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Current Trends in Burgundy

Burgundy as a wine region dates back several thousand years, but its evolution still continues to the current day. The world is undergoing dramatic change, and winemakers are having to balance long-held traditions while adapting to a dizzying mix of environmental, economic and cultural pressures. 

In this article we review some of the major trends taking place in Burgundy today, and how these might play out in the decades to come.

The Response to Climate Change

The principal impacts of climate change in Burgundy can be seen in warmer winters, hotter summers, and increased frequency of extreme weather events. While vineyards in southern Europe are really starting to suffer from the increased heat, for the moment global warming is a bit of a mixed blessing for Burgundy winemakers. 

On the plus side, warmer weather results in drier soil - reducing the damage caused by mold and mildew - and more consistent sunlight, helping grapes ripen more fully and quickly.  Harvests now often take place as much as three weeks earlier than the historical norm, long before the autumn rains that would otherwise dilute the flavor of the grapes.

With riper fruit, the resulting wine is fuller and richer, while still retaining its distinctive Burgundy character. Recent harvests have produced some of the greatest vintages in recent history.

Despite these small blessings, climate change does pose risks to the wine industry. Warmer weather risks changing the distinctive flavors of Burgundy wines in the long run, turning them sweeter, fruitier, and more alcoholic, losing some of the nuanced flavors typical of cooler regions. This means that producers may need to consider alternative grapes if they hope to maintain balanced flavors, and small-scale experiments with Mourvèdre and Aligoté grapes, among others, are already underway. 

Warmer winters also result in earlier bud break, leaving grapes highly vulnerable to spring frosts which can cause yields to drop dramatically. This is particularly true of Chardonnay, which buds quite early. In order to adapt, growers have taken to pruning vines later in the season to delay bud break, and warming the air around vines by burning hay or large wax candles when the risk of frost is high - not a new technique, but applied much more frequently than before. The smoke can also be beneficial to block direct sunshine in circumstances where water droplets freeze then “burn” the buds they surround when piercing sunlight hits in the morning.

Lastly, as summers grow hotter, and droughts increase in severity and duration, the practice of restricted irrigation 'dry farming', may require reconsideration, though critics fear that irrigation may mask the flavor of Burgundy’s terroir.

A Shift Towards Sustainable Viticulture

On a related topic, recent years in Burgundy have seen a dramatic increase in the number of producers using sustainable, organic or biodynamic practices. Official requests for organic certifications have increased by 180% over the last ten years (not taking into account all those who are taking up the new practice without making it official) while the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides is being reduced or phased out entirely.

Some of these developments are made possible due to the increased temperatures and lessened summertime rains mentioned earlier, which reduce the risk of mold and mildew and thus the need for herbicides. But producers also cite a growing concern about climate change as a primary motivation, especially the younger generation of winemakers taking over. Furthermore, there is a strong belief that the vines themselves are better suited to adapt to changing, often more stressful climate conditions when they are not supported by artificial chemical treatments.

The end result is wines that are not only healthier and organic, but many producers report an increase in quality as well, with purer and more balanced flavors.

Consolidation and Increased Foreign Ownership

Another noticeable trend throughout the Burgundy region is the increased consolidation of vineyards and domaines. As the value of vinicultural land in France has skyrocketed in recent decades, it's become increasingly difficult for family-run wineries to pay the steep inheritance taxes (as high as 45%) when the property passes from parents to their children. As wineries operate on slim margins already, it can often take a decade or more for children to pay the inheritance tax.

If they cannot afford the inheritance tax, or suffer a few difficult seasons due to frost or hail damages, they are often forced to turn to outside investors or sell the property outright, providing ample opportunity for deep-pocketed corporations or investors, be they European, North American or Asian, to snap them up.

While it has not reached the levels seen in an area like Bordeaux, there are many who fear that the corporatization of Burgundy vineyards could signal the end of its traditional family-owned structure and winemaking culture. Whether this will be the case remains to be seen.

A Constant Evolution

Burgundy is a region in a constant state of change, and nowhere else in France is the tension between tradition and modernity more strongly felt. The impacts of climate change are forcing producers to find new ways to adapt, and changing how winemakers think about their agricultural practices. 

But there are promising signs yet. Ironically enough, many winemakers are looking to the past for inspiration on increasing the sustainability of their vineyards, to a time before chemical pesticides and herbicides. Similarly, grapes that long ago fell out of favor for their slow ripening are now being reconsidered and experimented with as rising temperatures prompt a change in the iconic flavors of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

While consolidation and foreign ownership do raise fears in some, the French government is taking steps to ease the tax burden on inheritors, helping keep estates in the family. The forces of tradition and modernity are finding an equilibrium, necessary for any region to grow and thrive. While change is perhaps inevitable, it seems the winemakers of Burgundy are finding ways to hold on to their heritage nonetheless.

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