A devastating spring frost that hit the vineyards of Bordeaux ** just as they were at their most vulnerable stage has wiped out a large percentage of the 1991 crop, putting a freeze on consumers' hopes for relief from spiraling wine prices.
Last Sunday's frost -- the worst since 1945 -- dropped temperatures as low as 19 degrees after a stretch of warm weather that had encouraged an early budding of the region's vines. In some parts of Bordeaux, the damage to the 1991 crop may have been total.
"It's quite a disaster," said Christian Moueix, director of Etablissements Jean-Pierre Moueix, the famous Libourne wine shipping firm that also produces some of the most famous wines of Pomerol and St. Emilion. "We have lost between 80 percent and 100 percent of the crop."
Mr. Moueix said he hopes to save a portion of the 1991 crop at Chateau Petrus, the most expensive red wine of Bordeaux, where heaters and helicopters were used to warm the air in the vineyard. "It is impossible to say how much we saved because what is apparently not dead is very weak," he said.
dTC Christopher Pease, a partner in the Bordeaux wine-shipping firm Vintex, said the greatest damage occurred in areas that depend heavily on the early-budding merlot variety, especially the "left 00 bank" communes of Pomerol, St. Emilion and Fronsac.
"You can't see a green leaf anywhere" in those regions, he said.
But neither was the Medoc spared. Damage was nearly total in Margaux, Mr. Pease said, and according to early estimates, even the most lightly touched of the famous wine villages, St. Estephe, may have lost 60 percent of its 1991 crop. Sauternes, known for its sweet white wines, was also hard hit, he said.
A more definite assessment will be impossible before mid-May Mr. Pease added. It is possible, he said, that a second budding will allow some vineyards that lost their first buds to produce a crop this year, but those grapes would get a late start and thus be more vulnerable to cold and rain in the fall.
For consumers, the freeze means that once-bright hopes for lower Bordeaux prices may have been --ed. After enormous crops the last two years, Bordeaux producers had been predicting that 1990 prices would come down 15 to 20 percent from 1989, but the frost has brought at least a temporary halt to that slide.
"It's already caused a certain firming of prices" of 1990s from top chateaux, said John Laird, executive vice president of Chateau & Estates, the largest American importer of Bordeaux.
The freeze may prove to be a boon for certain wine retailers who invested heavily in 1989 Bordeaux futures, only to find initial demand disappointing despite laudatory reviews. "We can only be helped by that situation, said Tom Hanna, wine consultant at MacArthur Beverages in Washington, which has paid for a generous stock of 1989s at pre-freeze prices. Mr. Hanna said MacArthur would honor its current price offering through June 1 but that increases were likely after that.
The same frost that hit Bordeaux also hit hard in other famous wine regions of France, including Chablis and the Loire. The frost severely affected the vineyards in Champagne in the north, but because the budding was not far along, producers are hopeful that the vines can still recover, said Jean-Louis Carbonnier of the Champagne Information Office in New York.