Burgundy's prized vineyards reel as weather hammers harvest

·3-min read

Heavy rains, frost, hail and disease have battered vineyards across France this year but few places were hit as hard as Burgundy, where growers are warning of the poorest harvests in memory.

"In a normal year it would be full by 9:30 am," said Julien Cheveau as he watched workers dump grapes into a cart at the muddy edge of his field in Solutre-Pouilly, part of the famed Pouilly-Fuisse appellation.

But as the lunch break approaches, the mound of golden yellow grapes has yet to reach the top of the bin.

The very factors that make Burgundy whites and reds a favourite of wine fans -- small but prestigious houses, the predominance of chardonnay grapes, relatively high altitudes -- made the region particularly vulnerable to the extreme weather.

"Sometimes you can go down an entire row without even having to empty your bucket," said Aurelie Cheveau, Julien's sister-in-law and co-manager of their namesake vineyard.

An April cold snap struck from Bordeaux in the southwest to Champagne in the northeast, but in Burgundy night-time lows plunged to minus eight Celsius (18 Fahrenheit).

And Chardonnay grapes, which make up two-thirds of Burgundy, suffered more than others from the freezing temperatures, destroying buds just as they were emerging after a mild winter.

"Eventually the vines started growing again but then we had a huge hailstorm on June 21, and all our hopes were obliterated in 15 minutes," Cheveau said.

Then came September downpours that fostered rapid mildew growth just as ripening was at hand -- she pointed with her shears to bunches of shrivelled grapes, and others shot through with purple veins and covered with fine white fuzz, the hallmark of rot.

"There's really not much left. In certain areas we'll have losses of up to 95 percent," she said, with estimates of 70 to 90 percent for Pouilly-Fuisse as a whole.

- 'Only 35 barrels' -

The rest of Burgundy was also hit with losses far exceeding the 30 percent forecast for French vineyards overall.

"I've lost 75 to 80 percent here," said Ludivine Griveau, director of the storied Hospices de Beaune, amid half-filled crates of pinot noir from the renowned slopes of Corton.

She said she'll be lucky if losses are kept to 50 percent at the rest of the 60 hectares that abut the historic hospital, whose wines include Pommard and Echezeaux appellations.

"This year I only ordered 35 barrels, usually it's 120 to 150," Griveau said.

Even if the quality of the surviving vintages remains stellar, price hikes spurred by rarity are unlikely to make up for the lower output.

That could put the squeeze on Burgundy houses in particular, since most are smaller operations -- the average vineyard is just six and a half hectares (16 acres).

That means they don't have the extensive domains and financial stamina of bigger producers found elsewhere in France.

"These yields are historically low," said Francois Labet, president of the Burgundy Wine Bureau, estimating overall losses at 30 to 50 percent.

"I don't know a single area that was spared the cold snap," he said.

This year has also heightened fears that climate change could make extreme weather -- cold and rain but also devastating droughts as in 2003 -- more common in the region.

"Since 2010, we've only had two years without major problems: 2017 and 2018," Labet said.

For Aurelie Cheveau, the risks are clear.

"In 2019, we only got half our harvest, it was already due to the frost," she said.

"If every other year is like that, it makes you wonder where our profession is headed."

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