This week it became clear that 2021 would be an extremely challenging vintage for Burgundy after freezing temperatures during the morning hours of April 6th, 7th and 8th had damaged the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir buds from the Mâconnais to Chablis, reports Wine Spectator. 

Growers scrambled to light candles in the vineyards in the hopes of raising the near-ground temperatures by a degree, yet even with protection, the frost killed many young buds. As the Chardonnay vines were more advanced in their vegetative growth than the Pinot Noir, losses in those sites were more widespread.

“Our first estimation is that, despite all the efforts, there has been significant damage,” said Véronique Drouhin-Boss, who oversees winemaking for Joseph Drouhin. “In Montrachet, it is a little early to tell, but for sure there will be some important loss. The snow that fell last night (April 6) was very bad news. In Chablis, the vines that were not protected by candles or water spray suffered big time, it seems.”

Christian Moreau of Domaine Christian Moreau & Fils, his son Fabien and their team burned 2,000 candles among their parcels in Chablis on the night of April 7th. Moreau estimated that they lost between 20%-25% of the buds in the protected plots, and 50%-60%, maybe more, amid the unprotected vines.

The problem, Moreau explained, was “black frost” (gelée noir), which is caused by a very cold air mass and low humidity. When there is moisture in the air, ice crystals will form on the vines, but with black frost it is the plant tissue that freezes, subsequently turning black and dying. Black frost “will hurt you everywhere from the bottom to the top of the hill with no difference,” he said.

“Indeed, it is a disaster. Too soon to evaluate the damage, but it will be significant,” said Erwan Faiveley, CEO of Domaine Faiveley. “Obviously the Chardonnay will suffer more than the Pinots, as the buds were already wide opened. Chablis is wiped out, Puligny, Chassagne, Meursault, well … I don’t know what will be left.”

It will take about two to three weeks to fully assess the damage and determine how many secondary buds might produce grape bunches. Nonetheless, Jacques Devauges, director of Domaine des Lambrays in Morey-St.-Denis, explained that secondary buds are less regular, produce fewer grapes and are more susceptible to fungal diseases. “It’s going to be a difficult season,” Devauges said.

A few other regions across France have also faced unusually low temperatures. Bordeaux, Rhone and Champagne are among those who have been affected, but the consequences of the frosts are still to be assessed.