French Chablis makers can’t take another tiny harvest. So they’re bringing in anti-hail cannons

The hills in this part of Burgundy are postcard-perfect. Around the villages of Chablis and Irancy, you see beautifully combed, lush green vineyards.

As winemaker Christophe Ferrari drives up his estate, he remarks that all the fine qualities of a wine are made in the vineyard itself. “If you can’t produce good grapes,” he says, “you can’t create good wine.”

There’s a stunning 360-degree view at the top, and plenty of healthy-looking leaves around. But underneath this greenery is a painful truth. It's something Ferrari hasn't seen in his 30 years of winemaking.

“This is a nine-acre vineyard, known as La Croix-Rouge,” he says, “and there isn’t a single grape.”

“Not even a single bunch?" I ask.

“Well, there might be one,” he says, “but we’ll leave it to the badgers, so that everyone gets something to eat. It’s not worth coming up here to get it.”

Ferrari says a harsh, winter-like frost over three nights in late April killed all the promising buds. The morning after it hit, he saw immediately there would be no harvest.

You can tell he is crushed to see all his painstaking work on the vineyard annihilated. He usually produces 20,000 bottles of Chablis a year, but he won’t make a single one in 2016.

And he is not alone. Most of the region’s 750 winemakers were affected by a succession of floods, frost and hail last spring.

The village of Irancy, where vineyards were hit by severe storms last spring.

Credit:

Adeline Sire

Frederic Gueguen is the president of the Chablis winegrowers association. He estimates the harvest will be down to about one-third of its usual size. Gueguen lives in the village of Prehy. He takes me around his vineyard at the back of his house.

“Here, no grapes, you see?” he says. “We walked about 15 yards into the vineyard and I saw just one little bunch of grapes. Usually we have 15 bunches per vine. This year, we may get two or three instead, but it may still be worth harvesting. That could be about a fifth of what we normally do, but that’s better than nothing.”  

This plot was almost completely destroyed by a brutal hail storm in May, which, eerily, followed one exactly two weeks earlier, at exactly the same time of day. Gueguen was just coming home when it hit. He watched through the kitchen window as the hail trashed his vineyard.

“I went inside the house and in a few seconds, I saw my vineyard going from a green leafy state with long twigs, to nothing, zero, with a thick layer of hail on the ground,” he says. “I told myself it would never end, it was hitting so hard. The ground was white as in winter. It was very violent, you get hit in the face with this, you have tears in your eyes, and you feel lost.”

French Chablis makers can't take another tiny harvest. So they're bringing in anti-hail cannons

Frederic Gueguen, president of the Chablis Winegrowers Association, is worried about this year's harvest.

Credit:

Adeline Sire

Even worse, Gueguen said a killer fungus also wreaked havoc after the floods. Fortunately, last year’s harvest was a generous one, which should help offset this year’s losses.

But just how many bottles of Chablis wines will be produced this year is still unknown. Gueguen says those wines are renowned for their terroir, that quality of the soil that contains limestone and fossils, which gives Chablis its DNA.

“One hundred and fifty million years ago,” says Gueguen, “there was a sea that evaporated. It was a shallow sea that left behind its sediments, seashells, oysters and all, which is what gave the wine that particular salty and briny taste.”

It's a distinctive taste that is prized by Americans. Gueguen sells about 30 percent of his wines in the United States, and his Boston-area importer, Hugh McPhail, says the Chardonnays of Chablis are very distinctive.

“It’s very much in fashion among young American wine drinkers now. The sommeliers love Chablis because it doesn’t taste like Chardonnay from any other part of the world,” he says. “Some people compare it to wet rocks, slate after the rain, things like that. The grape transmits that kind of flavor, that kind of slaty green apple flavor, very purely, so you can close your eyes and generally know that you are having Chablis as opposed to something else.”

Back in Burgundy, wine growers see the fresh green leaves in the vineyards as a hopeful sign that next year could be close to normal. But with harvests hitting earlier every year and freak storms getting more frequent, it’s clear to them there’s nothing normal about the climate these days. So Gueguen says winemakers here have turned to a defense known as cloud seeding — and some pretty wild weather contraptions.

“Today in the Chablis winegrowing area, we are going to set up anti-hail cannons,” he says. “What they do is spray silver iodide into the storm clouds to prevent hailstones from solidifying.” If they work right, the machines could turn hail to torrential rains instead.

Forty of the cannons will be set up in the Chablis area next year, and hundreds of winemakers here hope they will ward off widespread destruction.

Wine importer McPhail is dubious about this technology, but says the economic stakes are so high, it’s worth a shot.

“There are parts of Burgundy that have been hit by hail four years in a row now,” he says, “and with the change of climate, I mean, it’s some of the most expensive land in the world, and if you can't grow crops on it, it's a major economic impact.”