Black frost casts its shadow over Cotes du-Rhone

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One week ago all seemed sleepily content in the prosperous hill villages west of Avignon where some of the cheaper brands of Cotes-du- Rhone are produced.

The vineyards, as precise and peaceful as military cemeteries, were lush with leaves. After an exceptionally warm and dry spring, the vines were three weeks ahead of their normal growth. A big 1997 harvest, and a good, strong vintage, seemed likely.

That was a week ago. Two days later the overnight temperature across a crescent-shaped swathe of the French south, from the Rhone valley to Provence, fell to between four and seven degrees below freezing.

It was not an especially late frost but it was an especially severe one. Severe enough to devastate thousands of hectares of vines and fruit trees. The locals call it a "black frost": intense cold, followed by bright sunshine, which turns the growing shoots of the vines to powder. Up to six million bottles of wine may have been wiped out.

The southern part of the Cotes-du-Rhone "appellation controlee" area has been especially badly stricken. One village, Suze-la-Rousse, has lost 95 per cent of this year's crop. In the Gard departement 40 per cent of the vines have been damaged beyond recovery until next year.

Paul Givaudeau, mayor of Cavillargues, in the Gard, said: "It's a disaster. We have seen nothing of the kind for 50 years. Some of our Cotes-du-Rhone will recover, but the vin ordinaire is 80 or 90 per cent gone. And the fruit trees are dramatically affected."

Further south and east, around Toulon, the toll is almost as great: an 80 per cent loss of the table wine crop, 20 per cent losses of vegetables and fruits, especially apricots and strawberries.

The better known, and more expensive, varieties of Cotes-du-Rhone, nearer the river valley itself, such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Crozes-Hermitages have also been damaged, but not as badly as in the hill villages.

Since a similar late frost in 1991, producers of the more costly types of wine have invested in very expensive heating systems to prevent the ground temperature from falling below minus 2C, the critical point for the growing shoots.

Although the extent of the devastation may not be as great as first feared, farmers organisations in the south are saying it is the worst calamity since May 1945. They are already preparing their claims for government, and EU, compensation.

The great freeze of 1991 caused enormous disruptions to the wine market, sending prices zooming, then falling. As a result, strategic stocks have been created to even out the effect of future shortages. The impact on shop prices may, therefore, be slight. But the income of the smaller producers - even with compensation - will take a severe hit in about two years' time.

And the worst may not yet be over. Meteorologists were forecasting another severe frost in the French south east in the course of last night.