A Devastating Loss for French Winemakers

A photo of the vineyards of one of the many French winemakers who sprayed their vines with water to cover them in protective ice.
Image from Reuters

Spring is always a bit hit and miss when it comes to the weather in Paris. It can be gloriously sunny one day, and then start to hail the next. I remember one particularly memorable day when I entered a store under a brilliant blue sky, and emerged a mere five minutes later to snow flurries. Literally. From March to May, you never know what weather you’re going to get, which is why I never leave the house without an umbrella and sunglasses tucked into my purse. This year has been no exception, with the first week of April yielding extraordinarily hot weather, followed by a week of near freezing temperatures. And sadly, this fluctuation has come at a devastating cost for French winemakers. 

For the past week, extraordinary images have been coming out of France’s most famous wine regions as winemakers battled to save this year’s harvest. I have been following this story with thoughts to my friends with vineyards, but I felt like I wasn’t understanding the full scope of what was happening. So this past weekend, I called up Tanisha Townsend from Girl Meets Glass to see if she could shed some light on what was going on. She could, and what is going on is truly heartbreaking.

“The first thing to understand is that these cold snaps we’re having right now is nothing new,” she explained. “There has always been random drops in temperature and hail storms in April. What was different this year was the week of extremely hot weather immediately prior to these cold snaps. The hot weather was what was unusual, and as a result of it, the buds on the vines started to appear.” And that, as it turns out, was the whole problem. While I was revelling in the hot weather, buds were appearing on vines all over the country, far earlier than they should have been. And as Tanisha explained to me, it’s those buds that are susceptible to the cold and frost. “If the bud is damaged, nothing else will grow there this season.”

A photo showing the before and after of a bud destroyed by frost and the cold weather.
A bud before and after last week’s temperature drop

As you can imagine, losing these buds would be catastrophic for winemakers, meaning that when the temperature dropped, winemakers rushed to protect them. There are specific types of candles that are used for exactly this purpose, wherein the heat from the candle is enough to protect the buds, but contained enough that the vines themselves won’t catch fire. However, as Tanisha noted, these candles are expensive, and many winemakers simply don’t have the resources for the thousands of candles this technique would require in order to be effective. That’s why there were reports of winemakers all over the country resorting to burning hay as an alternative, all of which combined to create some of the worst air pollution and smog the country has seen in decades.

Other winemakers resorted to coating their vines in water to freeze the buds, as pictured in the top photo, and if this technique confuses you, you’re not alone. My first thought was that this would surely kill off the buds, but once again, it was Tanisha to the rescue with an explanation. “Think of the ice as a protective coating,” she said. “It’s like putting on a coat for the buds. It doesn’t freeze them, it protects them.” I was still a bit skeptical, so she tried another analogy. “Think of it like freezing food and then letting it defrost. You protect the food from going bad, and once it’s defrosted, it’s fine. That’s what they were doing with the ice.” Got it.

Winemakers all over France were affected by this past week’s cold weather, but Tanisha notes that the regions of Burgundy, Champagne, Bordeaux, and the Loire Valley were particularly hard hit. “It’s awful what’s happening,” she said. “2021 was always going to be a hard year because of the drop in wine consumption last year. Restaurants were closed and events were cancelled, meaning far fewer champagne bottles were being popped. This is the last thing winemakers needed.” And Tanisha is not exaggerating. There are reports that some winemakers and cooperatives have lost up to 90% of their buds, a devastating loss for an industry that was already reeling from the impact of the pandemic. And the fight isn’t over. The cold weather continued yesterday and today, meaning more losses may be on the way.

A French winemaker lights candles to protect the vines overnight as temperatures dropped.
Image from Reuters

When I first arrived in France, I knew almost nothing about wine. I still know relatively little compared to experts like Tanisha, but I have met a lot of incredible winemakers since I made France my home. And for each and every one of them, winemaking is more than a business. It is their life’s passion, and they put their heart and soul into it. You don’t need to speak French to understand the heartbreak in videos like this showing the aftermath of last week’s events. I remember one winemaker telling me once, “When you drink my wine, you drink my heart.” Well, thousands of those hearts are now broken. I can only hope there is something left for them to salvage as the season progresses.

In the meantime, the next time you drink French wine, think of the love and care that the winemaker put into crafting it. I assure you, that well runs deep. Unfortunately, not every vineyard will survive this season, but those who do will need our support now more than ever. I can’t wait to raise a glass to them in a restaurant once more.


Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.