Other parts of the Chablis vineyards, in northern Burgundy, have also been seriously damaged, but the storm fell with the greatest ferocity on the south-west facing slopes to the north of the town of Chablis. Here, in a small arc of 250 acres, the seven vineyards of the most prestigious varieties of Chablis lie sadly battered and torn.
"It is a real disaster. From the first indications, it seems that at least 50 per cent of the grapes in the Grands Crus have been destroyed," said Robert Drouhin, head of Joseph Drouhin, one of the great Burgundy wine traders and shippers, which owns a section of the best Chablis. Jean Dauvissat, proprietor of Les Preuses vineyard, one of the seven "Grands Crus", said last week: "It's too early to be sure of the extent of the damage but the indications are that it is very, very serious. I have walked around our section of Les Preuses with my son and, as far as I can see, we will be lucky if the 1998 harvest reaches 50 per cent of normal."
At this time of year, the first tiny bunches of Chardonnay grapes have just formed and are being pruned to six or eight bunches for each vine. After the violent hailstorm on the evening of 14 May, following a hot day, many of the plants, or pieds, had been stripped of all their grapes. Chablis vineyards, to the south of the river Serein, were mostly spared. But to the north of the river, all four categories of Chablis - Grands Crus, Premier Crus, Chablis and Petit Chablis - were savagely bombarded with hail-stones for almost an hour. "There was still ice lying on the ground several centimetres thick in some places the next morning," said Mr Dauvissat.
The Chablis vineyards are among the most difficult to work in France, and the harvest fluctuates considerably. But Jean-Pierre Durap, son of the president of the local wine-growers, said this was the worst damage from hail suffered by Chablis since 1983. "We are still assessing the damage," he said. "It is true that the Grands Crus have suffered badly. But some of the other vineyards to the north of the town are reporting 80 per cent damage, others only 20 per cent. South of the river, some escaped altogether."
This is, in a sense, a slow- motion disaster. The 1998 Chablis Grands Crus vintage will not be ready for drinking until 2005; the growers will not sell their bottles until 2001 or 2002. Prices for the 1998 vintage of millesime for all grades of Chablis are likely to rise steeply but this should not affect short- term Chablis prices.
Mr Dauvissat sells his Grand Cru Chablis to the wine trade at pounds 12 to pounds 13 a bottle; it might reach pounds 20 to pounds 30 in the shops. "The price will be higher for the 1998 vintage, that is for sure, but we, the growers, never make up all the losses," Mr Dauvissat said. "If I have lost more than half my Grand Cru, will I be able to ask for pounds 30 a bottle? No."
Chablis and Petit Chablis can be of variable quality but Grand Cru Chablis is indisputably one of the great wines of the world. In the World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson describes Grand Cru Chablis as "important, strong, almost immortal". Not so immortal before the harvest, it seems.Reuse content