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What we love about the Future of Burgundy

By John Beaver Truax and featuring Pascaline Lepeltier, Peter Wasserman, Armand Heitz  and more.

Burgundy -- Bourgogne, as they say in France -- is one of the crown jewels of winegrowing and has been carefully tended for countless generations. The Burgundians have, in that time, optimized grape and farming and winemaking to terroir.

What could possibly change in a region that is already so perfected? Here are some thoughts on what will -- and won’t -- change in the years ahead. 

Plus ca change...

I believe that Bourgogne will continue to grow primarily Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Aligoté and a little Gamay Noir a jus blanc just as it has for millennia. Will the vines themselves adapt to warmer summers and colder winters? Only time will tell, but I don't think that the principal grape varieties grown will change.

Armand Heitz of Chassagne-Montrachet and Pommard has a new ambitious approach involving a multi-faceted combination of viticulture, animal husbandry and raising crops. Armand wants a return to the farm to create a sustainable ecosystem that he describes as a "permaculture garden." He is continuing his search for autonomy and circularity by raising livestock, part of a system he describes as "agroecology."

He is convinced that no external inputs are needed if the whole system is well managed. Mixed farming feeds the soil and reinforces biodiversity, the cattle eat the grass, their manure fertilizes the soil for both the grapevines and the vegetables. He sells the meat and vegetables and wine to the local people. He brings wine to the Cistercian monks at the Abbaye of Citeaux because they no longer make their own wine. Sometimes he gets some of their famous cheese as part of the deal.

Armand’s is both a forward looking approach and a supremely traditional one.

New designations help consumer; ancient appellations make a comeback

The new designation, Bourgogne Cote d'Or, will help tell consumers more precisely where some of the great value-wines come from. A Bourgogne Rouge can be made with grapes grown throughout a huge part of Bourgogne's area; a Bourgogne Côte d'Or is much more specific, and helps a wine lover to know much more about what to expect from a bottle.

Former "underdog" appellations like the Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Beaune, Maranges, Marsannay and the entire Cote Chalonnaise (Rully, Bouzeron, and all their neighbors) are starting to be recognized again as the vital growing regions that they have always been. In the late 1500's Givry was the favorite of King Henri IV. When did you last enjoy one?

Peter Wasserman of Burgundy exporter Becky Wasserman & Co writes: "Rising prices, access to land evermore limited, and access to the historically exalted appellations has had an exciting and unintended consequence: the re-discovery of areas and appellations that were once in the shadows are emerging at the hands of talented young growers. I find that to be an important counterpoint. Sometimes a counterpoint to global warming as well."

Terroir, Tradition and Passionate Newcomers

Pascaline Lepeltier, Meilleure Ouvrière de France, writes: "What I am very excited about right now in Burgundy , a region whose history has been shaping vineyards and families for centuries, is the arrival of newcomers, often foreigners, who are shaking things up.

“Often without a tie to the area but their passion for it, rarely with large sums of money, they learned their skills at famous estates to start after a couple of years their micro-négoces. Because they are not bound by family obligations of the heavy weight of traditions that seem immutable, because the risks of failure may be lower, they are bringing a fresh air that is delicious and stimulating.

“I am thinking about Tomoko Kuriyama and Guillaume Bott at Chanterêves, Joachim and Olivia Skyaasen from Maison Skyaasen, the wines of Jae Chu - Maison des Joncs before she was named head winemaker for Château Grillet, Seiichi Sato with Petit-Roy, and more and more! Their wines are really exciting, often lesser known appellations they reveal, like the Hautes-Côtes de Beaunes, Saint-Romain, Maranges, etc., and still at a good price!"

The hard work of grape growing will continue to be hard work 

Hard working winegrowers will continue to till the soil and nourish the wines with the best combination of traditional and modern techniques. The future must be sustainable, the bad old days of herbicide, pesticide and chemical fertilizers will finally come to an end. Lutte raisonnée, often translated as “sustainable farming” but more literally "reasoned struggle," will continue to be the way forward.

Outside investment will continue. As Bourgogne’s reputation and prices soar, wealthy investors will continue to be attracted to the allure, the prestige and the pride of ownership. The recent sales of Clos des Tart, Clos des Lambrays, Domaine Rebourseau, Bonneau du Martray and Pommard Clos de la Commaraine illustrate this. The sheer value of the land is irresistible. It will be more and more difficult for small families to continue on their own, just as it is nearly impossible for them to expand or buy more vineyards nearby.

It's hard work. The people of Bourgogne are hard workers. Many consumers have a romantic notion of a family of winegrowers living in a farmhouse, plowing with a horse and making their wine in their basement. Some do just that. However, even the smallest family-owned winegrower in Bourgogne with a tiny domaine needs help during certain times of the year.

New Domaines will continue to emerge  

New domaines sometimes form when the siblings or cousins of a new generation split a family domaine among themselves, or from a new generation joining the family business and from marriages bringing new vineyards to existing domaines.

