Pinot Noir’s Past, Present and Uncertain Future in Burgundy

Burgundy france vineyard
Clos de Vougeot / Photo by Marco Bottigelli / Getty

Pinot Noir and Burgundy, Burgundy and Pinot Noir—their alliance is the closest thing the wine world has to a creation myth.

All the elements are there: ancient vineyards, a history of quality viticulture that dates back to the Middle Ages and an indigenous grape that reflects each nuance of site and soil. It brings forth wines whose perfume and depth can be so haunting, so exquisite that they cast an eternal spell.

Viticulture can, of course, be traced back much further in Asia Minor and across various European regions. But Burgundy’s early focus on quality with this single grape makes the region stand out. Its continuity is unique. Site-specific viticulture as we know it today was born on this 37-mile stretch of east-facing limestone escarpment called the Côte d’Or, or Golden Slope.

burgundy france vineyard
Vineyard in Santenay / Photo by Cyrille Gibot / Getty

In its Sites

The Cote d’Or’s limestones were formed in the Jurassic era, some 145 to 200 million years ago, when an inland sea dried out. How exposed and weathered these rocks are, the degree to which they’re mixed with marl, clay or sand, along with the levels of topsoil, aspect and altitude, defines the diversity of the land. Lateral valleys, or combes, also have an influence.

For the medieval monks who first cleared and planted the vineyards from the 7th century onward, farming was a form of worship. Planting, tending and harvesting grapes, and then crafting wine were acts of devotional labor that, over seasons and decades, afforded them intimate knowledge of the land.

The monks could delineate the vineyards according to minute differences in site and soil to create more than a thousand individually named plots, or climats.

Preserved over centuries, these delineations are central to Burgundy’s current status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The region’s heartland and the towns of Dijon and Beaune are protected cultural monuments, while the outlines of the climats are enshrined in detailed maps.

Unlike ancient buildings, however, vineyards are very much alive. How do you preserve authenticity while future-proofing it for the 21st century? How do you protect a patrimony that needs to adapt to a changing climate?

This challenge is a collective task in tune with contemporary, global efforts for sustainable viticulture. But with more than a thousand years of history, sustainability here is refracted in a different light.

Véronique Drouhin is a winemaker in Burgundy and Oregon whose family farms 95 acres on the Côte d’Or. She thinks of the land in terms of centuries, rather than decades, and sees the 20th century as very disruptive. Her father, Robert Drouhin, took over the family business in 1957.

“His generation saw the transition from horses to tractors, natural compost to commercial fertilizers, natural weeding to herbicides and pest control with pesticides,” she says. “It took about 30 years to realize that some of those practices were a mistake. My generation is going back to horses, to natural compost, has totally abandoned herbicides. Past mistakes help manage the present.”

She says that this is as true “for the preservation our precious soils” as for “the plants.” The latter refers to the genetic makeup of vines themselves, which is a key aspect of Burgundy’s authenticity.

vineyard france burgundy
Grapes in Côte d’Or / Photo by Owen Franken / Getty

Clone Wars

“If we look at Pinot Noir’s history in Burgundy, we see that it has been able to adapt itself, with human help, through various evolutions,” says Albéric Bichot, president of Maison Albert Bichot in Beaune.

He points out that there are minor biological differences between the individual vines of the same variety, caused by genetic mutation. These mutations can bring distinct traits that vary in desirability, like higher or lower yield, flavor intensity, different vigor and bunch architecture.

This is why certain vines are selected for propagation. In the case of Pinot Noir, Burgundians have sought out particular characteristics for centuries, while mutations continue to happen.

Burgundy's New Generation Rising to the Challenge

Selecting vines and then planting them in a new vineyard is known as massal selection. When an individual vine with very particular traits is propagated over and over again, a practice developed in the 20th century, that’s known as clonal selection. This results in a very homogenous vineyard with even ripening and predictable results.

Some estates have always replanted their vineyards with material propagated from their best vines and kept their own massal selections. Others have planted genetically identical clones developed in the region. These Burgundian Pinot Noir clones are licensed to be sold in nurseries around the world.

Both practices, massal and clonal plantings, are now intertwined in Burgundy. This helps to eliminate the weaknesses of each, which are the loss of resilience and diversity of monoclonal vineyards and the unpredictability of random massal selections.

An official agency of the agricultural chamber, the Association Technique Viticole de Bourgogne (ATVB) came up with this new allied approach. It scouted old vineyards and observed newer plantings, too, to identify vines with a wide range of traits, like loose bunches that offer little juice but tons of aroma, bunches with lots of juicy berries, mid- and later-ripening plants, or vines with varied sugar accumulation.

The ATVB propagates and evaluates them over years and grades them into different selections that are constantly adapted. The selections, in effect, are collections of individual, known clones with tested traits that are never marketed separately but always found in a selection, in varying proportions. A vineyard planted with a particular ATVB selection today will have a different composition from one planted a decade ago.

“The idea is to preserve things,” says Christophe Deola, director at Domaine Louis Latour in Aloxe-Corton. “We know that the selections contain individuals that in an average year would reach 11.5 degrees [of potential alcohol by volume] and high acidity.

At the moment, nobody will plant a hectare of these, but we know they exist within our selection. So maybe 15 years from now [as the climate continues to change], these individuals will form a higher proportion of the selection.”

Deola just replanted one and a half acres of the famous Corton Perrières Grand Cru vineyard with selections that contain more than 200 known individuals of Pinot Noir. This may be the world’s greatest-known diversity in a single Pinot Noir vineyard.

“I hope to achieve more complexity and more resilience to climate change,” he says. “There even is some kind of moral issue to maintain as much diversity as possible. It feels right.”

burgundy france vineyard
Vineyard in Pommard / Photo by Aurore Kervoern / Getty

Times and Climate Changing

Drouhin says that there’s little or no control over “frost, hail, violent storms, drought and heat spikes,” direct consequences of climate change. She says these extreme weather events have become more frequent, and often violent.

“How do we, or will we, address these?” she asks. “Currently, we don’t have many weapons. Burgundy is not allowed to irrigate.”

When it comes to farming practices and plant selection, on the other hand, there is much that can be done. Drouhin stresses an attitude of exchange and cooperation.

“One of our strengths is sharing,” she says. “We learn from each other. Be it canopy management, disease treatment with natural element or plant selection.”

The responsibility to preserve is clear.

“We really need to protect and develop the biodiversity in and around the vineyards,” says Bichot. “We need to protect our soil and subsoil with organic viticulture, we need to preserve the diversity of Pinot Noir and go on developing intelligent selections programs.”

What the growers and ATVB have accomplished and keep developing in terms of plant material holds an important key to the continuity and authenticity of Burgundy and Pinot Noir. It might serve as an example for other regions. What matters most is the preservation of a biodiverse and disease-free genetic pool that evolved locally and is therefore able to adapt to local conditions of soil and climate.

What won’t change is the region’s devotion to Pinot Noir. Perhaps its own blend of fragility and resilience, its ability to adapt, mirrors our own human story. Or, as Bichot says, “Pinot Noir is Burgundy. It is a very big part of our deep soul.”

Published on July 10, 2020
Topics: France