How Climate Change is Altering Burgundy’s Wine Identity

Existential Burgundy Winegrower and Chablis vineyard
From left, Winegrower in Cote de Beaune. / Photo courtesy of BIVB Michel Joly; Chablis cluster. / Photo courtesy of BIVB Sebastien Boulard

Whether the perfumed, chiseled Pinot Noir of Chambolle-Musigny, or the steely Chardonnay of Chablis, Burgundy’s classic wines are icons of typicity. These are wines that are so distinctive, they could only come from Burgundy.

Notions of terroir—the unique soil, topography and climate of each vineyard—and a wine’s typicity, or how faithfully it reflects its origin and grape variety, are central to Burgundy’s identity. So much so that terroir and typicity are fundamental to how the region developed its hierarchy of crus, or demarcated vineyards also known as climats, classified by quality based on centuries of winegrowing history.

Climate is a large part of what defines terroir, and Burgundy is one of the world’s great archetypes for cool-climate viticulture. Whether red or white, classic Burgundian wines are distinguished by their finesse, raciness and pristine fruit profiles, a tension and verve attributed to grapes cultivated in cool climates.

With warming climates, however, the expression of Burgundy’s classic wines has changed significantly, challenging core notions of typicity and terroir, and perhaps even the sustainability of Burgundy’s historic hierarchy.

Existential Burgundy Planting Vines and Chardonnay clusters
From left, Vine plantings. / Photo courtesy of BIVB Aurelien Ibannez; Cluster of Chardonnay grapes. / Photo by: Michel Joly of BIVB

A Riper Shade

While climate change has introduced catastrophic flooding, frost and drought around the globe, it’s also introduced a pattern of extraordinarily dry, sunny vintages that have been commercial blockbusters for Burgundy.

This pattern is indisputable, as scientists and historians have traced near-annual records of grape harvest dates to 1354. Since the late 1980s, researchers say, growing seasons have become significantly warmer. Contemporary harvest dates are two weeks earlier than in the previous six centuries.

“The greatest problem of our ancestors was to reach [grape] ripeness,” says Frédéric Drouhin, the president of the Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB) and president of the executive board of Joseph Drouhin, a leading domaine that produces wine throughout the region.

The hot, dry vintages that were celebrated outliers in the past are increasingly the new normal in Burgundy. “We now produce more often good vintages than bad,” says Drouhin. Compared to 20 years ago, growers are harvesting grapes much riper, with higher sugar accumulation and physiological ripeness of tannins and grape skins.

Historically, Burgundy’s best climats, its storied premier cru or grand cru vineyards, were demarcated based on outperforming terroir known for consistent grape ripening and resulting typicity. However, with warmer growing seasons throughout Burgundy, grape ripening has improved everywhere, from the humblest regional Bourgogne appellation to village-level, premier cru and grand cru designations.

Contemporary Burgundy wines, both red and white, are riper and richer than ever before. They are bolder in fruit concentration and higher in alcohol but also softer in acidity and tannins. Many of these changes have been embraced by winegrowers.

In Chablis, Chardonnay has become “much more expressive,” says Anne Moreau, co-owner with her husband, Louis, of Domaine Louis Moreau. “[There’s] more roundness and fruitiness,” she says, with “much more grapefruit notes or tropical fruit, very ripe lime and apricot.”

Similarly, Drouhin suggests that Pinot Noir throughout Burgundy “has gained a ripeness and [a perception of] sweetness” and compared to wines from 20 years ago, “we rarely have green, unpleasant tannins that don’t soften or ripen with age.” Contemporary Burgundy is more seductive and charming young, but also likely to age well, he says.

Existential Burgundy sown grass in Cote de Beaune
Cotes-de-Beaune vineyard sown grass. / Photo by: Aurélien Ibanez of BIVB

Defining Typicity, Past and Present

While welcomed by many, the new normal of a riper, more potent Burgundy challenges notions of typicity central to Burgundy’s identity.

“With climate change, we produce wines [with alcohol levels] closer to 13.5% abv than 12.5% abv,” says Drouhin.

And with jammier, even tropical, expressions of wine more common in Burgundy, the oft-discussed fear among winemakers is that Burgundy may someday taste more like Châteauneuf-du-Pape or other southerly, Mediterranean wines.

Burgundy’s first formal wine classification was developed in 1861. Even prior to that, however, winegrowers in Burgundy associated typicity as a quality of a vineyard.

In 1936, this classification became the basis for Burgundy’s Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). Today, typicity is still a baseline characteristic in determining whether a climat is considered generically representative of Burgundy as a basic Bourgogne or village-level wine, or exceptional enough to merit a premier cru or grand cru designation.

Defining typicity over centuries of winegrowing, however, has noticeable pitfalls. Climate conditions today are undeniably different from how they were in the 19th and early 20th century. While the terroir envisioned by Burgundy’s classification system is frozen in time, the typicity of wines produced there have arguably changed.

Burgundy Embraces New Varieties to Combat Climate Change

Most winemakers insist that while climate is variable to terroir, Burgundy’s typicity is still very much intact. “Even with riper vintages, we haven’t lost the typicity of our appellations,” says Drouhin, because the links between Burgundy’s historic grapes and soil are still intact. “Volnay still tastes like a Volnay, Pommard still tastes like a Pommard.”

