A freak hail storm which hit part of the Champagne area at around 5.30pm last Sunday evening (July 2, 2000) has caused extensive damage to over 3,000 hectares of prime vineyard, around 10% of the total appellation.

In a short but devastating burst which lasted less than half an hour, hailstones the size of ice cubes beat a path along the Marne Valley from Chateau Thierry in the west through to beyond Ay in the east. The storm then turned north, crossing the Montagne de Reims and wreaked havoc in villages including Trepail, Verzy, Verzenay, Mailly, Ludes, Rilly-le Montagne and Chigny-les-Roses, where most of the appellation's top-rated Pinot Noir is planted.

It is still too early to accurately assess the extent of the damage. Champagne's governing body - the Comite Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) - at first believed that of the 3,000 hectares effected in some way, only 1,000 hectares of grapes were completely lost. "But," says Daniel Lorson, CIVC's director of communications, "two days later this figure was revised upwards to 1,500 hectares."

"The storm followed the River Marne from Chateau Thierry to Tours-sur-Marne," says Lorson. "Other places badly hit are the villages north of the Montagne de Reims. Some plots are totally destroyed, in the worst cases the vineyards won't produce any grapes this year and because of damage to the vine, the 2001 vintage will suffer as well."

The damage was particularly bad in the grand cru villages of Verzy and Verzenay, where houses like Veuve Cliquot and Louis Roederer have large holdings. "In Verzy, 361 hectares out of 400 were effected with at least half the crop completely destroyed, in Verzenay 308 out 410 hectares of vineyard were hit by the hail," says Lorson.

The problem in the damaged vineyards could yet be far worse because it has remained stormy with further heavy rain for most of the past week, which has severely hindered any attempts to protect the damaged vines. As a result, there is a real danger of widespread mildew and rot if the weather does not improve very soon.

"We had 20mm of rain in Ay this morning (7 July)," says Ghislain Montgolfier, president directeur general (PDG) at Champagne Bollinger. "Because it's so wet there is a widespread possibility of mildew but while it continues raining, if you try to spray the vines to protect them, it's simply washed away."

Bollinger has already lost 20% of its grapes in its own holdings in Ay, where Montgolfier says nearly a sixth of the 382 hectares of vineyard were destroyed by the hailstorm. "Our holdings in the middle of the slope were particularly badly hit, it is still too early to say how extensive the damage is, but the situation has looked worse each day. In terms of the whole champagne economy it is not a disaster, less than 10% of the vineyard is effected, but things are a lot worse in Verzy and Verzenay than here in Ay," says Montgolfier.

Yves Bernard of Moet Hennessy says that the company, which has the biggest holdings in the Montagne de Reims area of some 1,400 hectares (spread between major brands Moet & Chandon, Veuve Cliquot and Pommery), "has lost about 30% of the potential 2000 crop", as a result of the storm which he describes as "the worst hail storm to hit Champagne over the past 40 years."

He estimates that 4,500 hectares of vineyard has some damage with about 30% completely destroyed. "We (Moet Hennessy) lost around 30% of our own crop which is a great cause of concern. There was significant damage to major Pinot Noir crus like Hautvilliers, Verzy and Verzenay. In Verzy and Verzenay around 90% of the vineyard was hit."

More information about Bollinger can be viewed at www.bollinger.co.uk

Giles Fallowfield