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A Visit to Domaine de la Noblaie, 2019

Jérôme Billard and I came to a halt at the foot of the slope and took stock of our surroundings. Having walked down from his house through the vines we found ourselves on the floor of a little valley, which itself runs down towards the Vienne. Opposite us the land, planted with yet more of Jérôme’s vines, rose up again. Looking at these vines more closely, it seemed as if they had just enjoyed a visit to the local coiffeur, each vine having been shorn of numerous long shoots and many leaves. What had been clipped off lay scattered at the foot of the vines, like discarded hair, waiting to be swept away. “We are currently debudding, after pruning long to protect us from the frost”, said Jérôme. “It’s a lot of work”.

The Frost in 2019

I have been writing about the wines of the Loire Valley for nearly two decades now, although it is only in the past few years that I have become so closely acquainted with frost, the threat it carries, and the many and varied ways in which vignerons predict its coming and protect their vines, and ultimately their crop, against its destructive power. It seems to me that, while it was once thankfully rare occurrence, today it is a much more frequent one, and indeed in some Ligérian appellations such as Montlouis you could argue it is now the normal state of affairs, and vignerons are surprised when their vines aren’t frosted, rather than when they are. Along the way numerous vignerons have played their part when it came to teaching me about frost; Jérôme’s part was introducing me, a few years ago now, to the concept of pruning long.

Domaine de la Noblaie

Vines are usually pruned down to two or three buds per cane (depending on how a vigneron feels about yields and the subsequent need for green-harvesting if the crop obtained is too large), and at budbreak it is the buds furthest from the plant which burst forth first, while those closer to the trunk follow days or even a week or more later. If a destructive frost then arrives, after all the buds have burst, it has the potential to eradicate the year’s harvest, wiping out all of the tender new leaves. If the canes are pruned longer, however, leaving maybe six or more buds, then there is a chance there are still dormant (and thus unharmed) buds further down the cane which can at this point take over. It is a system Jérôme has adhered to, with good results, for several years now, keeping his yields close to normal even in years when Chinon suffered frost, such as 2016 and 2017. Of course the local topography, his vines on slopes well above the Vienne, also offers some protection.

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