate change not only has been linked to unseasonable sub-zero temperatures, it also has the effect of budbreak appearing earlier and earlier in the growing season. This increase in frequency and severity of cold snaps and the earlier budbreak is a deadly combination. Severe frost and vines at this vital stage of development are interacting for greater period than they have done previously.

Eiswein - Frozen on the Vine
Grapes Frozen on the Vine

Frost and Vines – What Can Frost Cost?

2021 saw a staggering degree of crops lost throughout France due to frost, with an estimated 80% of French regions being effected. We’ve spoken with many winemakers, at recent events, in regions up and down France who have lost 50-70% of all their crops for that year.

It’s hard to put exact figures on the damage of frost on vines, but the French wine industry estimates it to be around €2 billion. The French government clearly gives credence to this figure as they provided €1 billion in aid to the frost-hit French farmers. It’s not isolated to France as well, frost on vines in Italy were just as detrimental. Areas of Tuscany saw 50-90% loss in certain Sangiovese vineyards.

Even UK winemakers are not immune to these dangers. While the UK growing season is around two weeks later than mainland France, due to cooler temperatures, they still have to employ prevention methods to frost on vines, in order to mitigate a loss of crops. Marlow based Harrow & Hope deployed a vast army of candles to protect their crops. A clip of this can be seen below, in a tweet from Harrow & Hope’s founder Henry Laithwaite.

These figures can provide an insight into the scope of the damage that can occur when you combine frost and vines, but they shouldn’t detract from our focus on the individual family-ran vineyards who are working tirelessly to adjust to these conditions. In the next section, we’ll further review some of the methods employed by winemakers to combat frost on vines.

Frost and Vines – How Can Frost Be Combated?

Frost and vines isn’t a good mix, but how can it be combated? There are a number of routes winemakers can adopt in an attempt to prevent frost killing off vines. Some are small scale. Such as small candles lining the rows between the vines, or anti-frost heaters. However, both are less than environmentally friendly. They are also not entirely effective. They can certainly help, but they are not long term solutions. Candles can not be lit every single night of these trying periods.

Burgundy villages are now used to thick clouds of smoke marking the start of Spring like a new Pope. This stems from winemakers burning piles of hay to stave off frost. Again, these solutions are temporary and not a route any winemaker wants to adopt. It’s certainly not the first sign of spring that neighbouring villages want to experience. Although, believe it or not, they’re less intrusive than some of the other methods of combating frost on vines.

Far and away, the most conspicuous and indeed most expensive, method of combating frost on vines is for the winemakers encourage helicopter fly-bys. That is right – helicopters will actually pass over vineyards, during these particularly precarious weeks and months. The goal being to keep the air moving and not allow cold air, therefore frost, to settle. Many famous regions, such as Bordeaux, practice this.

St Emilion Helicopter combating Frost on Vines
A helicopter combats frost on vines in St.Émilion, Bordeaux.

All solutions are at best reasonably effective, but time-consuming and at worst grossly expensive and impractical. Sadly, they are also means that winemakers are having to resort to with increasing regularity. The frosts of 2017 and 2021 were incredibly severe and the worst on record since 1991. If frosts are this detrimental every 3 or 4 years, rather than 25 years, it is only going to have progressively greater adverse effects on the wine-making industry. Frost and vines will begin to need constant management.

While that may sound bleak, you must not forget that winemakers are built differently. Frost and vines is a problem they’ll meet head on. Winemakers are a rare breed that are resilient and creative in equal measure. They’ll be making sure next year’s vintage gets to you with all of their might, combining both ingenuity and zeal. So, the next time you’re hit with a hangover on a cold Spring morning, spare a thought for the winemakers out there and what they did to get that delicious beverage to you.

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Work Cited

MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. 2nd ed., Workman Publishing, 2015.

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