Beyond the spring heartbreak, Andrew Jefford finds reasons to be cheerful about Burgundy.
Not a word of complaint: that was what impressed me most. Frédéric Lafarge of Volnay told his tale simply and matter-of-factly. With Burgundian modesty: knowing, in other words, that what he was describing has often been the lot of those whose livelihood depends on shifting skies.
All the same, the story was sobering. Three years of repeated hail damage between 2012 and 2014 meant the loss of an entire harvest in aggregate. The 2015 harvest was a good one for most Côte d’Or growers, but the Lafarge vines were still nursing their hail injuries, and only managed half the usual crop of red wines. Then April 2016 brought more misery: the morning hours of Wednesday 27th saw the sun comprehensively ‘burn’ the buds which plummeting pre-dawn temperatures had frozen. Domaine Lafarge lost, yet again, 65 per cent of its harvest. Moreover Frédéric and his wife Chantal had bought into Chiroubles and Fleurie in 2014 — and three separate hail episodes in Beaujolais (on April 13th, May 27th and June 24th) even slashed their 2016 production there too.
As I journeyed through Beaujolais and Burgundy three weeks ago, injustice was the plat du jour everywhere. Chablis (where April frosts were then aggravated by May hail) and parts of the Côte d’Or like Marsannay have lost as much as 90 per cent or more. Chambolle and Nuits producers have often lost half their crop; Beaune, Volnay, St Aubin, Meursault, Puligny and Chassagne are almost as badly hit. And, unusually, it is the best vineyards which have most suffered. It was the action of the bright sunlight after the frost, rather than the degree of cold brought by the frost, which annihilated the buds, so the worst hit spots were not those at the bottom of the slope where the cold air drains and pools, but those half-way up the hill where the morning sun bears down most brightly. That’s why producers with vines in the Chassagne end of Montrachet are having to pool their grapes to make a couple of testimonial barrels; that’s why Jean-Michel Chartron has waved goodbye to 70 per cent of his Chevalier-Montrachet and Clos du Cailleret. “No one had ever seen white Grands Crus hit by frost in Burgundy like they were this year,” observed Frédéric Lafarge.
Others, by a sort of beautiful injustice, are thrilled with their 2016 harvest — like Jacques Devauges at Clos de Tart, where the harvest was a third bigger than in 2015 (“it’s like a miracle”). Morey in general escaped lightly; so too did Gevrey. Vosne-Romanée was not unscathed, but in general it too has prospered this year — which led Devauges’ successor as Technical Director at Domaine de l’Arlot, Géraldine Godot, to call it “that village blessed by the gods” (as she looked glumly around Arlot’s half-empty cellar). The overall Burgundy total looks like being 1.2 million hl in place of the hoped-for 1.55 million hl.
Yes: injustice everywhere. Yes: the already dissuasive Grand Cru and Premier Cru burgundy prices will rise further. Yes: Chablis 2016 will be in short supply. But I came back from my post-harvest sweep through the region with considerable optimism. Here are three reasons why.
1: The quality dividend
The quality of 2016, thanks to a magnificent second half of the summer, will be very good indeed, and very good in a fresher and more classical manner than the richer wines of the outstanding 2015 vintage, meaning that consumers have the prospects of two great Burgundy vintages in a row, possibly outclassing the 2009/2010 pairing.
Moreover as I tasted the wines of 2012, 2013 and 2014 recently, it was evident that these, too, were in many ways more impressive than their often difficult growing seasons, beset with every problem from miserable summer weather to hail and Drosophila suzukii flies, might have suggested. Why? Money has flooded into Burgundy over the last decade, just as it did to Bordeaux from the mid-1980s onwards, and the result here too is that a new generation of Burgundians now have the means, the knowledge and the incentives to lift quality so that it more closely resembles the highest burgundian ideals. Yes, the great wines are in short supply – but the ‘lesser’ climats are producing much, much better wine than was the case one or two decades ago. For the first time in my life, I feel that burgundy can be bought with confidence. This process will continue, since investment for the future is built into every Burgundian’s DNA.
2: The Burgundian diaspora
Burgundians are deeply uncomfortable with the eye-watering prices Côte d’Or vineyards command, since they feel they are now ‘priced out’. “When we used to buy a vineyard,” Philippe Colin told me, “it would take us 10 years to get it to profitability. With the new prices, it would take us 60 years – and there’s nothing for sale anyway.” The result is that a Burgundian diaspora is underway. Colin himself has gone all the way to South Africa’s Franschhoek for his Topiary estate venture, but many other Côte d’Or Burgundians growers and négociants have simply gone south to the Mâconnais (following in the footsteps of Leflaive, Lafon and Jean-Marie Guffens) and now to Beaujolais (like the Lafarge family and Thibault Liger-Belair). More will follow. Local southern growers sometimes look askance at this, especially given the size of the landholdings which Côte d’Or growers are able to purchase (Jadot bought 17 ha of Pouilly-Fuissé when it bought Domaine Ferret back in 2008), but it has to be good for greater Burgundy as a whole, helping to maximise the potential of southern Burgundy by increasing competition, by ensuring that the new finesse and assiduity of the Côte d’Or is duplicated throughout Burgundy, and by scattering the Côte d’Or stardust more widely.
3: Beaujolais: the prodigal son returns
Beaujolais has endured a miserable decade or two: some 6,000 ha of vineyards have disappeared over the last 15 years, as sales and prices have slumped. Now, though, things are changing, at least as far as Beaujolais’ leading growers are concerned, thanks to the advocacy of thoughtful sommeliers, the region’s ‘natural wine’ credentials – and those growers’ own efforts in refining their offer.
It seems to me that shortfalls of the last five years in Burgundy as a whole create an unrivalled opportunity for Beaujolais. Its best wines are poised, fragrant, refreshing and drinkable, yet ballasted with a fine mesh of tannic complexity, too. They match the contemporary wine world’s zeitgeist, and echo classic burgundian appeal more convincingly than equivalently priced ‘New World Pinot’. The old clumsiness with Chardonnay in Beaujolais is a thing of the past. Gamay, too, is capable of remarkable feats of expressivity in the best cru soils. “It’s like Syrah: we can get an amazing number of different styles from just one grape,” says Julien Revillon, joint-owner with Dominique Piron of Domaine Piron. “Fruity, tannic, mineral, complex; it’s not just easy wine. The problem is that for years people have just communicated Beaujolais as easy wine. We’ve made bad choices; we’ve taken too long to come back to the real world of wine, the world of terroir, complexity, finesse. But we know that this grape can truly give us terroir. Just in Morgon, we have three or four soil types and each gives us a different taste. We can do it.” Tasting some of the outstanding recent Beaujolais cru wines of 2015, I felt sure he was right. They are a world away from the high-yielding, thermo-vinified cliché of Beaujolais; they belong on the tables of those who love red wines of perfume, nuance, freshness — and a dancing inner flame. They belong with burgundy, in sum.