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No, I have not suddenly become excessively amiable. This is simply an article about the frozen rain kind of hail, and vineyards.

Everyone interested in wine knows that hail is damaging to grapes and grapevines. and on the face of it it requires little imagination to grasp the idea that if a large hailstone can smash straight through a bunch of grapes, several can reduce it to pulp; it will also be evident that a hailstone can perforate a leaf, or even shred it if it is large enough. In fact, the effect of a severe hailstorm on a vineyard is rather shocking when you see it for the first time: anyway it shocked me, so I had obviously failed to imagine it. There are also less visible effects—things you can't see unless you go and have a close look at the damaged plants and know what you are looking for.

It is not for nothing that hail is so feared in Bordeaux, whose unstable, maritime climate more or less guarantees that someone is going to catch some every year. On 24th June 2003, 6000 hectares of Bordeaux vineyards had their crop destroyed. The 2004 crop was also affected, and the worst-damaged plants are still not back in full production. Young plantations had to be replaced

A badly hailed vineyard has no leaves and no grapes. There are perhaps a few shreds of green here and there on the bare branches, and there's a lot of pulp on the ground if the storm is in August or September, when the grapes are well developed. Some of the branches may be broken, others trail down and sideways where they have been detached from their wires and beaten flat. It's more desolate than the vineyard in winter because of the disarray, and more desolate still when you look closely. Many of the branches may be seen to have scars and splits on their upper surfaces where they have been hit by hailstones. Quite apart from those that are broken, others are cracked through, and the buds from which next year's branches will grow are pulped along with this season's grapes. The result is that next year's crop is threatened. It will be difficult to prune to undamaged wood with a full set of buds and it may even be necessary to cut the plant back to the main stock and select what is really an adventitious shoot next year to recreate the shape of the mature vine. Hence the remark about several years of recovery.

Hail storms are amazingly local and seemingly highly dependent on local contours. I know of one vineyard on the crest of the Entre-deux-Mers where storms can regularly be seen rising from the south-west and looming over it, only to veer off suddenly eastwards to crackle, thunder, and unfortunately sometimes hail, in the direction of La Reole. My own place in Sauternes just escaped in July 1989, when two corridors of hail passed one each side of the vineyard and ripped Chateaux Lamothe and d'Arche to pieces on the other side of the village. Even so, cars parked in the courtyard had their roofs dented and the vines had to be sprayed with copper sulphate to encourage the grapes to form scar tissue and avoid rotting.

I heard a good wartime tale from the old Maitre de Chai at Chateau d'Arche. It was grape-picking time when a bad storm hit the village. The young Serge Banchereaud sheltered under a cart with his mates and watched helplessly as the crop was duly reduced to jelly and the vines torn to shreds in the space of 20 minutes. When they crawled out from their shelter, an entirely different harvest presented itself to them: that evening the carts rumbled back to the chai piled high with the biggest game bag ever recorded in the area - hundreds upon hundreds of rabbits, hares, wild boar, partridges, ducks, pheasant, every game creature you can think of, all stunned or killed outright by the hail. Of course during the German occupation the locals weren't allowed guns, so there had been none of the enthusiastic hunting that still occurs here, and the game had multiplied out of hand - until the storm.

Given this frightening level of destruction, is there anything you can do to prevent hail damage? Well, in the old days they used to toll the church bells, presumably on the basis that if you can't think of anything to do the Good Lord might as well be invoked as left in peace. In fact, it turns out this was not such a daft thing to do and must have helped the maintenance of faith in difficult times. The bells of certain churches—round here particularly that of Pujols-sur-Ciron just down the road—have a ring with an ultrasound component that has a cloud-dispersing effect and thus chases storms away to land on someone else. This is particularly useful here, South of the Garonne, because the area is especially storm prone, the clouds offloading as they come up against the steep hills of the right bank of the river.

This property of certain bells has of course been exploited and now you can have an ultrasound cannon that does the job much better. The trouble is they are very expensive and need someone to look after them. That means that round here only the great châteaux of Sauternes have the means to operate one—and very grateful the rest of us are for it! The machine is situated in the vineyard of Chateau Rabaud-Promis, looking down across the valley of the Ciron—indeed, to Pujols and that providential church—and any stormy evening its regular, dull, booming thud can normally be heard all over the Sauternais. We thank our lucky stars, while the worthy vine growers of Loupiac and Sainte-Croix-du-Mont across the river curse their luck as the storm breaks over them, that they haven't the means to install a cannon of their own to send the storm on to the next appellation.

It does seem rather unfair, but there's no way the Crus Classés of Sauternes are going to give up their protection. They have enough trouble as it is. On that evening in July 1989 the cannon didn't go off on its own; someone had tampered with the starter mechanism. A local hero ran down the vineyard in the hail and switched it on manually, saving most of the vines although not all at the southern end of Sauternes, thus providing us with a reminder of what will happen if the cannon isn't kept working.

Recently the right bank of the Garonne—those previously unfortunate producers in Loupiac and Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, plus the Premières Cotes vineyards—have equipped themselves with a line of rocket launchers each capable of protecting an area about 600 metres wide and up to a kilometre long. They work by firing explosive rockets into the storm clouds, breaking up large potential hailstone droplets into much finer and less damaging ones. With this system, the storm is not driven away but reduced in intensity. The penultimate launcher in the line is situated at Chateau du Pin Franc (as stocked by The Oxford Wine Company). That's it in the photo, looking not unlike a piece of scrap metal!

All this is highly relevant to TOWC customers: top-selling Château Haut-Gaudin had 20 of its 30 hectares flattened in 2003, but this is unlikely to happen again. Mind you, every year brings its own problems...... Apparently some people will have no harvest this year because of mildew. Don't worry about Chateaux Haut-Gaudin and Pin Franc, though; they are run by the most conscientious and talented viticulteurs around, and their grapes are, for the moment, in excellent shape.

Nigel Reay-Jones