I awoke in Meursault Monday morning August 11th to a refreshingly cool, dry, and brilliantly clear morning, after three very warm and humid days with evenings and nights of thunderstorms, lightning, and localized, torrential downpours of rain. Thankfully no hail fell during these storms, but as veraison occurs (when the grapes begin to change color with ripening), the season’s weather becomes important, as the harvest gets planned, and the quality and quantity of the vintage begin to take shape.
The Cote de Beaune is wet. And damp, even soggy. With veraison comes the end of vineyard treatments for oidium and mildew, as well as their efficacy (not to mention the potential for off-flavors in the resulting wines if vineyards are treated too late). Continued humidity and rain bring the risk of rot developing (not the noble kind), and the possible further deterioration of an already difficult vintage. The saying goes “Aout fait le mout”, or “August makes the juice”, and the next 30 days will have a profound effect upon the quantity and quality of the 2014 vintage in Burgundy.
The beginning of the vintage saw very moderate rainfall, with one grower in Chassagne reporting a total of 100mm of rainfall for all of March, April, May, and June combined. Flowering proceeded rapidly with splendidly sunny, warm weather, and the resulting berry-set forecast a fine and copious vintage for 2014. Alas, for many parts of the Cote de Beaune (as well as Cote de Nuits, which will be covered in a subsequent post), June 28th brought devastation in a wave of hailstorms that wrought significant damage on some of Burgundy’s most precious vineyard sites. That damage has become ever more visible as veraison proceeds, and the prospects for a decent 2014 vintage hang in the balance, challenged by the vagaries of le meteo.
July was an extremely variable and difficult month, alternating between rainy and sunny days without any rhythm or sustained periods of sunshine and dry warmth. In July alone, the same vigneron reports nearly 100mm of rain, more precipitation than the previous four months combined. What is surprising and unusual is that the attendant wetness and humidity in July did not require a lot of additional treatments in the vines, far fewer than 2013, for instance. The vegetative cycle was slightly delayed, pushing the predicted harvest dates into mid-September.
August has continued this wet and humid atmosphere, with a continual procession of storms moving from south to north or southwest to northeast, bringing warm moist air from the Mediterranean to collide with the cooler prevailing temperatures in Burgundy. The results in the three evenings and nights of the weekend of August 8th to 10th have been localized but heavy downpours of rain, spectacular displays of brilliant lightning within cumulo-nimbus cloud towers (unfortunately concealing the year’s ‘largest’ full moon), and standing water at the bottom of many vineyard sites on the slopes of the Cote de Beaune. There is substantial erosion on the steeper slopes, and a lot of soil and some rocks have been carried down the slopes onto roads and paths.
The soil in most of the Cote de Beaune is saturated and sticky, making footing and tractor work precarious. Walking into most vineyards, my shoes were quickly clogged and coated with sticky clay-mud, and I felt as though I were wearing heavy clogs after only a few steps. The stonier sites are easier to navigate, but one still feels a certain sponginess to the ground, in spite of better drainage in the upper, rockier parcels. Bending over taking quite a few photographs made me realize exactly how hard the work of harvesting grapes truly is.
The prospects for 2014 are not easy to assess today, but it is certainly going to be a difficult harvest and challenging vintage. Extensive hail damage in a swath of 1ers Crus from northern Puligny through Beaune will make picking a long, arduous task, requiring an experienced, well-trained cadre of itinerant workers. Luckily, many domaines have pickers who return year after year, with the requisite experience and knowledge to pick only the better bunches.
This vintage will present extraordinary challenges: in many places individual bunches of grapes have a combination of hail damage, millerandange (shot berries), and healthy grapes with differing levels of maturation on the same bunches. A careful selection in the vineyards, followed by an extremely critical selection at tables de triage (sorting tables), will be essential before the grapes even get into the vats or pressoirs.
What follows are my assessments of the state of veraison and prospects for the 2014 vintage from Santenay to Beaune, village by village. Villages and vineyards further north will be covered in a subsequent post.
