France Counts the Cost of Hail

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| Hailstones the size of golf balls destroyed swaths of vineyard across central and southern France this week.

Disastrous weather events, fraud, winemaker rebellions and killer fish – all we need is a plague of locusts to complete the set.

It’s been another busy week in the wine world. Devastating hail has hit France, knocking huge holes in many vineyards, while we have two separate fraud cases to report this week – one of them involving gold-flaked Cava. You know you want to know more, so read on.

Hail slams regions across France

Hailstorms battered wine regions across France last weekend, with the likes of Savoie, Bergerac, the Loire, Armagnac and Roussillon reporting damage to vineyards – some sources even claiming 100-percent losses.

In Armagnac, viticulturists described “apocalyptic” scenes as hail cut swaths through over 4000 hectares (nearly 10000 acres) of vineyard last Friday. Olivier Goujon, head of the Armagnac regional trade body, told news agency AFP some hailstones were “bigger than golf balls”.

 Viticulturist Nelly Lacave lost the entire crop from her 8.5-ha (21-acre) vineyard. “With the early spring frost, we already had 50 percent losses. After the hail, its 100 percent. It’s an apocalyptic scene,” she said. “In the vineyard, there’s nothing left; the roof of our shed is a giant Swiss cheese and at the house, windows have have been shattered. My father, who is almost 70 years old, has never seen the like.”

Similar scenes in Bergerac, to the north, where hailstones were described by wine publication Terre de Vins as being the size of pigeon eggs. Most affected was the western sector of the appellation.

“The vines were particularly affected by hail, from Sainte-Foy-la-Grande to the border between Gironde and Dordogne going up the river on the left bank to the east of the department, passing through Saussignac and Pomport, destroying 100 percent of certain plots,” said Terre de Vins.

“The hail affected about 30 percent of the Sauvignon [Blanc] but probably 50 percent of the Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which had larger berries and were already well advanced,” Olivier Roches of Château Le Tap told the publication.

Head of the Bergerax-Duras Winegrowers’ Association Eric Chadourne was no more optimistic.

“After the frost in early April, we had 30 to 40 percent damage, but the vines had recovered well and we had high hopes of not losing too much volume in the 2022 harvest,” he said. “But this hail at the end of flowering is terrible and it is above all the worst period […] This storm is a massacre, a real disaster for the people of Bergerac.”

Further north in the Loire Valley, the hail had a limited and very localized effect on the vineyards. Terre de Vins reported that while Saint-Nicolas de Bourgueil was spared the effects of hail, some storms did fall on Bourgueil and Chinon – the latter being most hit (along with some sectors of Saumur).

The storms were not confined to last Friday and Saturday, however, with wine news website Vitisphere.com reported localized – but heavy – hail damage in the Roussillon earlier this week.

On Monday, an unexpected hailstorm slammed into a sector of the Les Aspres subregion of Roussillon, northwest of Perpignan. According to reports, around 100 hectares (259 acres) of vineyard have been hit although crop damage is reportedly between 30 and 50 percent.

“It was very localized around Passa,” Julien Thiery, Head of Viticulture at the Pyrénées-Orientales Chamber of Agriculture, told Vitisphere.com. “We have been told the Muscats could be 90 to 100 percent affected but we will continue to monitor the vineyards to get a more precise idea of the nature of the damage.”

Meanwhile snowplows had to be deployed in parts of the Savoie region to clear piles of hailstones on the roads.

“The storm took us by surprise just before noon. The hail made a carpet so thick that it looked like snow,” Franck Berkulès, spokesperson for the Savoie wine trade body (Comité Interprofessionnel des Vins de Savoie), told Vitisphere.com. “The entire vineyard of the Combe de Savoie is affected, to varying degrees. Hail may have fallen very heavily in one plot, not in the next one, and then hit the one after.”

Winegrower Fabien Trosset in Arbin told the publication 20 out of 25 hectares (50 out of 62 acres) were hit with several of his plots completely destroyed. His Altesse and Roussanne, in particular, have suffered. It was a similar story in Cruet.

“Of our 360 hectares (890 acres), at least 25 are over [sic] 100 percent destroyed, with branches cut down to the second wire, with no leaves and no grapes,” the president of the Cruet cooperative, Yvan Bouvet, told Vitipshere. “Sixty hectares (150 acres) have up to 50 percent losses with many others around 30 percent.”

It hasn’t all been bad news, however. The bad weather has also bought with it some much needed rain to parts of France at real risk from drought (as reported two weeks ago).

