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The Burgundy Wine Industry Part 1 - Viticulture

The first step to making good wine is growing good grapes, and so in this first installment of our Burgundy wine industry series, we start before a single drop of juice is pressed - in the vineyards, the heart and soul of the industry.

In a region as long-farmed as Burgundy, viticulture has been perfected to an art, a way of life. Generation upon generation of farmers have tilled the fields, infusing the land with tradition, passion, and innovation required to keep Burgundy at the forefront of an ever-evolving wine landscape.

In this article, we’ll cover the basics of Burgundy viticulture: which grapes are grown, who’s growing them, and what it takes to care for a vineyard throughout the year.

First… What is viticulture?

The word viticulture stems from the latin vitis, or grapevine, and encompasses the entire growing process from cultivation to harvest.

It’s a common cliche to say that great wine is made in the vineyard, but this is a truism worth repeating. From the balance of sweetness and acidity to the phenolic compounds that make up texture and flavor, what’s good for the grape is good for the wine. 

In a region like Burgundy, which tends to avoid manipulation with additives and adulterants, if a vineyard isn’t properly looked after you'll be able to taste it in the resulting vintage. As grape and wine quality are so intertwined, the relationship between growers and producers is by necessity one of trust and mutual professionalism.

So much so that often, both are looked after by the same person, with winemakers as deeply involved in cultivation as they are in sorting, pressing, and bottling the wine.

Who’s growing grapes in Burgundy?

Ownership of the region’s 70,000 acres is highly fragmented, with many growers in possession of tiny parcels of land, sometimes as small as a couple rows of vines. There are roughly 3600 wine-producing estates (domaines) in Burgundy, and 85% of these farm less than 25 acres. 

The remaining land is cultivated by a mix of individual growers, Burgundy’s 17 cooperatives, and négociant-éleveurs, wine merchants who own small vineyards of their own. The vast majority of grapes grown in Burgundy are either Pinot Noir, a red wine grape, or Chardonnay for white.

That said, you can also find a bit of red Gamay and white Aligoté grapes as well. Overall, roughly a third of production goes to red wine and rose, and two thirds to white wine and sparkling crémant.

What does the growing process look like?

Spring is the time of budburst, flowering, and nascent fruit, one of the busiest periods of the year. Growers ‘train’ the vines, trellising and pruning in order to control the resulting shape and canopy. 

This is a period of high risk for Chardonnay, as early budding makes the vine vulnerable to spring frosts. If temperatures are set to dip below freezing, growers must find ways to warm the vineyard, like burning large candles or bales of hay along the vine row.

Summer is when the baby fruit starts to swell and mature. Bunches tighten up as the little pips grow into recognizable grapes, changing from bright green to yellow-gold or purple-red. 

Growers focus on canopy management, trimming away leaves to be sure that grapes get sufficient sunlight and airflow without burning. Some growers also perform a ‘green harvest’ in the early summer, cutting away excess unripe grapes so the vine can focus its energy on the ones remaining, often resulting in a higher quality, more concentrated juice

Fall is the time of harvest. Leaves drop, and grapes enter a resting phase. While they continue to ripen, the pace is remarkably slower due to less sun and cooler weather. Growers time the harvest for peak ripeness, but before the autumn rains which can risk mold and mildew, and cause grapes to swell with excess water.

Winter is a time of rest - mostly for the vines. The plants go dormant, and growers spend their time pruning and enriching the soil to prepare for next year’s crop.

All in a year’s work

Winemakers don’t really get time off. Even in winter, when work in the vineyards is lightest, their attention simply turns to another part of the process - supervising the transformation of grape juice into wine. 

We’ll cover that topic in our next article on the Burgundy wine industry - the world of winemaking!

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