Often an overlooked village of excellent value and fine quality white and red wines, 2014 appears to favor Santenay, especially in its 1ers Crus sectors. While the white bunches of grapes have not yet reached the stage of veraison, the clusters are compact and show good size, with little millerandange. Vineyards show a substantial but not excessive yield without problems of health or vigor.
The Pinot Noir bunches are also quite healthy, with veraison fully underway and many clusters already on their way to the dark purple colors needed for perfect ripeness. My only concern is with the wide variations of ripeness at this stage of veraison, with some individual vines showing a mixture of green bunches, mixed color bunches, and others fully colored. This could be a cause for concern at harvest because of different levels of ripeness on the same vine. The vineyards surrounding Santenay’s iconic Moulin a Vent windmill were particularly impressive, healthy, well-formed, and clean.
This author was having dinner at Fabrice and Corinne Germain’s lovely restaurant Le Terroir on Saturday evening August 9th, and our meal was accompanied by a nearly relentless rain, with frequent deluges and flickering of electric lights, punctuated by rolling thunder and brilliant flashes of lightning. The rain continued through most of the night at my apartment in Meursault.
There has been a lot of rain in Chassagne this July and early August, as evidenced by standing water at the bottom of vineyard slopes in several places. Overall, the vines and grapes look very healthy for both red and white, with good yields on the way. The rain may cause some grapes and bunches to swell towards possible dilution, yet this may be offset by a fairly significant amount of millerandange which I observed in both red and white parcels.
The mid-slope 1ers Crus vineyards seem particularly wet, as dense clay soils with only moderate amounts of calcaire pierres did not absorb the deluges as easily.
On the whole the upper and stonier slopes look superb, with 1ers Crus Caillerets, Ruchottes, Vergers, and Chaumees appearing very healthy. Across the RN6 (now the D96), en Remilly and Dent de Chien above, and Blanchot Dessus adjacent to the Grands Crus, look poised to deliver an excellent crop. Chassagne-Montrachet may deliver the best results for 2014 in quantity and quality, simply because it has been least affected by weather issues. Of course the short crops of the last three years will continue to pressure pricing in an upwards direction, but for now there will be wine to buy.
The world seems to have an unquenchable thirst for white Burgundy these days, and luckily for the proprietors in Chassagne they have been blessed by the gods in 2014, with what should be very fine quality and quantities of wine to sell. This vintage should be a prescient test of the elasticity of price and demand. The top tier suppliers will always sell, even at inflated prices beyond the means of all except the top 1% of incomes, and yet proprietors who take a reasonable and long-term view of their business could enjoy an increasing share of the market with their wines.
Much like Santenay, St. Aubin has long been under-appreciated and even ignored in much of the world. Yet this relatively unknown appellation is attracting significant attention for its reds and whites as prices of the more famous villages mount, and shortages of more popular crus persist due to short vintages. It is a lovely appellation, whose only drawback is the name of its primary inhabited area: Gamay. Not to be confused with the disloyal grape, the vineyards above and to the north of the village present some wonderful climats for the cultivation of Burgundy grapes, though Chardonnay seems to be the preferred encepagement.
Blessed with some extraordinary sites just adjacent to some of Chassagne’s finest vineyards (such as 1ers Crus Charmois, Les Combes, en Remilly, and Les Murgers des Dent du Chien), with open expositions to the east and south, there are fine climats that rate as 1ers Crus in their own right, such as Sentier du Clou and Les Frionnes. I predict that 2014 will be the year that St. Aubin is ‘discovered’, not only due to price but also the quality efforts of producers like Hubert Lamy, Laurent Pillot, and others. The vineyards show discipline and great material.
It is no accident that some of Burgundy’s finest white wine producers are looking to expand their presence in St. Aubin.
While a large part of Puligny went unscathed by the June 28th hail, significant 1ers Crus were affected and show some disastrous results, especially north of the Montrachet Grands Crus. From the middle of Clavaillons and Folatieres north to the Meursault border there is significant damage from hail, quite a bit of millerandange, and losses that I would estimate at 50%. These parcels will require delicate picking and sorting, as well as a stringent selection before pressing to avoid any unpleasant or inferior wines. The photographs below were all taken between the 1ers Crus of northern Folatieres, Clavaillons, Les Combettes, Clos de la Garenne, Les Truffieres, and Chalumeaux.
