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Burgundy in the balance

Jason Haynes, co-founder of Flint Wines, reports from Burgundy on the need for a bountiful 2017 vintage in order to replenish near empty cellars in the region.

Burgundian winemakers have not had it easy of late. Although only eight years ago, 2009 seems like another era. A time when harvests were big, grapes were healthy and vintages were easy! 2009 was the last vintage that managed to combine both quality and quantity. But then the ‘9s’ are normally good on that front: 1999, 1989, 1969, 1959 were all lovely vintages.

Since those halcyon days of the late noughties, growers in the Côte d’Or, and especially those in the Côte de Beaune, have endured a run of depressingly small vintages. Those in villages such as Pommard and Savigny-lès-Beaune have made perhaps a combined total of three normal vintages in the past seven years!  Quality-wise there have been some great vintages amongst those seven but this merely increases the sense of frustration at what might have been.

Last year some growers who had been certified organic or biodynamic handed back their certificates because they needed to treat their wines to ensure some kind of economic return. For many, that can’t have been an easy decision but there is no point farming organically if the bank decides you can no longer afford to run the farm.

The next six weeks are going to be nervous ones for many young winemakers in Burgundy. Without the financial security of the large economies of scale that other wine producing regions enjoy (think Sauvignon Blanc producers in Marlborough with over 100 hectares of high yielding vines) various winemakers, especially in the Côte de Beaune, need 2017 to be a bountiful crop.

Following a string of small vintages that climaxed last year when 2016 was all but wiped out in many areas by severe late spring frost, their cellars are empty and their supplies need some major replenishing.

From now until early September, when harvesting is due to start, the main risk to the success of the vintage is hail, which could undo all nature’s positive work of the last few months in half an hour. Many growers will be venturing off on their annual holidays shortly but will no doubt be keeping their mobiles close at hand praying that they don’t receive a fateful call. Right now, no news is good news.

As they depart they leave their vineyards in terrific shape. Since largely surviving the frost scares at the end of April, the weather has been very kind to them and the vines have flourished. Generally, bunches look in great condition and, while one might not describe the crop as huge, it is certainly a good size. A few more weeks of bright sunshine and we could be looking at a seriously good vintage.

Not only is it important for the growers that they harvest a decent crop, but the market needs one, too. In fact the market, probably needs two. Prices have been somewhat inflationary recently and a couple of healthy vintages would pour welcome cold water on this trend. It would also help plug the increasing number of holes in supply of certain appellations, which seem to be getting scarcer by the week.

On paper, long-established domaines with continuity of family ownership have felt the financial pain of this succession of small vintages less than younger and newer growers, who have taken brave financial risks when taking over domaines and are somewhat at the mercy of the banks who loaned them the money.

While the value of the land provides them with a certain amount of collateral, a vintage like 2016 where their income will be virtually non-existent but their outgoings pretty much as high as usual (just because the frost decimated the vineyards it didn’t mean there wasn’t the usual work to do) puts tremendous pressure on this forthcoming harvest.

Like any farming industry there is a break even level of production and currently some domaines are way below it. And unlike the grander names of the Côte de Nuits that command ever higher prices, there are limits as to what Beaune and Pommard can fetch in the market and they fall well short of compensating for the shortfall in crop.

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