“[…]the rain was good, it had been three months since we’d had only 25mm [one inch of rainfall],” Jean-Marc Gillet, of Domaine de la Rouletière in Touraine, told Terre de Vins.

In the southern Rhône, however, reports indicate the region is heading for major drought conditions this year with Orange getting only 200mm (7.8 inches) of rain since harvest. Regional indications show the areas around Orange and Avignon (in particular just west of Avignon, on the other side of the Rhône, around Signargues) under particular stress.

“Vines are currently growing, but on some plots a third to half of the main shoots are slowing down in growth,” said an official report published last weekend. “On some plots in tougher situations we have begun to observe defoliation.”

Fraud inquiry opens old wounds in Valais

From one Rhône valley to another. This time to the Valais region in Switzerland where the regional wine trade association (Interprofession de la Vigne et du Vin du Valais, the IVV) and the Caves Orsat winery have taken legal action against an unnamed person or persons over 32,000 liters of suspected fraudulent wine.

Suspicions were raised when Orsat first looked at purchase of 15,000 liters of 2019 Ermitage (the local name for Roussanne) and 18,000 liters of 2019 Chardonnay on the bulk wine market in February this year. Both are surprising volumes of wine to have knocking about after the “disastrous 2021 harvest and a below-average 2020 harvest”, according to Swiss news agency Keystone-ATS.

According to Swiss publiction Le Nouvelliste, Véronique Besson-Rouvinez of Caves Orsat was suspicious when she tasted samples of the two wines for sale.

“We thought they were very similar but these are normally two very different varieties,” she said. Besson-Rouvinez then sent the samples off for testing.

Following the analysis, an expert reportedly told the winery the wines most likely came from a coastal, Mediterranean, region. The Rouvinez family, which runs Caves Orsat, attempted to bring a case there and then but this was reportedly blocked as the provenance of the samples could not be independently verified.

Cue then a major undercover operation involving the Swiss Wine Trade Inspectorate and the Valais Consumer Affairs Service in which Caves Orsat went ahead with the purchase of the suspect wines under official monitoring. The wines are delivered and the tanks sealed by inspectors, who had also tailed the tanker (and an unnamed wine broker) between Château Constellation in Sion (where the wine was held) and Caves Orsat in Martigny.

“The first analyses […] confirmed the suspicions of Caves Orsat, and the CSCV [Swiss Wine Trade Inspectorate] filed a complaint with the Valais public prosecutor, who has so far refused to comment on the case,” said Le Nouvelliste in May.

For its part, Château Constellation has denied any wrongdoing.

“We immediately collaborated,” said Château Constellation boss Claude Thiéry. “We are doing all we can to identify if there is an issue and to discover its origin. We immediately contacted the suppliers of these wines, whether they were the cellars that supplied us with portions of the wine or suppliers across the harvest in question. We asked that we also be given the spraying plan for their vineyards. All the information received has been transmitted in complete transparency to the Swiss Wine Trade Inspectorate.”

The IVV in particular is keen to bring the case to court to protect the image of the region’s wine producers, not least because the current case has reopened old wounds over the so-called “Affair Giroud”: the long-running legal battles with Giroud Vins and its director Dominique Giroud which saw Giroud accused of financial and wine fraud in the Valais.

The affair dates back to 2013 in the Valais when Giroud – a major player in the region – was accused of cross-blending Saint-Saphorin Fendant (Chasselas) from Vaud with Fendant du Valais. He was acquitted of the charges in 2016, although he was in and out of court on financial fraud charges – and injunctions to prevent national media (in particular RTS, or Radio Télévision Suisse) from reporting on his dealings – from 2014 onwards.

In 2014, RTS reported that Swiss supermarket chain Denner had suspended its contract with Giroud Vins after nearly 80,000 liters of Petite Arvine 2008 it bought from the company was found (again by the Swiss Wine Trade Inspectorate) to be a blend of different vintages that went beyond the maximum 15 percent of other vintages allowed in a single-vintage wine.

Last year Giroud was found guilty, and given a six-month suspended prison sentence (since reduced, on appeal, to a fine), for the attempted cyber-hack of computers belonging to journalists (investigating Giroud’s tax affairs) at the Le Temps publication in 2014.

He remains a contentious figure in the region. Despite Giroud Vins adorning the strip of local football team FC Sion for many years, Dominique Giroud is well-known for his traditionalist Catholic views. His anti-abortion stance and attempts to halt local Gay Pride events are well-known, locally.

Giroud Vins was wound up between 2013 and 2014, effectively becoming Château Constellation (the latter occupies the impressive former Giroud winery in Sion). In the words of Le Temps, Château Constellation “was created to make people forget Giroud”.