I did notice an interesting difference in the sides of the vines which are planted with a west to east orientation down the slopes. The southern sides of many vines affected by the hail were nearly completely devastated by the impact. Yet on the northern sides of many vines there was healthy fruit and fine clusters of grapes. While this is certainly not the case with all vines, especially those rows planted with a different orientation, I found it interesting, as it shows how the storms moved from south to north, swiftly, and with devastating effects. Luckily sufficient foliage also remained to continue photosynthesis and ripening of the grapes on the vine.
Without doubt, the prices of Puligny will escalate in coming months, clearly differentiating itself from its neighbors in Chassagne and Meursault. This author did not visit the vines of Auxey-Duresses or St. Romain, but I hope to discover these appellations in the coming months. Like Santenay and St. Aubin, they could very well enjoy an increasing appreciation as they fill the price void between regional Bourgogne Blanc et Rouge and the more renowned appellations.
MONTRACHET GRANDS CRUS
The finest Chardonnays in the world were spared on June 28th, but the rains of July and August are falling unsparingly on all parts of the Cote d’Or. The ground is very wet in the Grands Crus of Montrachet, with some standing water in the lower parts of Batard Montrachet. The upper slopes of Chevalier Montrachet are quite mucky, in spite of rockier soils, and on the sun-bench of Montrachet itself the ground is water-logged; walking in the vineyard is an unpleasant, sticky mess of a slog. I saw no evidence of recent tractor work.
The vines are healthy, and bear a fine yield of mostly beautiful fruit. Some vines in Chevalier show a bit of hail damage. The most significant difficulty that I observed was a fairly widespread amount of millerandange, especially in some parcels of very old vines. Of course these seedless shot-berries will ripen with the other grapes, and a small proportion of millerandes can actually increase the intensity of concentration of the juice and boost overall dry extract.
Meursault vineyards, both north and south of the village, show sustained damage and a substantial reduction in quantity, particularly in the 1ers Crus. From the forested park just below Blagny into Les Perrieres, Les Charmes, Genevrieres, Poruzots, Boucheres, and Gouttes d’Or, losses are heavy, estimated at 50 to 75%. Some upper village lieux dits seem to have been spared as were village Meursault vineyards closer to the RN 74 (now D974).
Meursault has probably lost close to two-thirds of its 1ers Crus production in 2014. While village lieux dits can probably sustain the market (many lower slope vineyards such as Limozin, Sous la Velle, and Grands Charrons were unscathed), I predict that such individual vineyard names will become more common usage, with prices approaching former 1ers Crus levels. The conditions in Blagny were also quite fine for both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and I would not be surprised to see La Piece sous le Bois scoring highly when tastings of the 2014 vintage get underway.
Perhaps my favorite wines from the Cote de Beaune come from the beautiful medieval village of Volnay, hidden up in the combe between the 1ers Crus of Pommard and Volnay. Elegance, balance, and a positively succulent, velvety texture run through these wines compared to the power and structure found in the wines of its northern neighbor Pommard. The best views in the Cote de Beaune can also be found there, by taking the road high above d’Angerville’s Monopole Clos des Ducs. If you proceed high enough up the road, keeping left, you will eventually come to a vineyard planted at the top of the mountain, dedicated to women who have made special contributions to Volnay, appropriately named Clos Elegance.
Many writers have already commented on widespread hail damage in Volnay, especially in the upper reaches of the 1ers Crus Clos des Chenes and Taillepieds. While I hate to see the quantity of these wines diminished (due to my buying and drinking habits), I must say that this writer found some fairly healthy fruit in my favorite vineyard sites.
On the other hand, many of the Volnay vineyards close to Pommard shared the devastation that can be found in that adjacent village. This area begins a swath of near total destruction that extends through the 1ers Crus of Beaune, nearly to the Autoroute A6 which separates Beaune from Savigny. Perhaps it is no accident that Pommard and Volnay at their border share a number of lieux dits, 1ers Crus Fremiets (Fremiers in Pommard) and Chanlin (divided into upper village appellation Chanlins Hauts and 1er Cru Chanlins Bas in Pommard). Common conditions are what define the idea of climat.