Some families buy vineyards as investment and lease them out in sharecrop deals, then regain the vineyards when the sharecrop lease expires. Cecile Tremblay, Maxime Cheurlin and Armand Heitz are all rare examples of new winegrowers who regained the family vineyards. They are all in the enviable position of owning their vineyards outright. They can also take out long term sharecrop leases and increase their production. Sebastien Cathiard has nearly doubled his production through such deals. Frederic Mugnier's domaine was able to regain the largest monopole in Burgundy, the Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru Clos de la Maréchale. Louis-Michel Liger-Belair's family had leased out their vineyards to the negociant Bouchard including the tiny 0.845 hectare grand cru La Romanee. In 2002 Louis-Michel took over the work in the vineyards and the cellar and had to continue to give Bouchard a portion of the wine in barrel. By 2006 he had regained full control of La Romanée and has worked constantly to try to rebuild his family's fantastic portfolio of vineyards piece by piece. French wine law seems to favor whomever was last working the vineyards even if it is a well-funded negociant. Fred Mugnier had to give up some vineyard land to Faiveley to regain the Clos de la Maréchale intact.

Burgundian exposure to the wider world will continue to be good for all

One of the most traditional domaines in Bourgogne is Domaine Michel Lafarge in Volnay. Very old Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Aligote and Gamay vines. Like their neighbor Guillaume d'Angerville, they continue to produce and expand their production of Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Bourgogne Aligoté and Bourgogne Passe-tout-grains. I am delighted that these two giants of Volnay are committed to producing not only some of the most sought after and exquisite Volnay Premier Crus but also the finest and most affordable cuvees from this storied village.

In 2014 Frederic and Chantal Lafarge went outside Bourgogne for their next challenge, and created Domaine Lafarge-Vial purchasing vineyards in Chiroubles and Fleurie. They are now making fantastic, long-lived Cru Beaujolais.

Etienne de Montille and Guillaume d'Angerville both went out into the world of international banking to earn enough money to ensure that their family domaines could not only continue to exist, but expand and thrive. Jacques-Frederic Mugnier worked around the world as an engineer. Canadians Pascal Marchand and his business partner Moray Tawse have built a new large negociant that both owns and leases vineyards, just like Faiveley, Jadot, Bouchard, etc. Their purchase of the legendary Domaine Maume virtually doubled the size of their operation. They produce many top wines including some of Bourgogne’s top vineyards.

In 2005 Domaine des Croix was created by the purchase of Domaine Duchet by American investors and their hiring of David Croix as regisseur. Benjamin Leroux has built a stunning micro-negociant from the ground up and it is no longer so "micro." Tomoko Kuriyama and Guillaume Bott have done the same at Chantereves. Amelie Berthaut inherited vines from both her mother and father and now has a fantastic domaine based in Fixin with vines in Vosne-Romanee, Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny and Vougeot. Her husband, Nicolas Faure is her vineyard manager and has his own tiny one-hectare domain that he built piece by piece, adding small vineyards as he could afford them.

Negociants will continue to be key to finding great wine, year in and year out

The big negociants will continue to have great influence. They have the financing and the wherewithal to continue through plentiful and poor vintages and to expand by buying more vineyards when they can. There are still some people who have a prejudice against the negociants based on ancient stories about bad practices. But their standards have never been higher. The French wine authorities are diligent and keep a close eye on every cellar. They carefully monitor everything that is going on in those big buildings in Beaune. Wise collectors and consumers know the negociants make great wines and take advantage.

I expect interest in the wines of Bourgogne’s great negociants to grow, as knowledge of their fastidious, devoted practices spread. When Champagne Henriot bought Bouchard and Domaine WIlliam Fevre in Chablis, Monsieur Henriot gave them an immense budget and asked them to do whatever they could to make the best wine possible. He was the best kind of "hands-off" owner.

The renowned negociants Faiveley, Louis Jadot, Bouchard, Bichot, Chanson, Remoissenet and Joseph Drouhin own many, many hectares of vineyard land in Bourgogne. It is in their best interest to farm carefully and grow the finest Bourgogne wines they can. Faiveley has invested vast sums of money in the Cote Chalonnaise and have raised the profile and reputation of Mercurey, Givry, Montagny and Rully. Bouzeron from A et P de Villaine has done so much to burnish the reputation of once maligned Aligote. Drouhin is the largest biodynamic grower in Bourgogne. All of the negociants hire lots of local people to work for them. They make a great quantity of wine, most of it in the most traditional ways possible. These are not big factories you can see from outer space like Bronco wines in Ceres, California.

When I see a bottle of Drouhin or Jadot wine I know it will be good, maybe very good and sometimes superb. The entire Drouhin family and Jacques Lardiere at Jadot have done more to improve the public impression of negociants than anyone else. Years ago I visited my Mom in Albuquerque, New Mexico and was delighted to find some Jadot Mâcon and Beaujolais for sale in a drugstore. I knew we would drink decent wine that night with our hatch chiles.

...plus c'est pareil

Tradition in Bourgogne runs centuries deep. But part of that tradition is studying and experimenting, just like the monks of yore.

Bourgogne will continue to evolve and adapt to change with a combination of traditional techniques, new ideas and ancient practices.

Tractors had compressed the soil to the density of concrete in some vineyards. The solution? Use horses to plow.

Some growers have stopped pruning and now train the vine canopy up to the sky. Some replant new vines by directing the top of the vine back into the soil. These are ancient techniques being rediscovered.

As always the techniques will need to be tailored to the terroir. In Vosne-Romanee some growers may remove leaves to open the vines up to more aeration from beneficial breezes. In Volnay they might want to do the opposite to protect from the hail that might be coming. In Chablis they must remain ever vigilant to protect from the near inevitable frosts. The Burgundian winegrowers will continue to cope with the vagaries of their particular microclimates and terroirs.

I sincerely believe this dynamic agricultural region will continue to inspire innovation for winegrowers throughout the world.