CHAMPAGNE is suffering its worst grape-growing season in decades because of an “unprecedented” blight of frost, hail and disease.Photo: Thinkstock

Weather conditions and the ravages of mildew have made growers’ lives hell in recent months; cold snaps, freak hailstorms, unrelenting rain and grape rot are expected to cut yields by a third.

This year has been unprecedented,” said Dominique Moncomble, the director of technical services at the CIVC, the champagne wine board.

Frosts in mid-April destroyed nearly 10pc of the appellation’s crop, with losses as high as 40pc in some areas. Some producers lost everything in the Cote des Bar area when a powerful hailstorm struck in early June, affecting nearly 2,500 acres of vineyard.

“Everything has been thrown at us this year,” said Benoit Gouez, chef de cave at Moet & Chandon. “Poor weather during flowering when it was cold and wet meant that took place over four weeks instead of just a few days.”This protracted blossoming led to bunches containing berries of very different sizes, a condition called millerandage.“Then the rainiest June since the 1950s helped the spread of downy and powdery mildew,” he said. These two types of fungus leave a dusty or cottony coating on grapes and leaves. Mildew is normally restricted to chardonnay grapes “but this year it also hit the black grapes of pinot noir and meunier”.

The French agriculture ministry forecasts this year’s yield will be just 2.1 hectolitres, a quarter down on the five-yearly average.

Champagne insiders insist that the region is well equipped to cope with smaller volumes as it has large stocks from previous years.

As for the quality of this year’s vintage, the champagne board insists it is “not yet compromised” and could still make the grade as long as the current dry, warm weather continues until harvest in September.

17th August,2012.