Frost Bites Vintage 2024

Spring frost damage on Riesling grape vines in Germany
Vineyards on the Saar after the freeze. Photo credit Evan Spingarn

A harsh late-April frost has done potentially massive damage to the 2024 wine vintage in Germany. On the nights of 22 to 24 April, temperatures dropped well below freezing across many parts of central Europe. On the night of Monday 22 April in particular they went and stayed low for hours: “We were below freezing for ten hours,” said Maximin von Schubert of Weingut Maximin Grünhaus on the Ruwer, part of the Mosel winegrowing region. That is unseasonably long, and all the more damaging for the exposed grape shoots. All told, he suspected, it would be the worst incident of its kind since 1991.

While all of Germany’s winegrowing regions felt the bitter cold, damage was not uniform. Sections of Sachsen and the Nahe reported 100% losses, while others, like the Rheingau, skated by with negligible harm, the German Wine Institute indicated in its report on the incident

TRINK’s own research confirmed this assessment. Respondents along the Mosel, the Nahe, and in Franken reported heavy damage, even in vineyards not considered typically at risk of frost. Social media reports from the Pfalz and Rheinhessen were more mixed. On the northern edge of the Mittelrhein near Bonn, by contrast, Weingut Pieper noted that it had escaped with just a few (figurative) bumps and bruises.

Clear Skies and Frost Risk

The damage is strongly reflective of weather trends that have brought hand-wringing to both ends of the winter season. The growing unattainability of Eiswein due to a lack of sufficiently cold nights has been well documented in recent years. Yet while that represents a threat to the image of German wine, spring frosts present a more existential issue. Even a single instance can impact a harvest for not just one year, but more.

The risk factors are twofold: climate change is bringing more extreme weather activity. In particular, waves of much warmer weather are arriving much earlier. Indeed, the weather during the weekend prior to the frost was unseasonably warm, reaching well above 20° C across much of Germany (and cresting at 30°C in Südtirol-Alto Adige, according to news reports). 

Vines react to the weather, not the calendar, and had moved apace into bud break. While grapevines are not inherently susceptible to cold — they handle winter in most (but not all) viticultural zones just fine by going dormant — they are notably vulnerable during this phase, when the tender and exposed shoots have little defense against a cold snap.

The impact of the cold weather was, in the eyes of some in the industry, multiplied by the full moon. This stage of the lunar cycle is believed to promote clear weather: “No wind and clear sky increase the risk of spring frost,” Klaus Peter Keller of Weingut Keller in Rheinhessen told TRINK.

This intensified cold not only overpowered normal emergency anti-frost measures such as smudge pots, which can raise vineyard temperatures by up to two degrees celcius, but also damaged frost canes. Growers leave these high-set branches of the grapevine as a backup and are usually not pruned until the threat of frost has passed. Normal thermodynamics, i.e., cold air tends to sink so high-set branches survive, was simply not enough for many growers this time.

What Comes Next?

The long-term impact on the vintage remains to be seen. “The [current reports of damage] are just a snapshot. We’ll be able to make more concrete assessments in a few weeks,” wrote Robert Haller — managing director at Bürgerspital and president of the Franken chapter of the VDP. He and other vintners remind that all is not lost, even if the statistics sound catastrophic.

“95% damage” refers to the percentage of primary shoots that have suffered irreparable damage and will wither and die in the coming days. Yet nature provides grapevines with a backup plan, in the form of secondary shoots that will also bud and eventually bear fruit, albeit at lower volumes. Weather permitting, of course, and always also susceptible to further frost, a risk that remains through the month of May in most places.

Current dramatic situation aside, the threat of frost is hardly new to winegrowers. The VDP’s Mainzer Weinbörse, a trade fair for 200 of Germany’s most acclaimed growers, is typically held on the last weekend in April, and one can often observe furtive checking of weather apps and hushed references to the “Eisheiligen” by the producers. Even so, many growers spoke of an unprecedented scale of damage. Jochen Ratzenberger of Weingut Ratzenberger confided, “I can’t remember any frost event this severe in our region [Mittelrhein].” 

It is a threat that producers will increasingly need to navigate in the coming years, whether through insurance, diversification of vineyard locations, or by building a reserve stock of wines at all levels so that the supply chain remains intact even in low-yield years.

The frost was not limited to Germany. Official reports from Austria, Switzerland, and Südtirol-Alto Adige hint that losses can be expected in colder regions as well, for many of the same reasons.

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