Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Glacial Saints bring the Winds of Change

As I clicked on my automatic blinds this morning at 7am, I was hoping for some sun to surprise my still peeping eyes yet to my dismay all that welcomed me was grey skies and ghastly cold winds; the trees in the garden opposite where possessed by Wagners’ Ride of the Valkyries. Out of time as usual for the early class on viticulture I just put on a few layers of clothes and my leather jacket. As soon as I stepped out of my 15 square metre cosy, warm studio flat I realised I had put toofew layers but it was too late now.

During our viticulture class whilst covering the various seasons and viticultural practices on the vine, our proficient professor Claude Chapuis pointed out that in the middle of May, just after a few days of sunshine when you finally start putting your short sleeves on and getting hints of tan, the Glacial saints make a visit to France. You might ask? What kind of saints are these? Or better was Berenice struck by brain freeze? Maybe not as yet. :) Well, for those Christians out there, this is easier to understand. In the quest to eliminate superstition around the 1960s, the Vatican introduced saints to all the days of the calendar and guess what! The Glacial Saints of Saints Mamert, Pancrace and Servais fall on the 11th, 12th and 13th of May respectively. This year it seems that they paid their visit earlier than usual, around a week in advance.

By now you should be asking, but why did Claude Chapuis bring up all this during viticulture class? Well, during this period winemakers would be praying all the other Saints on the calendar to limit frost damage on their yearly crop. Spring frosts are a problem in all the major wine producing regions of France from Champagne to Loire to Burgundy because they can cause severe damage to the buds which burst only a few weeks ago. The vines on the plains and the lower foothills are the most prone to spring frost, whilst the hill slopes, having the surface-chilled air, will drain more easily.

Apart from high trellis systems there are a number of ways to combat this mishap of nature. Smudge pots are fairly popular especially in Champagne. Whilst visiting a few weeks ago some wise winemakers were already spreading these pots across their vineyards in preparation for the blessed Saints. Smudge pots create warm blankets of air which protect the buds from frost. Other forms of protection against frost are wind machines which help circulate the warm air from above, keeping ground level above freezing point. Another efficient and widely used method is the aspersion system where sprinklers are used to spray the vineyards with water insulating the shoots, therefore protecting them from frost.

Well let’s hope these Saints don’t curse the Burgundian vines but bless them instead! We are all looking forward to more sun, less layers of clothes and hopefully some more skin tan which I surely miss after so many months away from the Rock!

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