Entire Burgundy wine region to be covered by hi-tech 'hail shield' to kill storm clouds

Henry Samuel
Grapes, near Pommard in France's Burgundy region, destroyed after a summer hailstorm that caused up to 70 per cent of crops to fail in 2013 - AFP

The vineyards of Burgundy are about to become the first in France to be totally covered by a "hailstone shield" to kill destructive storms that have blighted the famed wine growing region in recent years.

By June, the entire area will be protected by a network of 125 ground generators that cause tiny particles of silver iodide to rise to the clouds above, where they stop the formation of hail stones, and thus reduce the risk of damage.

The move to total "cloud seeding" cover follows several years of severe hail storms in Burgundy. Last year, Macon and Chablis were particularly hard hit.

Damage from hailstones to a vineyard near Pommard in France's Burgundy wine region after a summer hailstorm in 2013 Credit: JEFF PACHOUD/AFP

Burgundy’s regional association for the study and fight against atmospheric issues, or ARELFA for short, has stumped up funding from producers to employ the technology in vineyards.

"Hail storms have increased in recent years, the intensity is greater," said Thiébault Huber, president of ARELFA, as well as president of the Volnay wine union. He owns four hectares (10 acres) of vines making Burgundy reds and whites in three parishes: Volnay, Pommard and Meursault.

"Since 2001, it's been terrible; when it hails, sometimes 90 or even 100 per cent of the grape harvest is lost. It's more and more frequent," he said. "In 2012, we lost a huge amount to hail in the Côte de Beaune and Côte Chalonnaise. Last year, the Maconnais was hit, as was Chablis two or three times, and we had 11 alerts elsewhere."

"We lost a massive amount of money and feared for our future, and decided we couldn't just sit here arms crossed waiting for the hail to rain down and imperil our crops." 

Some generators were installed in 2014 after major destruction, covering 15,000 hectares , but in the coming weeks, the entire 42,000 hectares area will be protected, including the Maconnais, Beaujolais and Chablis areas.

This cloud seeding system is also used in the wine regions of Bordeaux and southwestern France, but does not provide such extensive coverage.

A picker holds white grapes at the Chateau Haut Brion vineyard in Pessac, in France's Bordeaux region Credit: OLIVIER PON/Reuters

"The idea is to kill the storm before it arrives and avoid hail forming," Mr Huber told The Telegraph

The generator has a combustion chamber, which heats the particles sending a cloud  to an altitude of up to a kilometre.

"We are placing a generator every 10 kilometres to protect the entire region. But we are also planting them up to 50 kilometres before the vineyards," he said.

A weather forecaster sends them alerts four hours ahead of a predicted storm and the generators are switched on as soon as the risk surpasses 40 per cent. A message is sent to every wine grower with a generator, thus sending enough molecules into the sky to form a shield to stop the hail.

Wine growers are not the only beneficiaries, said Raphaël Dubois, winegrower in charge of the shield system in Nuits-Saint-Georges en Côte-d'Or. 

"This system also serves farmers and citizens who have a verandah or vegetable garden. When hailstones the size of golf balls fall from the sky, it's not just the vines that are hit," he told AFP.

With the technique only effective in 48 per cent of cases, alternative solutions do exist, but they have other drawbacks.

One is to protect the vines with netting, but this is hugely expensive – around €30,000 (£25,000) per hectare and many deem the nets an eyesore in a region that has just been awarded UNESCO world heritage status for its "climats" – its famed grape-growing plots.

Wines from Burgundy featuring rare vintages from Henri Jayer and Domaine de la Romanee Conti  Credit:  Heathcliff O'Malley

By comparison, the generators cost just €8 per hectare, prompting even the most sceptical of wine growers to fork out contributions to limit the risks.

Locals also tried firing anti-hail rockets, but these were deemed too dangerous.

More recently, they have experimented with sending helium balloons with hygroscopic salt, which absorbs humidity, to zap storm clouds. This offers more precision, but Mr Huber said there was "no scientific proof" they actually worked. 

By comparison, their preferred technique has been the subject of research since 1974.

It does require manpower, however, as each generator requires three volunteers who take turns manning the generator in case of a storm alert.

Cloud formations Credit: Dan Tucker / Alamy Live New

Growers looked into possible health risks of silver particles being projected into the atmosphere, but concluded that with only two grammes per 10 hectares per year, some 100 times below legal limits, these were minimal.

Mr Huber is a biodynamic wine grower, meaning he uses no pesticides and protects his grapes with natural products only. "There is no way I would use this technique if I thought it harmful," he said.

The remaining generators will be installed by late May and the entire network should be up and running by June.

"We don't claim to play God but just want to save our domains and continue to bring pleasure to Burgundy wine fans," said Mr Huber.

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