Very little sleep was had by Domaine William Fèvre’s cellar master Didier Séguier while he fought 20 nights of frost over a span of only 29 days in the Chablis wine region in northern France in April earlier this year. “And the temperatures were very, very low this year, around -8 Celsius [18 Fahrenheit],” Didier explained. In some vineyards they lost 50% of their potential grapes in vineyards where they were able to employ protection against the frost while other vineyards lost all of the potential for any grape bunches hence there was zero production. Even though Didier is very well-acquainted with frost, as it has become one of the most concerning issues for Chablis over the past six years, 2021 was still a shock in its relentless onslaught of severe freezing temperatures.
“The frost has become more and more of an important factor compared to 20 years ago,” noted Didier, as bud break (first stage of the vine cycle) used to happen later in the year and so if there was a frost it wasn’t that extreme when it came to low temperatures and most of the buds could survive; yet today, due to climate change, the higher temperatures earlier in the year, around end of March, bring the vines out of their winter dormancy earlier and the resulting bud break is more at risk with colder weather that is not only due to an earlier start in the year but the weather has become even more extreme since the past six years; they are no longer just dealing with temperatures that are just below freezing as the lows have dipped even further.
Over the past few years a multitude of profound photos of lanterns and candles in the Chablis vineyards have flooded the internet every spring showing the world how these wine producers are trying to bring warmth to the vines, pictures that are at once stunningly beautiful and heartbreaking. But when it comes to dealing practically with the frost, Didier says one of the best tools they use to combat it is the un-romantic electric wire.
There are three main practices that Didier uses to combat frost: spraying water, lighting candles and electric wires. They will spray water in their ‘Côte Bouguerots’ section of their Grand Cru vineyard Bougros but for the rest of their vineyards where they implement frost protective practices the choice is either candles or electric wire. Didier, who is always concerned with the environmental impact, insists on animal fat based candles as opposed to gas filled lanterns as it is less toxic for the surroundings, although in his opinion there is nothing like electric wire when it comes to battling the frost in the most efficient and sustainable way.
Electric wires are the most “environmentally friendly and the easiest to use on many levels but is considerably more costly,” states Didier. Just the idea of the man power that William Fèvre needed with bringing out all those candles in the middle of the night, for 20 nights among multitude of plots within Chablis (they own 193 acres in total with 77 acres being Grand Cru and Premier Cru sites) makes one’s head spin, and it is impossible to bring out enough people and candles and so many vineyards were 100% damaged by the frost in 2021. Yet the electric wires can be programmed to turn on automatically when the temperatures go too low and so it is easy to understand how electric just makes more sense, as well as it doesn’t emit anything into the air, although it is costly to properly install and maintain these electric wires and so at this time they only have it installed in almost four acres of the Grand Cru Vaudésir and part of the Grand Cru Les Preuses as these areas are highly prized plots that also have a high risk for frost. But he says that they are planning to add more electric wires to the Premier Cru Montée de Tonnerre in 2022 and the remaining part of Les Preuses in 2023.
Modern Sensibility Balanced with Old Values
As climate change takes its toll on Chablis, as it is doing all over the world, Domaine William Fèvre is exploring practices that incorporate modern sensibility while still maintaining their core values, being a wine producer that first started 250 years ago, of taking care of the community and their surroundings. This does not only extend to which practices to use while they combat frost but it is also represented by Didier using organic practices since 2000, and William Fèvre will be certified organic in 2023, as well as incorporating biodynamic principals.
As Didier has faced an onslaught of challenging times with the 2017 and 2019 vintages losing 50% of their yields and now the 2021 facing much greater loses with a pandemic on top of it, he always finds solace in William Fèvre’s farm that he started around ten years ago. There are goats, donkeys, ducks, chickens and a bee hive just to name a few of the creatures that add to the biodiversity of their estate that produce eggs and honey that are enjoyed by their workers. It is the place where he can go when the world doesn’t make sense so he can ground himself in the beauty of life and the pandemic has given him more time with the animals; he even witnessed the birth of the baby lambs in March. It was a hopeful reminder that yes, life can be cruel and take every thing away from you within a blink of an eye but around the corner there is always the gift of new life that inspires a weary soul that the fight is well worth it.
***Originally published on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2021/08/31/french-wine-producer-using-electric-wires-to-combat-frost-in-chablis-burgundy/?sh=3a9edfa72820
The 2019 is the next vintage to be released and the below wines are a few tasting notes of samples from that vintage which is characterized by wines with a great amount of concentration balanced by a great amount of acidity. All of the wines are 100% Chardonnay but Didier likes to refer to them as Chablis wines since it is the place that distinguishes the wine over the grape variety.
2019 William Fèvre, Domaine Chablis: A blend of William Fèvre’s vineyards in the Chablis appellation. Chalky, white flowers and citrus pith on the palate with fierce acidity.
2019 William Fèvre, Grand Cru Bougros (Domaine): Intense minerality with exotic passion fruit and juicy white nectarine with a wet stone quality on the very long and mouth watering finish.
2019 William Fèvre, Grand Cru Les Clos (Domaine): Already bigger, bolder on the nose with orange blossom, lemon meringue and a creaminess on the nose with seashell notes laced throughout, finishing with a saline minerality on the palate.