​Burgundy 2017 – when smoke saved grapes


A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. 

Vine growers on the Côte d’Or seemed unusually cheerful last week. After seven years of crops shrunk by hail, frost, rot and nasty insects, 2017 has delivered a generous Burgundy vintage. ‘At last, we have something to sell', beamed Dominique Lafon of Domaine des Comtes Lafon of Meursault and Volnay. 

And there is an added sense of satisfaction this year because this bounty is not just the work of Nature but of the growers themselves. They personally ensured that Burgundy proved an exception to France’s generally tiny grape harvest in 2017. (See, for example, Gavin Quinney's detailed report on what the same weather conditions did in Bordeaux this year.) 

Last year was disastrous for Burgundy – in terms of quantity, anyway. The winter and early spring of 2015/16 were particularly mild so that the growth on the vines was way ahead of normal. Already by the end of April there were fully formed buds, the precursors of the 2016 crop, on the vines that carpet the Côte d’Or heartland of Burgundy. But in the early hours of 27 April 2016, Arctic air brought exceptionally low temperatures after heavy rains so that the pre-dawn atmosphere was thick with humidity and crystals formed on the buds, acting as magnifying glasses when the sun came up. Buds in the sights of the sun’s rays were fatally burnt.

This unusually late 2016 frost was the worst in the region since 1981, possibly since 1974. The 2016 Burgundy harvest was so small it put many of the small family-owned domaines that dominate the Côte d’Or under considerable financial pressure, especially those badly hit by the hail that shrank the crop in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

Like that hail, the frost seemed to have been strangely selective. The village of Morey-St-Denis emerged relatively unscathed, whereas its neighbours Gevrey-Chambertin and, especially, Chambolle-Musigny experienced crop losses of up to 70%. The frost damage was all along the east-facing ‘golden slope’ of vineyards, from the white wine vineyards of Chassagne-Montrachet in the south almost to the outskirts of Dijon in the north. And what was unusual, and particularly financially painful, was that the frost that usually most affects the least valuable flat land at the base of the slope, attacked the premier and grand cru vineyards on the slope itself, the jewels of the Côte d’Or.

(Such 2016 wines as were made, by the way, are looking rather promising, but I will report in greater detail when I have tasted more of them.)

This year saw the same mild winter followed by accelerated spring growth in Burgundy’s vineyards. And then, exactly one day later than the fateful late-April day of 2016, 28 April 2017, exceptionally and potentially fatally low early-morning temperatures were forecast. Two days before, the generic wine organisation based in Beaune, the BIVB, issued a frost alert and vignerons were gripped by fear of yet another disastrous harvest, one that would be the eighth in a row.

In the old days they might just have taken individually to their cellars and pulled out a bottle to distract themselves from the impending catastrophe, but Burgundy today is a much more co-operative community than it was a generation or two ago. In each village a couple of the more energetic vignerons rang around their neighbours to encourage them to take proactive anti-frost measures.

These typically involved scouring the region for bales of straw and positioning them so that they could be set alight just before dawn, raising the temperature and shielding the vine buds from the sun with a pall of smoke. Some lit giant candles in the vineyard, providing perfect fodder for amateur photographers. In Puligny-Montrachet the team at Domaine Leflaive, the village’s flagship producer, rang round their neighbours urgently soliciting contributions towards the hire of a helicopter that would circulate the frozen air and raise ambient temperatures. ‘It worked like a dream', reports the man in charge of Leflaive, Brice de La Morandière. ‘It raised the temperature from minus to plus one Celsius in just 10 minutes.’

The hired helicopter hovered over a total of 25 hectares of precious vines, the premiers and grands crus responsible for the most famous, and valuable, dry white wines in the world. It had to be a co-operative effort because Côte d’Or vineyards are made up of a patchwork of tiny strips of vines belonging to different owners.

But choppers are hardly a long-term solution. There are only three of them in the region for a start. And the burning straw option causes such heavy smoke that it constituted a traffic hazard on the main road that runs along the bottom of the slope. It is feared that the police may ban straw burning another time.

Warmer winters and resultant frost risk seem to be becoming a fact of life in Burgundy. Erecting wind turbines is one possible option. These have long been a common sight in the Napa Valley and there are already one or two in Côte d’Or vineyards (generally on the lower, flatter ground such as the one east of Morey-St-Denis shown in the picture above), but to install enough of them would be expensive – and would transform this beautiful landscape, hardly changed since medieval times, considerably.

Chablis to the north of the Côte d’Or has suffered terrible frosts for so long that growers there are probably the most experienced in the world at fighting frost. Many of them have installed sprinklers to coat buds in a smooth cocoon of protective ice. And in 2016 Chablis suffered the twin blows of both frost and hail. (Go long on 2014 Chablis if possible – see recommendations below.)

One good thing is that the 2017 harvest was so generous (too generous for some less-than-perfectly managed vineyards, it is rumoured) that Burgundy growers, already under attack for recent price rises, may feel they have little or no need to raise prices for the 2016s to be offered in January.

In Vosne-Romanée, Mathilde Grivot, 28, one of the new generation of vignerons taking over from their parents, armed with experience in distant winemaking lands, was clearly thrilled at the spirit of co-operation that the straw-burning initiative demonstrated. Everyone gathered in the village square at 4.30 am and went to their designated positions.

But, like most of her peers who wish to continue family winemaking traditions that may be centuries-old, what really worries Côte d’Or vignerons is the entirely new phenomenon of billionaire outsiders buying up the most famous domaines. In frost-free Morey-St-Denis alone, the two leading domaines are now owned respectively by rival French entrepreneurs Bernard Arnault and François Pinault. LVMH bought Clos des Lambrays in 2014 and Pinault’s Artémis Domaines announced they had snatched Clos de Tart from the Rouzaud family of Louis Roederer champagne at the end of last month.

The problem is that Burgundian domaines tend to be owned by multiple family members, many of them not directly involved with wine. Soaring land prices (Pinault is rumoured to have paid €30 million a hectare) encourage many a distant cousin to lobby for the sale of the family’s viticultural crown jewels. Such was the background to the recent sale of the leading domaine of Pernand-Vergelesses, Bonneau de Martray, to the American owner of Arsenal FC, Stan Kroenke.

Guillaume d’Angerville, who came back to his family’s Volnay estate from J P Morgan in 2003 (see One day my son...) commented wistfully, ‘These extremely high land prices effectively exclude local family domaines from bidding and, more importantly, weaken family ties, provoking further sales of family domaines. If the trend continues, we fear we will lose our soul.’

The 2014 vintage was particularly good in Chablis, and stocks are running low, thanks to the 2016 frost and hail. These premiers crus should continue to develop for the next 10 years. The 2015s are generally softer and earlier-maturing.

Jean-Marc Brocard, Montée de Tonnerre
£25.83 Millésima

Jean-Marc Brocard, Vaucoupin
£19.50 The Wine Society

Chanson, Fourchaumes
£30.99 Frazier’s Wine Merchants

Daniel Dampt, Côte de Léchet
£19.99 House of Townend

Bernard Defaix, Côte de Léchet
£12 a half Nicholls & Perks

William Fèvre, Vaulorent
£39.95 Noel Young Wines

Long Depaquit (Albert Bichot) Vaillons
£23.50 Soho Wine Supply

Moreau Naudet, Montmains
£22.50 Four Walls Wine