Giroud has not personally been connected to the latest fraud case.

EU fraud investigators probe gold-flaked Cava

More allegations of fraud in Spain. Vin Doré 24K, which produces a range of Cava wines containing gold dust as well as other gold-dust infused beverages, is under EU investigation for possible fraud after questions were raised over €10 million (US10.6 million) worth of grants it received through multi-million euro Covid relief funding in 2020.

According to national news outlet El Periodico de España, members of the left-wing Podemos party submitted documents showing both Vin Doré 24K and Air Global Media (which supplies Formula One content to mobile phones) had seen massive increases in revenue after being granted contracts to supply health equipment, including personal protective equipment (PPE) and Rapid Antigen Tests during the pandemic.

“The two companies obtained grants for more than €20 million (US$21 million) from the Community of Madrid in 2020 via an emergency procedure through the Madrid Health Service (SERMAS),” said the publication. Given the source of the grants is the European Union, the case falls within Brussels’ jurisdiction.

El Periodico de España said that Vin Doré had recived funds totalling €10,772,635 ($11,437,845) across five contracts. It added that the company was registered in Panama (and originally founded via a company called CAD Telecom SL) and run by entrepreneur Diego Suárez Liceras, who has links to the right-wing Partido Popular (the party to which Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the president of the Community of Madrid, belongs).

Vin Doré had at the time, however, added “any activity related to services in the field of the pharmaceutical distribution sector” to its company activities. Futhermore, a gushing report in online publication El Confidencial Digital this year (which bears all the hallmarks of a press release) said the company had gone to “superhuman efforts” to distribute PPE during the pandemic.

“This operation represented a major risk for the company’s assets, since considerable resources were used to finance product deliveries from China,” said the report.

Just how much of the risk and resources were covered by €10 million of EU grant money will perhaps be brought to light.

OIV to battle Spanish government over wind farm in Bierzo 

The head of the so-called “UN of Wine”, the International Organisation of Vines and Wines (OIV), Pau Roca has said the organisation is set to battle the Spanish government over plans to erect a major wind farm in the Bierzo wine region of northwest Spain. Roca, who was in the region last month, said the plans were a major disturbance to the area.

“If it affects the future, we should provide some means of defence,” Roca told Radio Bierzo.

Earlier this year, the Spanish government announced a project to install 54 wind turbines in three major farms across the region. The windfarm plan is a contentious one for the region as the main local town, Ponferrada, houses a major wind turbine factory, providing hundreds of jobs in the region.

Nonetheless, local groups, including Bierzo Aire Limpio (Clean Air Bierzo) and the Platform for the Defense of the Cantabrian Mountains have opposed the plan claiming the project has not conformed to EU procedure. Just how much more influence the OIV can have on the Spanish government’s environmental plans remains to be seen.

Australian treats deadly fish sting with Shiraz

And now for something completely different. While wine publications do have a tendency to overstate the case when it comes to the health benefits of wine, an Australian man has made a bold case for the beverage’s potency in alleviating the pain of a potentially lethal sting from a stonefish.

Adam Clancy’s TikTok video, in which he documented that aftermath of being stung by the venomous fish, went viral after he declined painkillers in favor of a glass of red wine.

“The paramedic recommended I go to hospital but I declined, he offered painkillers but I told him red wine will do fine,” Clancy told American weekly news outlet Newsweek. “I went home, kept my foot in hot water for a couple hours, drank a bottle of wine and went to sleep.”

“I didn’t go to hospital or take any meds, just the Shiraz,” he added later. Although there was no clarification on the producer of the wine, Clancy’s life was more likely saved by the warm water, which denatures stonefish venom, than a glass of Australia’s finest.

However, the wisdom of the decision is questionable, even for Clancy. “I don’t recommend dealing with it like I did,” he added.

Despite being a wine publication, nor do we. Although you now have a nice yarn to accompany your next glass of Barossa’s finest.

Wine shop owner plants vineyard in Brittany

Lastly, our continued monitoring of hobby vineyards cropping up in unlikely places throughout France takes us to Brittany in the very northwest of the country.

Just outside the small town of Saint-Gilles, just west of Rennes (120km/75 miles north of the Loire), local wine shop owner Guillaume Margottin has planted 550 Chenin Blanc vines with the object of producing fine wine.

“With global warming, we have a terroir that is becoming more and more favorable to viticulture,” he told regional news outlet Ouest France.

Margottin is set to produce his first wine (a sparkling pétillant naturel) from the vineyard in 2025. He told reporters he also hopes to produce a still white wine from the site.

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