They say you can never step into the same river twice, and I recognized the truth in this statement on a recent return to Burgundy, France.
It’s been more than 20 years since I first stumbled across this glorious culinary corner of the world, which sparked an enthusiasm for wine. But the current is always rushing, the banks shifting, the river changing course.
Some things seem eternal: Pommard and Volnay are still sleepy little stone walled villages, Beaune is the vibrant wine capital, and the wines and the congregation of tiny producers who make them continue to be unparalleled.
But change is afoot. Year after year, it seems that Burgundy’s notoriously capricious weather grows more volatile, and the littlest producers are hit the hardest by the changing climate. One wonders how they will survive.
Scrappy farmers, prized wines
Burgundy is a tiny sliver of a wine region, crammed into the east-facing slope of a low-slung ridgeline running south from the city of Dijon. Burgundian wines are the world’s most prized and expensive. Yet the people who make the best of them are the smallest producers, scrappy farmers rich in precious parcels of vineyard land but poor in cash flow. These small vignerons could sell their plots for a fortune — and some of them do — and live out the rest of their lives in luxury. But thankfully most choose to work the land and farm grapes, bottling their own small allotments in the tradition of their parents and grandparents.
I explored a corner of this life in my novel “Vintage” and the last time I walked the stone walled vineyards and cobbled streets of Pommard and Volnay was in my imagination. Now I’m back in the real Burgundy, reevaluating what I imagined while interviewing winemakers for a documentary about this current difficult year.
Some of the producers lost 90 percent of their 2016 crop. Other recent harvests have borne less fruit due to hail, storms and violent swings in weather. If you study the records, you can see a dramatic shift in harvest dates. In the past it was normal for harvest to begin in October or November. 2003 saw the first ever August harvest. More have followed.
Wine producers look into the future
In the vast network of cellars of Francois Parent beneath the street of Beaune, two years’ worth of wine fit into a space that used to hold only one.
Caroline Parent-Gros manages sales and marketing for the family estates. Her forefather, Étienne Parent, supplied wine to Thomas Jefferson; America is still their biggest export market. But now with less wine to sell, that legacy may be in jeopardy. When asked about this year’s slim harvest, she says, “I think that we can face another year … but maybe not one more.” Still, she remains optimistic. “You always expect to make the vintage. Even if you have some great and exceptional wine, you always expect something like the jackpot.” She believes her family’s best wines will still be made in the future.
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Thierry Violot-Guillemard is a scrappy farmer who oozes Burgundian character, from his gnomish ruggedness to his broom of a mustache. He’s survived years of bad harvests and a crushing motorcycle accident that has required dozens of surgeries. But even that didn’t slow him down. He produces sought-after wines from his home and facility from the tiny town of Pommard. Though he expresses doubt that small producers will be able to survive another 40 years, he’s grooming his son Joannes to take the reigns of the family business. The legacy will continue.
Thiebault Hubert is a Volnay vigneron with a sunny disposition and a deep commitment to the terroir of his family’s vineyards. To preserve it, he’s turned to soft-touch biodynamic practices, eschewing chemicals and tilling the rows with horse and plow. He believes that to survive, small producers must adapt. “We know that we will actually, maybe never produce the quantities that we produced 15 years ago,” he told us. But he sees a silver lining, as the scarcity of fruit will drive a greater focus on quality.
Burgundy is not the same place I visited 20 years ago. And some day hail cannons may sound from the hillsides, disrupting a pleasant stroll through leafy vineyards. But Burgundians will survive. That’s something I learned from the Burgundian characters I wrote about in “Vintage.” And from the real people on whom they are based.
Fact and fiction may not always meet up. The Burgundy I wrote about is different from the one I see now. But somewhere in a vineyard, or in a dark, damp cellar, fact and fiction come together as they always must. Burgundy, and the spirit that drives it, is forever.
Main photo: Burgundian Caroline Parent-Gros, whose family has spent 14 generations in the wine business, believes the family’s best wines are ahead of her. Credit: Copyright 2017 David Baker