Similarly, in Chablis, despite the rounder, richer fruit profiles of recent vintages, Moreau remains confident that her wines “still have this precision and limestone note so characteristic of Chablis.” Still, winemakers in Burgundy have responded proactively to the effects of warming climates as a matter of sustainability and the pursuit of balance. In recent years, winegrowers have significantly altered their vineyard management, planting later-ripening grape clones and experimenting with new rootstocks resistant to heat and hydric stress. Canopy management techniques and harvesting times have shifted to moderate the accumulation of sugar ripeness and excessive alcohol.

In the cellar, many winemakers have scaled back on techniques that amplify the richness of white wines, like lees stirring or maturation in new oak. For red wines, fermentation methods incorporating stems or whole bunches have gained popularity again to preserve freshness in riper vintages.

But some acknowledge that typicity may not be static. Due to global warming, “it’s likely that the definition of typicity [in Burgundy] will be recalibrated in the future,” says Kyungmoon Kim, MS, founder of KMS Imports LLC and a wine educator. “We don’t know how these wines are going to change in the next 10 or 20 years, and they might end up being even better than what we expected.”

Existential Burgundy Saint Bris le Vineux vineyard
View of Saint-Bris-le-Vineux d’Auxerre vineyard in Grand Auxerrois, Burgundy. / Photo by: Sebastien Boulard of BIVB

Burgundy’s New “Classic” Regions

Warmer climates have had a democratizing effect, boosting grape ripening throughout Burgundy and shining a new spotlight on some historically undervalued subregions. As the heartland of Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits regroup to regain balance, vineyards in northerly latitudes and higher elevations are hitting new strides.

Hautes Côtes de Beaune and Hautes Côtes de Nuits, two appellations that extend to the west above the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits, produce some of Burgundy’s most interesting wines today. While credit is due partly to the skill of modern winegrowers, warming climates have played a large role in the increase in quality wines from these regions, says Danièle Bonnardot, the third-generation proprietor of Domaine Bonnardot in the Hautes Côtes de Nuits.

“It’s difficult now to keep acidity [in wine] in the Côte de Beaune or Côte de Nuits,” says Bonnardot, but in the Hautes Côtes, higher altitudes and cooler nighttime temperatures maintain acidity, balance and a “classic Burgundian character” that’s increasingly rare.

Why Chablis is the Purest Chardonnay

In the northern outskirts of Burgundy, the Grand Auxerrois, a scattering of vineyards centered around Chablis, has garnered similar attention. Irancy, an appellation awarded village-level status in 1998, is one of the few appellations in the Auxerrois boasting a foundation of Kimmeridgian-limestone like Chablis.

As in the Hautes Côtes, global warming has blurred climate distinctions between once-marginal regions like Irancy and more prestigious appellations in the heart of Burgundy. “Twenty years ago, the harvest in the Côte d’Or [the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits combined] took place 10 days earlier than in Irancy,” says Marie Ferrari, co-owner of Domaine Christophe Ferrari in Irancy. “Today, the harvest starts [almost] at the same time.”

In recent decades, distinguished vineyards like La Palotte, Les Mazelots and Paradis in Irancy are lauded for their uniquely concentrated, precise expressions of Pinot Noir.

Existential Burgundy Grand Cru Corton Charlemagne Vineyard in Hautes Côtes de Beaune, Burgundy
View of Grand Cru Corton-Charlemagne vineyard in Hautes Côtes de Beaune, Burgundy. / Photo by Michel Joly of BIVB

A Threat to Burgundy’s Hierarchy?

As notions of terroir and typicity are challenged, it’s debatable whether Burgundy’s quality classification will evolve, too. Modern precedence suggests reclassification entails a long, complicated administrative process. Most recently, in 2018, Pouilly-Fuissé was awarded 22 premier cru climats following a decade-long application process with the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO), the governing body that oversees AOCs.

“I can’t tell you that the Hautes Côtes will be like Chambolle-Musigny in five or 10 years,” says Bonnardot. But the potential for great winemaking has always existed for certain vineyard sites, and warmer climates and a sophisticated generation of winegrowers have only improved prospects, she suggests.

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Besides, even without a reclassification, “there’s already [been] a promotion of sorts because the price of land has been increasing in the last five years,” says Bonnardot. In recent years, the Hautes Côtes has welcomed an influx of producers from outside the region, including luminaries like Jean-Nicolas Méo, Domaine Leflaive, Thibault Liger-Belair and others. There is recognition, she says, that exciting, complex wines are being produced there.

But it’s important for winegrowers to understand that “not all vines can be classified as premier cru,” says Ferrari, who is part of a group of winegrowers in Irancy contemplating potential reclassifications. As for any potential for declassification of existing appellations, producers like Drouhin insist that the significance of terroir is anchored by much more than shifts in climate.

“The reputations of appellations like Chambolle Musigny, Pommard or Meursault have been built over centuries,” he says. “They still deliver a weight and complexity that, honestly, I don’t believe will change.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

Published on April 7, 2022
Topics: Climate Change