I was unable to access the Marquis d’Angerville Monopole Clos des Ducs for a look-see (August is vacation month, after all), but things looked fairly healthy, and adjacent vineyards had approximately 30 to 40% crop losses due to hail and millerandange.
Driving south from Beaune on the evening of June 28th was a scene I will never forget. Leaves and branches from the majestic old plane trees littered the road lining the RN74 leading out of Beaune. When I arrived in Pommard and proceeded up into the slopes, the damage was horrifying. In many places another vintage was lost, in some parcels for the third year in a row.
As veraison begins with the few grapes that are left, the enormity of the task of harvest becomes apparent. Some clusters have only a few grapes left, irregularly dispersed on the bunches and in the vines. Others seem to be only half a bunch of grapes, the remainder having withered and fallen off the vine. Leaves still strew the ground. Luckily the vines have had the moisture to regenerate their foliage, so that photosynthesis can bring what little fruit that remains to ripeness.
Here again, it is the beautiful slopes of the 1ers Crus that suffered the most damage, and villages appellations above and below the 1ers Crus were not spared either. In 2014, Pommard will produce around 90% less wine than a normal vintage. While some producers are insured against such losses, such insurance is expensive, and the insurance payments cannot cover the loss of wine list placements, market visibility for the ‘brand name’ of Pommard, or the pain of watching a year within generations of effort disappear in minutes.
In my final years of high school, my best friend’s father, a prominent radiologist in Texas, introduced me to his favorite wine: Pommard. I do not remember the producer, but I remember drinking it several times with spicy Steak Tartare and hot crispy French Fries. I may never be able to afford to reproduce that generosity for my friend.
The hailstorm moved northward on June 28th, and the damage inflicted on the vineyards of Beaune would indicate that it intensified, unleashing a fury of berry to golf ball sized hailstones on its route. There are some parcels which have no grapes whatsoever, where even fruiting canes remain denuded of leaves and new vegetation has yet to appear. Other parcels seem abandoned, with little evidence of continued cultivation, as though the grower has decided that nothing good will come from visiting a vineyard that has no fruit. There are one or two areas in Beaune 1ers Crus where small amounts may be harvested and vinified: the ribbon of vineyards between Clos des Mouches and Les Avaux had a few healthy bunches on some vines, though still not more than I would estimate as 25% of a normal crop load.
This correspondent did not visit the up and coming villages of Monthelie or Auxey-Duresses, as my past business experience rarely brought me there. But judging by the increasing number of offerings from local wine bars, restaurants, and retail stores from St. Aubin, St. Romain, Monthelie, and Auxey-Duresses appellations, it would seem that we Burgundy lovers are in for a major re-alignment of our drinking habits. Unless I hit the lottery, these next few years will see few great bottles bought, even fewer consumed, and a world in which Burgundy will become a luxury product, not a beverage. I look forward to my continuing education in these newly popular and affordable appellations which I have previously ignored.
November’s Hospice de Beaune auction will be notable for its intensity of world competition for a smaller number of barrels of wine produced. Yet as the elation of soaring prices complements the sad misfortunes of diminished supply, the only real optimism lies in the certainty that 2015 will bring another vintage to discover.
In 30 years of professional work and leisure travel in Europe, I have never seen such a destructive force in an agricultural area. For some growers, after three straight years of such setbacks, the continued cultivation of their property would seem to require an act of incredible faith in the generations which proceeded them as well as a belief in the success to come for future descendants. Nature humbles us in a way that no human insults can approach.
As I finish this post on Thursday afternoon August 14th, for a second day in a row heavy clouds have moved in with winds from the west and southwest. For two days off and on it has been raining a cold miserable mist more appropriate for post-harvest weather. It is a cool, brisk, and rather wet 62 degrees F, 17 C. The forecast is for more rainstorms tonight through Saturday, with temperatures remaining unseasonably cool (this will, at least, retard any spread of rot in the vines). A few periods of sunshine, but little warmth.
If I were on vacation, I’d be disappointed. Helas !