Unseasonably cold May has Quebec winemakers fighting frost with fire

Toughing the cold, neighbours pitched in with wood and lit fires to protect the grapes from shrivelling in frigid temperatures.

Neighbours come to the rescue to keep wine flowing

Fires are lit in a vineyard.
Sylvie Bissonnette fears climate change will mean more devastation for future winemaking harvests. (Submitted by Sylvie Bissonnette)

Sylvie Bissonnette didn't sleep last night. She was busy setting fires to stave off the frost creeping around the grapevines of her vineyard, Vignoble de Pomone, in Coteau-du-Lac, just west of Montreal in the region of Montérégie.

The winemaker started lighting the fires at 11 p.m. on Wednesday, and tended them as they burned through the night. 

As the drop in May temperatures continues in Quebec, winemakers in the province like Bissonnette are scrambling to fight the frost with fire to save the year's harvest — but not without the helping hand of their neighbours.

"It's not the first frost that we have had since the week. It's the fourth frost," said Bissonnette.

Normally, wind machines — towering structures with rotating blades — are enough to generate hot air at ground level but the level of cold throughout the day caught Bissonnette by surprise. 

After multiple days of burning, she was running out of fuel for the fires and took to social media to ask for wood that could be spared.

Her phone has been ringing ever since with people calling, offering to deliver the supplies.

A woman stands in a vineyard.
Winemaker Sylvie Bissonnette at the Vignoble de Pomone in Coteau-du-Lac asked asked the community to chip in with wood and leaves to light fires. (Matt D'Amours/CBC)

"We are touched," she said.

Last year, Bissonnette's vineyard lost 70 per cent of its crop to disease, she said.

Estimating the current loss to the cold between five and 10 per cent, she now fears back-to-back losses from the sub-zero temperatures.

Meanwhile in the  MRC of Brome-Missisquoi in the Eastern Townships region of Quebec, another winemaker is struggling to keep his grapevines alive. 

"It was a heck of a night," John Baldwin, co-owner and President of Vignoble du PicBois, told CBC's Daybreak.

The vineyard was stocked with plenty of wood and charcoal, but one of its two wind machines stopped working. 

Then, in what he describes as a "miracle," Baldwin's neighbours reached out.

"We had our neighbors that came calling us, texting us, [asking] 'what do you need?''' said Baldwin.

With their help, Baldwin set fires all over the vineyard.

Fires burn in a vineyard.
Winemakers and their neighbours at Vignoble du PicBois in the MRC of Brome-Missisquoi set 400 fires to keep the vines from freezing over on Wednesday night. (Radio-Canada)

"I think I counted about 400 fires in our one field of 9,000 plants," he said.

While the vines can survive a cold winter, the grapes that are growing in May can be seriously damaged by frost, said Baldwin. 

Most concerning to Baldwin, the unexpected colder temperatures in the daytime have made it harder for wind machines to generate enough warm air to deal with frost, he said. 

"The wind machines that normally give you about a four degrees, in my opinion, probably gave maximum about a degree or degree and a half across the province and that is that what could cause some major problems, "said Baldwin.

Daybreak host Sean Henry speaks with John Baldwin, the co-owner and president of Vignoble du PicBois in the MRC of Brome-Missisquoi.

Environment and Climate Change Canada meteorologist Jean-Philippe Bégin describes the current weather in southern Quebec as "very rare but not unseen." 

In Saint-Anicet, the closest weather measuring station to Coteau-du-Lac, the cold reached –2.9 C this morning, shattering the previous record from 1925, while in Granby, the closest station to Brome-Missisquoi, the cold tied the second coldest night in the region at  –1.2 C, according to Bégin.

"Before you had frost early in the morning, now [the frost] starts in the evening," said Bissonnette, adding that she expects more icy hurdles on the horizon because of climate change. "It's abnormal." 

Baldwin also worries about how the changing weather could undermine Quebec's grapevines in the years to come. Surviving as a winemaker may be getting tougher, but he said he is content to do what he can to keep the wine flowing for the moment. 

"If you lose a lot of your crops, you pat yourself on the back. You say 'I did everything I can do,'" he said. "This is the life of a farmer."


Joe Bongiorno is an author, former high school teacher and a journalist at the CBC. He has also reported for Canadian Geographic, Maisonneuve, Canada’s National Observer and others. You can reach him at

With files from Daybreak Montreal

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