A wine grower lights heaters early in the morning, to protect vineyards from frost damage outside Chablis, France, April 7.
A wine grower lights heaters early in the morning, to protect vineyards from frost damage outside Chablis, France, April 7, 2021.

PARIS - France’s agricultural minister is calling it the biggest agricultural catastrophe of this century — a cold snap that threatens to wreak havoc on the nation's harvests, including that of legendary vineyards from northern Champagne to southwestern Bordeaux.

The sound of sprinklers can be heard in France’s eastern Burgundy region — one of several methods desperate wine growers are using to save their vines. In some places, April temperatures have plunged as low as 6 degrees Celsius (21 F) or more.

It is not the first time French vineyards have faced severe frosts. But many say these are among the harshest in years. Some blame it on climate change. In many parts of the country, winegrowers large and small fear a lost year.

“We know that the chardonnay that have grown very nice — you could see 10 days ago, the baby leaves appearing — this is dead. And this is the next crop,” Frederic Drouhin said.

Winegrowers Pierre-Marie, left, and Marie Luneau check vines during the burning of anti-frost candles in the Luneau-Papin wine vineyard in Le Landreau, near Nantes, western France, on April 12, 2021.

Drouhin heads Burgundy’s BIVB wine federation—as well as Maison Joseph Drouhin, a four-generation family business with vineyards in the area’s prized Chablis and Cote d’Or regions. He said it is too early to assess the overall loss.

“But we know that from Chablis to Macon (wine growing areas), it’s not good.," Drouhin said. "We know in Sancerre, in the Cote du Rhone, in Bordeaux — almost everywhere — even the people growing peach and apricot trees in the Rhone valley, they lost their crop.”

France’s government has declared an agricultural disaster, paving the way for state support. Agricultural Minister Julien Denormandie said this cold spell has unleashed the biggest agricultural disaster so far this century.

For the country’s iconic wine industry, the frosts add to a spate of bad news. The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered restaurants and hotels, sharply shrinking profits. It has also been hit by a drop in Chinese demand, and Trump administration tariffs last year over an unrelated transatlantic dispute. These were recently suspended — and wine producer Drouhin said many American consumers continued to buy French labels.

A picture shows frozen vines in the Luneau-Papin wine estate vineyard in Le Landreau, near Nantes, western France, on April 12, 2021, as temperatures fall below zero degrees celsius.

There is also the long arm of climate change, which experts say will deeply impact wine growing.

In Bordeaux, home to some of the world’s most prestigious wines, the area Greens Party complains about a more immediate environmental downside: smog and noise pollution from fires in vineyards and wind machines used to keep vines from freezing.

Local Greens lawmaker Benoist Aulanier said while some winegrowers are very environmentally conscious, the Greens’ complaints reflect practices of other large-scale, more business-oriented owners less concerned and connected with their communities.

“They don’t know much about the village people. and thus because of this wine industry logic, they try to produce more and more wine and send at the best price and get the perfect margin as they can, while totally disregarding they may (cause damage) on the environment,” Aulanier said.

Not everybody agrees with this assessment. But nobody disputes the pressure is on to save France’s wine harvest.