The cold snap comes after an already difficult period of pandemic-related lockdowns and export trade wars for France's winemakers.

By Jelisa Castrodale
April 16, 2021
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In the middle of last month, temperatures in parts of France soared to highs of 26°C (79°F), which caused some crops—including grapes in the country's famed vineyards—to start blooming early. That made the situation even more devastating when temperatures plummeted to -7°C (19°F) last week. That heavy frost affected up to 80 percent of French vineyards in almost every region, and there's serious concern that this year's grape harvest could be one of the smallest ever. 

Fight against late spring frost in vineyards
Credit: Andia / Contributor/Getty Images

"It's a national phenomenon," Jérôme Despey, the secretary general of the FNSEA farming union and a winemaker, told France24. "You can go back in history, there have been [freezing] episodes in 1991, 1997, 2003 but in my opinion it's beyond all of them." The outlet reports that only Alsace, parts of Champagne, and the Cognac region were not significantly affected by the unseasonably cold weather. 

Some winemakers did what they could to try to salvage their crops, lighting candles and small fires in desperate attempts to keep frost from forming. In many cases, it wasn't enough. "We'd bought huge candles—like big paint pots of full of wax—and we placed them between the vines and ran out to light them at 2 a.m.," Michel-Henri Ratte told The Guardian. "There were still some green shoots but then the snow came. It was catastrophic. Currently, we're looking at 100 [percent] loss on this year's harvest. We'll know in a month if anything has survived." 

France has declared an "agricultural disaster" and Prime Minister Jean Castex has promised that the government will provide emergency relief to those who were affected. He has also removed the limit on the amount of financial compensation that can be provided. President Emmanuel Macron tweeted a picture of a candle-lit vineyard and promised that help was on the way. "To you, farmers who, throughout France, have fought tirelessly, night after night, to protect the fruits of your labor, I want to give you our full support in this fight," he wrote. "Hold on tight! We are by your side and will remain so." 

It's another blow for France's wine industry, which has already been dealing with the knock-on effects of the pandemic, with decreases in restaurant orders due to the country's series of lockdowns, and the tariffs that former President Donald Trump imposed as a result of assorted disputes between the administration and the European Union. In late 2019, Trump hit French wine with a retaliatory 25 percent import duty, a cost increase that the New York Times says contributed to a 14 percent drop in French wine exports in 2020. (Last month, the United States and the EU announced a four-month suspension of the tariffs.) 

But that doesn't necessarily help winegrowers right now—especially since a significant percentage of this year's crop may already be lost. "I heard someone say it was like the loss of a family member," Eric Pastorino, the president of the Côtes de Provence appellation, told the Times. "It may seem puerile, but that is close to what I feel. Perhaps only winegrowers can understand this sentiment, but we have found ourselves out in the vines in the morning with tears in our eyes."