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Sub zero temperatures wipe out crops across England

English wine producers are counting the cost after severe frosts gripped much of southern England last week, with sub zero temperatures wiping out more than half of some producers’ crops.

Heaters lit at Albury Organic Vineyard in a bid to protect young buds. Credit: Albury Vineyard

Temperature dropped to -6C in some parts of southern England last week with producers battling to protect their developing buds, which can cope with temperatures as low as -1C before suffering damage.

Nick Wenman, owner of Albury Organic Vineyards in the North Downs said the “formidable” frost had caused damage to 80% of its buds. “It’s been a stark reminder of the difficulties faced by wine producers in the country, and yes… at this moment we are indeed asking ourselves whether we were mad to try and grow vines in England,” he said.

“However we are not alone. This time last week, we read about the devastation caused by frost to vineyards in Champagne with heavy hearts, and growing anxiety over what might come our way. And we were right to be worried; the freezing air frost hit us on Monday night and we jumped into action, lighting ‘bougies’ (French for ‘candle’) and burners throughout the vineyard.”

700 candles lit at Albury Organic Vineyard. Credit: Albury Organic Vineyard

The week previous, severe frosts hit Champagne, as well as Burgundy and the Loire Valley, wiping out entire crops of young buds in some parts of the region. The Côte des Bar in Aube bore the brunt of the damage, where reserves are already at an all-time low due to similar frost problems last year.

Many producers fought in vain to protect their young vines, with vineyard workers deploying hundreds of candles and fire drums to help warm the vines in the middle of the night, lighting up vast swathes of vineyards.

Similar scenes were seen in England as producers fought to keep their vines warm, including Hambledon Vineyard which reported reporting temperatures as low as -3.8C in a tweet, accompanied by a picture of fire drums lighting up its vineyard.

In some areas, these efforts could have been enough to ward off some of the damage, but did little to help those that that suffered the most severe temperatures.

Offering some insight into why this bout of frost hit vineyards particularly hard, Wenman said two factors had played a role.

“Firstly, the fabulous sunshine we all enjoyed in March caused buds to burst two weeks earlier than they did last year. Whilst this could have resulted in a fabulous crop, had the weather continued in our favour, the frost that followed affected buds already quite developed in their fruit-bearing journey. The second twist of fate lies in the complexity of the frost itself.

“Whilst a ground frost, as we have experienced in previous years, can be battled relatively effectively with the use of bougies, we also suffered an air frost which is a different beast. Sweeping through the vineyard, it freezes anything in it’s path within moments and even an army of 700 bougies find that a near impossible opponent to defeat.”

Wenman estimates his crops suffered around 80% damage to buds across the vineyard but remains optimistic: “Some buds have escaped altogether, and the damaged vines will (fingers crossed) develop secondary buds and, whilst these may not be as fruitful or have as much time to ripen, they give us hope for a harvest this year.”

Bud damage at Albury Organic Vineyards. Credit: Albury Organic Vineyards

Chris White, chief executive of Denbies Wine Estate in Surrey, has said that 75% of its crop was damaged by last week’s sub-zero temperatures, after temperatures dropped to -6C causing catastrophic damage to bud.

“Bud burst started early this year with the mild weather. This, combined with the severe drop in temperature at this more advanced stage in the vine growth, caused more damage than normal,” he told the drinks business.

“In spite of extensive anti frost measures put in place and with temperatures at -6.⁰ it was impossible to protect the vines against damage.  This year has the potential outcome reminiscent of the 2012 harvest and the challenges faced that year.

“People in the wine business all over the world are under no illusions to the challenges faced by extreme weather conditions and therefore take measures to mitigate fluctuation in supply. This frost has come on the back of four very good harvests which has placed us in the position where we do not anticipate any impact on supply to our existing customers.

“With the volume of plantings this year, the confidence in English wine production is still very much on a high.”

Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger and Patrick McGrath MW

Speaking to The Telegraph, Chris Foss, head of the wine department at Plumpton College in East Sussex, said this had been one of the worst bouts of frost that he had witnessed in his 30-year career in Englsih wine, suggesting that there could be at least a 50% drop in production volumes this year.

The catastrophic blow follows four record harvests for the English wine industry, which has only recently confirmed plans to plant a further one million vines over the next 12 months. The new vines will cover an area of 625 acres yielding an extra two million bottles, and are predicted to contribute £50m to the industry. In the last ten years the UK’s area under vine has grown by 135%, with the total acreage tripling since 2000.

Julia Trustram Eve, marketing manager of English Wine Producers, said it was still assessing the damage, with some hit worse than other, but described the situation as a “Europe-wide phenomenon”, given the extent of the damage caused not just in England but throughout Europe.

The aftermath coincides with the first planting of a vineyard by a French Champagne producer, with today marking Champagne Taittinger’s official arrival in Kent.

Taittinger is launching Domaine Evremond, a winery within a 69 hectare plot in Kent near Canterbury, that will be used to produce a range of new “premium” English sparkling wines – making it the first Champagne house to invest directly in English sparkling wine.

Around 35-40 hectares will be planted with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Some 20,000 to 25,000 cases are expected to be initially produced.

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