Translation: The Taste of Hail
Alexander Kristoff of the Katusha team won a second stage of the Tour de France, and the wind didn’t play as big a role on stage 15 as did the downpours that drenched the riders on parts of the race. Martin Elmiger, who has been so prominant in breakaways in this Tour, and New Zealand’s Jack Bauer escaped the peloton and were achingly close to making it a two-man battle in the final sprint, but they were caught by the peloton within meters of the finish line. Meanwhile Vincenzo Nibali retained the yellow jersey and seems likely to hold it all the way to Paris, unless illness or a crash disrupts his brilliantly consistent performance.
After the rest day, the race resumes today in Carcassonne for the Tour’s longest day. It should be good day for climbers, with four minor category climbs before the finish line in Bagnères-de-Luchon.
There are many great wines in the region, and as tempted as we were to talk about some of them, Carcassonne was also at the centre of violent hailstorms earlier this month that continued a summer of devastation in France’s vineyards. Instead of discussing a wine, it seems more important to talk about hail, what hail does in a vineyard, what it means for wine production, and what it means to lovers of wine, too.
The storms on 6 July 2014 struck appellations around Carcassonne, particularly Minervois and Corbières, damaging as much as 80-100% of the vines in the area. In June, hail struck in Bordeaux and Cognac for the second year running, and in the Côte de Beaune in Burgundy for a third year in a row. In Pommard the hail was so fierce that witnesses compared it to machine-gun fire hitting the vineyards and it was all the more cruel coming as it did after ideal weather conditions had made an excellent crop seem within the grasp of growers.
If you’ve ever been in a hailstorm, you’ll know that the hail varies in size, and even the smallest pieces of ice falling from the sky stings as it hits your skin — skin that is tougher than delicate stems, leaves and grape skin in a vineyard. Photos and videos taken during and after these storms show that the hail didn’t just come in the form of small slashing pellets, but also ice almost the size of golf balls.
You don’t have to be a grape-grower or even a gardener to guess the effect such a slashing and pounding could have on grapevines, but some of the after-effects may not be as well-known to those outside the industry. Disease may increase, and any damaged berries may become mouldy and cause entire bunches to become mouldy. Canes that would have become next year’s fruit-bearing wood may have become damaged, and if they are not carefully pruned or removed, next year’s crop could also be affected. And once the time comes to make wine of this year’s grapes — however many remain — there is also the risk that the hail may taint the wine in another way by giving it le goût de grêle, the taste of hail. Négociant Mark Haisma explains it:
“One of the effects of hail is that the affected berries die and shrivel up. This is a good thing on one hand, mostly they fall off and do not affect the rest of the bunch, leaving the remainder of the bunch to mature as normal. However, these little, shrivelled-up guys don’t always fall off, and if they are not sorted at the sorting table they will enter into the fermentation tank. This is when we potentially get this hail taste and unfortunately it doesn’t take much affected fruit to cause this character.”
After hail struck Bordeaux in 2013, Jancis Robinson featured a two-part article (here and here) by Gavin Quinney of Château Bauduc that captures the misery of the experience for individual growers and their families. You wonder how anyone could go through the experience once, let alone the threat of hail over and over again each year.
Why aren’t producers in France doing something about the hail? Actually, they are, and they’d love to do even more. One of the more surreal elements of the recent hail stories coming out of France was news that the anti-hail cannons had failed. Anti-hail cannons? As far back as the early 1900s there are photos of vignerons shooting rockets, cannons, shotguns — basically any weapon avaiable — into clouds in hopes of dispersing the hail and bringing rain instead. This was apparently based on the observation that there was frequently rain after a battle. These days anti-hail cannons fire silver iodide into the clouds to cause the hail to fall as rain instead. These cannons aren’t in use in all areas of France, but they were during the most recent storms in Burgundy, and no one knows why the technology was so ineffective.
Beyond hail insurance, which is prohibitively expensive, and ineffectual (and again, prohibitively expensive) anti-hail cannons, there is one other option that French growers could use, were it not prohibited under current Appellation Contrôlée regulations: hail nets. Tim Atkin describes the planes that fly into clouds to seed them with silver iodide in Argentina, as well as the anti-hail nets that are also in use there, and some Burgundian growers are experimenting with putting nets around the sides of a few vines to see what effect they have (after informing the government and making certain they wouldn’t be endangering their AOC status, of course). Nets over the top of vines alter the terroir by blocking too much sunlight, or so the argument goes, but nets along the sides of the vines, protecting only the fruiting areas, might not. Whether the nets would do more harm than good, and whether the French authorities would allow them, remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, French producers are sifting through the wreckage of this year’s crop — possibly even your favourite producer. What should a wine lover do? Some have suggested leaving affected French producers to their fates and just drinking wine from other regions or countries, but there are other, better options that may help producers recover from disaster. Growers are rallying around each other, with some unaffected growers offering to sell part of their crop to their neighbours, and wine buyers, whether trade buyers or individual drinkers, could show some of the same solidarity. Instead of simply looking elsewhere for wine, we can see what possibilities there are to offer support. After Château Bauduc was struck by violent hail in 2013, the Quinneys held a “hail sale” afterwards to sell off 2010 and 2011 vintages and raise some much-needed funds — funds he has said on Twitter were crucial to their survival. Frédéric Palacios, owner of Le Mas de Mon Père in Malepère in Languedoc, whose vineyards were entirely destroyed, has launched a Facebook page and suggests that wine-lovers could help by buying his remaining 2011 and 2012 stock, his 2013 vintage which is soon to be bottled, or paying for six bottles of a future wine he plans to call “La Part de l’Orage” (Storm Wine) and will make from grapes sold to him by his neighbours (http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2014/07/insurance–solidarity-and-social-media-for-hail-victims). A little loyalty and compassion could be the difference between surviving a disaster and going under, so if are able to support hail-struck producers through buying existing or future stock, consider doing it.