THE PRICE OF FAME
BURGUNDY 2012 – 2022
BY JON HIGGS
The legendary region of Burgundy is the perfect embodiment of both past and future. On one hand, Grands Crus sites that have been celebrated and coveted for centuries remain safely in the hands of multi-generational family dynasties. Indeed, history and tradition are so deeply ingrained in the culture of the region that in 2015 Burgundy was recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. However, outside investment, adjustments to the appellation system, and the realities of climate change (which have necessitated adaptations in viticulture and winemaking methods) have all combined to bring about significant change in the region in recent years.
A Drop in the Ocean
Burgundy accounts for approximately 0.3% of the world’s wine production – a miniscule drop in the global wine ocean. The trouble is that this figure incorporates all the greatest, most prestigious, most famous Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays on Earth. Every top restaurant and every wine connoisseur wants these wines front and centre in their cellars and there is simply never enough supply to meet demand. Consider the wines of the much-vaunted Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, for example, whose top vineyard of the same name produces what is considered by many to be the greatest Pinot Noir vineyard on Earth. Yet, the tiny monopole that is Romanée-Conti accounts for less than 500 cases of wine each year, not enough to satisfy even the tiniest percentage of the world’s passionate Burgundy drinkers and collectors.
Land prices also reflect this ever-growing demand, at a time when acquiring a parcel or two of Burgundy’s best has never been more desirable. Grand Cru vineyards account for just 2% of the total area under vine in Burgundy, yet prices have more than doubled in the last decade, spurred on by several high-profile property deals. The cost of a Grand Cru parcel currently averages somewhere in the region of €6.5M/HA. Bourgogne Premier Cru can sell for anything from €300K/ha to €3M/HA, depending on the vineyard, whilst ‘cheaper’ Burgundy villages land can be purchased for €30K/Ha to €50K/HA.
2012 Olivier Halley buys Château de Meursault and Château de Marsannay
2014 LVMH purchases Clos des Lambrays, growing a fine wine portfolio featuring the likes of Krug, Dom Pérignon and Château Cheval Blanc
2017 Francois Pinault (owner of Bordeaux First Growth Chateau Latour) purchases Clos de Tart
2017 American Stan Kroenke (billionaire owner of Arsenal football club) purchases 80% of Bonneau du Martray
A Changing Climate
The realities of global warming are being felt ever more significantly across the globe, but vineyards in marginal regions such as Burgundy are feeling the temperature rise more than most. In the last decade alone, the Burgundy growing season has warmed to the point that we are seeing harvest begin on average two weeks earlier than has been the norm over the last six hundred years. In 2012, the harvest generally commenced around September 22nd; just ten years later, 2022 saw growers bringing in the first of their fruit as early as August 19th. Domaine des Comtes Lafon started the harvest in their Meursault vineyards in the week commencing August 22nd, with Leflaive and Arnoux-Lachaux not far behind .
Not only do warmer summers and milder winters shorten the growing season and create the possibility of less balanced fruit, but yields are also suffering hugely due to both changes in temperature and the increasing number of extreme weather events that Burgundy, like everywhere else in Europe, is experiencing. For example, terrible hailstorms notably affected the red wine villages of the Côte de Beaune in three successive vintages from 2012 to 2014 – in 2014, up to 40% of the potential crop across Meursault, Pommard and Volnay was decimated in just five short, heart-breaking minutes of hail. Meanwhile in Chablis, the last four years have only seen one fully successful grape harvest (2018) thanks to a combination of frost, hail and mildew issues which have combined to reduce yields anywhere from 50% to 100%.
However, possibly the most destructive threat to the vineyards of Burgundy is unpredictable, aggressive spring frosts, the occurrence of which is likely connected to disruption in the polar vortex causing bulges of arctic air in spring, which roll down into the Northern Hemisphere. This new threat is at its worst when combined with overall warmer temperatures, which mean increasingly early dates for budburst; historically, vines would not begin to bloom until the risk of frost had passed, but now delicate new vine growth is destroyed overnight as frosts hit. In 2016, April frost reduced the overall Burgundy harvest by 30%, and only mass action by growers lighting straw fires to produce a smoke filter just before dawn evaded a similar catastrophe in 2017. Striking images of Burgundy vineyards illuminated with bougies (large candles) are becoming a yearly fixture of the growing season as winemakers seek to warm their sites and protect these precious new buds from the freezing temperatures.
