France winemakers fight frost with candles in vineyards

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Outside Chablis, known around the world for its fruity, acidic white wine, a deep orange glow from tens of thousands of candles hung over the rolling vineyards in the early hours of Wednesday (April 7).

But this magical sight is hiding a darker situation for winemakers in some regions of France: freezing temperatures could seriously damage their crops.

French winemakers have lit candles to try to protect their vineyards from sharp spring frosts, with the forecast of more cold nights this week raising fears of serious damage and lost production.

Temperatures plunged as low as -5°C overnight in wine regions including Chablis, in Burgundy, and Bordeaux, which could hurt shoots already well-developed because of earlier mild weather.

Winemaker Laurent Pinson said he had put between 300 and 600 large candles – burning cans of paraffin – across many of his 14 hectares of vines.

Although it was still too early to assess the damage, producers said it is inevitable.

Spring cold snaps have been happening earlier in the year, in April rather than early May some 20-25 years ago, meaning the fall in temperatures can be greater, Pinson said, pointing his finger at climate change.

Winemakers also put out smouldering straw bales to provide a smokescreen to prevent the early sun from burning frozen shoots; sprayed water over the vines with the aim that the ice that forms protects them from freezing; and installed heaters and wind towers that mix the cold air near the ground with warmer air above.

A severe cold spell in April 2017 damaged vineyards so much that annual French wine output was the lowest in history. Frosts had already caused damage the previous year and again in 2019.

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