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Wine Making and Severe Weather – The Impact of Golf Ball Sized Hail in Bergerac

Golf ball sized hail that fell in Carsac and Saint Martin

Golf ball sized hail that fell in Carsac and Saint Martin

Back in August severe weather caused havoc amongst the vineyards with Bordeaux’s Entre Deux Mers, Bergerac and south of Cognac being the worst affected. Violent storms packing golf ball sized hail smashed down on the vines destroying crops. Robin Ruffler of Domaine de Beauregard in Villefranche de Lonchat, Bergerac, kindly gave me a first hand account of the devastation and on reading it seems more like a report from Tornado Alley in the USA than south west France. Thankfully Robin’s estate was one of the lucky ones and avoided most of the damage but as he points out the destruction caused to the grapes coupled with a difficult growing year means that production across the affected regions is going to be way down. His local co-operative has vines both in Bergerac and in Bordeaux and they reckon that production is going to be down 50%.

Bergerac and Bordeaux wine regions

Bergerac and Bordeaux wine regions

The Bergerac wine region lies east of Bordeaux and the vineyards extend either side of the River Dordogne following on from the Bordelaise Côtes de Castillon, Saint Emilion and the Entre Deux Mers. It’s home to 13 AOCS producing red, rosé, dry white, moelleux (slightly sweet) and sweet white wines. The region covers around 30,000 acres and has been home to wine making since Roman times. The town of Bergerac itself was an important river shipping port a couple of centuries ago and its wines were ferried up the river to England, Holland and Scandinavia. The Dordogne is renowned for its rich foods – foie gras, truffles and walnuts and its wines reflect this, being full bodied, fruity and great with food. Good Bergerac producers are well worth tracking down.

Domaine de Beauregard

Domaine de Beauregard

Founded 50 years ago, Domaine de Beauregard has been owned by English couple Robin and Sasha Ruffler since 2005. It is a 135 acre estate with an award winning organic vineyard covering 32 acres. Vines are planted on the hillsides of chalky clay surrounding the property and the estate makes both red and rosé wines.

As Robin says 2013 will be a year that a lot of wine growers will want to forget. In Bergerac two storms hit on 2nd and 6th August. The first was the worst with locals saying that they hadn’t had a storm like that since 1935 (which was one week before the harvest) and he is hoping there is going to be nothing like it again for another 100 years or so (fingers crossed). Robin described the event below:

Huge hailstones from Carsac and saint Martin

Huge hailstones from Carsac and saint Martin

“Further on from Villefranche de Lonchat the villages of Carsac-de-Gurson and Saint Martin de Gurson were absolutely devastated. All vines in the area were completely stripped. Maize was cut in half and cars and houses absolutely battered. A friends Ford had €6000 of damage to it. All the panels were smashed and the windscreen had cracks all over it. Many people had to move out of their houses as the hail perforated the roofs. I heard of hail going through not only tiles on the roof but the corrugated roofing sheets underneath as well. A chicken farmer in Montpeyroux lost 600 chickens when the barn doors blew open and the chickens ran out into the hail and were killed by it. I also heard a donkey was killed but I can’t confirm this is true. The largest hail stone they found was apparently the size of a small grapefruit and weighed 750 grams. It’s a miracle that no one was killed.

Hail still lying on the fields the next morning

Hail still lying on the fields the next morning

We were up in our local village selling wine at the night market when it hit. We’d seen the clouds coming and there were a few websites that said we might have a storm so when it started raining heavily we weren’t taken by surprise. We were all laughing and joking about it until the hail came. I’d never seen anything like it and we weren’t even in the worst of it. The noise and the sheer ferocity of the winds driving it in was something else. I’ve not seen anything like it before and really hope that I don’t see it again while I’m close by vines.

Damaged vines

Damaged vines

The localization of the storm was incredible. We got off very lucky at Beauregard. We had hail and I estimate the damage at around 15-20%. The leaves were fairly untouched but the damage was to the fruit. Where the grapes were hit they were either split open or bruised. Either way the fruit was lost – the bruising seemed to shock the fruit and the majority never ripened afterwards. However saying this we got off very lightly. Other vineyards got hit much worse than us. About 1 km away as the crow flies, a friend lost 80%. Another good friend on the other side of the village lost 100% of his fields. Weirdly, there were vines surrounding the area that lost much less. Some 500 hectares were damaged by the storm and about 300 hectares of which lost between 80 and 100% of their crop.”

Map of villages affected by the hail storm

Map of villages affected by the hail storm

Robin also explained that although the vines grew back amazingly quickly after the storms it will take them time to recover. The vines won’t crop well next year either and possibly for the worst affected the year after that as well. His sympathies lie with the wine growers as the vines still need to be worked and tended which must be the hardest bit:

“You are still spending a lot of money on them and they won’t give anything back. The State has been good so far. They have already given us a tax rebate on land tax and those that were worst effected I believe are going to get more tax rebates next year too.”

Robin has a video of the hail storm on Domaine de Beauregard’s facebook page https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=679071442111839  and says this one will also give you an idea of what it was like there http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKISy_3n7Qo.

Domaine de Beauregard

Domaine de Beauregard

When we hear of severe weather impacting on the French vineyards it’s hard to imagine the destruction it can cause and I am very grateful to Robin for his account, photos and video. It brings home the difficulties that wine makers have to face and explains the future shortfall in supply that we are expecting here in the UK. Larger and more prestigious estates can suck up the losses, having the financial clout to cope, but smaller producers face very real financial hardship in the event of a weather catastrophe. It is these producers we should be supporting. More often than not it is amongst these smaller estates that some superb wine discoveries can be found!

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