All these challenges of course have an impact on goings-on in the cellar and vineyard. As warmer temperatures lead to increasingly ripe fruit, many winemakers have scaled back on techniques that amplify the richness of white wines, such as lees stirring or maturation in new oak, in order to retain freshness and acidity. When it comes to red wines, fermentation methods incorporating stems or whole bunches have gained popularity again to preserve freshness in riper vintages. Biodynamic and low-intervention methods in the vineyard are also helping Burgundy cope; many of the region’s most famous domaines are taking an increasingly holistic approach to viticulture in order to regenerate and re-energise their land and help the environment to better adapt to and cope with environmental change.
Notable Producers Adapting to Climate Change
The list of Burgundian producers using organic and biodynamic methods is ever-increasing and reads like a who’s who of the very best names in the business, from Domaine Dujac and Dugat-Py to Comtes Lafon, Jacques- Frederique Mugnier and more …
A pioneer of biodynamic viticulture led by Anne-Claude Leflaive, whose daughter Marine Leflaive is pictured left. All Leflaive vineyards farmed biodynamically since the 1990s
Burgundian legend Lalou Bize-Leroy uses the strictest biodynamic methods in the vineyards of her home domaine
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
After some experimentation converted all of their vineyards to biodynamic viticulture from 2007
Past, Present and Future
Despite its long, proud legacy of winemaking, Burgundy is no slouch in recognising when changes need to be made to help consumers understand and enjoy its wines. 2017 saw a huge overhaul in the way that Burgundy classifies its vineyards, bringing the appellation total down from 100 to 84 and creating a new category entitled ‘Bourgogne Côte d’Or’ The most significant change was the addition of 14 Denominations Géographiques Complémentaires (DGCs) to the basic ‘Bourgogne’ appellation together with an overall reduction in the number of regional AOCs from 23 to 7. There is a new village appellation for the Auxerrois village of Vézélay, while Marsannay Rosé is now included in the Marsannay appellation.
Meanwhile in the Maconnais, 2020, after a ten-year-long application process, the French National Institute of Origin and Quality (INAO) approved several new vineyard classifications across the region, making Pouilly-Fuissé the first appellation within Burgundy’s Mâconnais sub-region to be awarded Premier Cru status. In total, 22 new Premier Cru sites across nearly 200 hectares of land were created, marking the first occasion on which a new Premier Cru site has been created in Burgundy since 1943 and giving a great boost to the reputation of Pouilly- Fuissé wines.
Not only do rules change – so do faces and philosophies. I already touched upon the massive increase in the use of biodynamic and organic viticulture, as well as changes in the winery to combat riper fruit and maintain classic styles of Burgundy, or indeed to create something new and exciting. However, on the human side of things there are a great number of rising stars in Burgundy, both the scions of great dynasties and new kids on the block, who are all creating a name for themselves with unique approaches and sensational wines.
Although prices continue to rise, land becomes ever harder to acquire and winemaking methods remain in a state of climate change- induced flux, it is undeniable that Burgundy remains the reigning monarch of the wine world. Ethereal, mysterious, joyous, life- changing… these wines have inspired millions of drinkers around the world, commanding record-breaking prices and breaking a few hearts in the process, no doubt!
Make no mistake, though. Burgundy is not some stuffy old matriarch, set in her ways and unable to move with the times, but a dynamic, energetic, beautiful entity, able to adapt and change with the times to ensure that she remains on the throne – which I am sure will be the case for many years to come.
Burgundy Producers to watch right now
Dézize-based producer creating excellent white wines produced from 10HA in the Côte de Beaune, run by Marc and Alexandre Bachelet, grandsons of Burgundian royalty Bernard Bachelet
Cult wines (with prices to match) made by Jean-Yves Bizot himself in Vosne-Romanée
Domaine de la Cras
A Domaine Bizot alumni using organic viticulture and traditional low-intervention techniques
The nephew of natural wine king Marcel Lapierre, using some family inspiration to craft extremely distinctive wines
Pierre & Anne Morey
A father and daughter team with enviable credentials – (Pierre headed up the biodynamic conversion of the Leflaive estate) renowned for excellent Meursault
Three third-generation winemaker siblings farm eight Premier Cru and three Grand Cru sites with the help of their plough horses Nougat & Oka
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