Burgundy’s 2020 harvest was one of the earliest on record. Higher-than-average temperatures throughout the growing season meant that farmers began picking on August 12. It was the continuation of a trend that has seen hot temperatures and dry weather become the norm in this otherwise mostly temperate region.
Climate change has had a dramatic effect on Burgundy’s vines and wines. As temperatures rise, the best vineyard sites become too warm. Vines are subject to increased risks of spring frost, sunburn and drought. The resulting wines, once defined by their elegance, subtlety and gracefulness, are getting riper by the year.
“Climate change is a fact,” says Laurent Audeguin, agronomist and enologist at the French Vine and Wine Institute (IFV). “To moderate its effect on the style of the wines of Burgundy, we can seek clones that accumulate less sugar and ripen later. There are 47 official Pinot Noir clones, but in reality, only a few are widely used. We could plant Champagne clones or use some that have been so far neglected.”
Leading Burgundy grower Louis Latour formed a partnership to pursue massal selection or replanting with cuttings from existing vines and old vineyards as opposed to young, new nursery material, to identify established Pinot Noir and Chardonnay clones that are best suited for the current environment.
“Since 2018, we’ve been replanting those cuttings with an emphasis on observing them and selecting the one producing less sugar and more acidity,” says Christophe Deola, estate director at Louis Latour.
In addition to clonal selection, Audeguin believes that growers should look at alternative rootstocks that can delay ripening. He points to Vitis riparia-based rootstocks, something that Bouchard Père et Fils has experimented with on both its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines.
“After five years of monitoring growth on 333EM rootstocks along with various lab analyses, we decided to use [riparia rootstocks] on some of our plots from 2021 onwards,” says Walter Dausse, chef du culture at Bouchard Père et Fils. “And other tests are ongoing with the 1103 Paulsen [rootstock].”
Along with clones and rootstocks, Burgundy winegrowers and the Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB) are exploring more extreme measures to moderate the effects of the warming climate on their wines.
Grape varieties that ripen later and accumulate less alcohol are being considered, taking advantage of a nationwide program launched in 2018 by the French National Institute of Origin and Quality (INAO) that allows wine regions to explore varieties that can cope with the changing climate. Savoie experimented with seven historical grapes of local origin, which resulted in the approval of six new varieties in Bordeaux.
According to the BIVB, a shortlist of varieties selected for experimentation will be submitted to the INAO next year. Deola is convinced that the list will feature many neglected Burgundian grapes like Aubin, Roublot, Sacy, Melon, César and Tressot, some of which are already planted in small pockets of the region.
“We firmly believe that many old varieties abandoned due to their difficulty to reach ripeness might take back the place they deserve in our vineyard,” says Deola. He makes a varietal Coteaux Bourguignons César under the Simonnet-Febvre label, and he works with Aligoté at Louis Latour. “Observing the few ancient varieties we have in our oldest plots, we see some very interesting things with later ripening, higher acidity and so on.”
“We have something like a dozen plants for each, enough to monitor their behavior and test the maturity,” he says. “We are really waiting for the green light from INAO to make further experiments on those varieties in our newer plantings.”
While neglected or abandoned Burgundian grapes will likely play a role to help tackle climate change, Audeguin believes the region should look beyond its borders to places like nearby Jura, or even the Mediterranean.
“In Côtes de Provence, they’ll be experimenting with Moschofilero and Agiorgitiko, and Languedoc is taking Montepulciano into consideration,” says Audeguin. “Burgundy could look at Cab Franc or Syrah and some others that can result in wines with a similar profile to Pinot Noir, like Nebbiolo or Xinomavro.”
Yet, growers aren’t as keen on foreign vine material.
“I do not believe in varieties from abroad,” says Deola. “At least not in a lifetime. Terroir is a matter of physical datas but also history and switching to varieties from abroad will take a long time.”
Perhaps, to grow Nebbiolo in Burgundy might require a little more convincing.