For Burgundy’s vintners, the frosts were “a real kick in the [pants]” that drove home the threat posed by the world’s changing climate, Fréderic Drouhin told me in an interview. That was a striking statement, given Burgundy’s recent vintages marred by extreme weather, especially hail and frost — a stretch Drouhin himself described to me when I visited him five years ago in his cellars in Beaune, at the heart of Burgundy. A few good, plentiful harvests since allowed winemakers and growers to become complacent.
Drouhin, part of the fourth generation helming Maison Joseph Drouhin, is president of the BIVB, the Bourgogne Wine Board, a position he assumed in March. Normally it’s a predictable job, focused on promoting the world’s most renowned pinot noir and chardonnay wines. But the devastating frosts just a few weeks later convinced him he needed to galvanize his membership to focus not just on the current vintage in their own vineyards but also the long-term future of the region and its wines.
“We realized we can no longer act alone, we must act together,” Drouhin said. Converting a vineyard to organic or biodynamic farming in hopes of taking care of the planet would no longer be sufficient.
He described a “Marshall Plan” aimed at investing in efforts to adapt to climate change so Burgundy’s wines in 2050 will still resemble the wines of today. It won’t be an easy task.
According to the BIVB, the average temperature in Burgundy has increased one degree Celsius since 1987. Flowering and harvesting have been on average two weeks earlier in that period compared with the previous two decades. An earlier season increases the vulnerability of tender buds to spring frost. There is an upside: Red grapes have matured more reliably, leading to better quality even when yields were lower because of extreme weather. That may have lessened a sense of urgency on climate-change adaptation.
But after April, that urgency is palpable.
Beginning with that 2003 heat wave, Drouhin noticed his family’s older vineyards fared better in extreme weather than younger plantings of various clones of pinot noir and chardonnay that were in fashion throughout the 1990s. In 2008, Maison Drouhin joined 50 other wineries in an effort to identify and propagate older strains of vines before they die off. This year, that group is expanding its program to additional nurseries to get this older genetic material into more vineyards.
“We have a fantastic database of 560 strains of pinot noir and 250 of chardonnay,” Drouhin says. They will also be researching how different rootstocks fare under changing temperatures and extreme conditions and whether reducing the number of vines per hectare will strengthen vineyard health, he said.
This is a different approach than in Bordeaux, where growers are experimenting with outside varieties, such as Portugal’s touriga nacional, to see if the grapes might adapt to the region’s climate and produce wines stylistically akin to what we recognize as bordeaux. Burgundy is focusing inward, looking to its oldest and most venerable vines for an ancient answer to a modern menace.
“We do have to be open-minded, though,” Drouhin says. So the BIVB will sponsor research into crossbreeding pinot noir and chardonnay with other varieties with ancient history in Burgundy. Those include cesar, gamay and even trousseau, a trendy red variety native to the Jura region of southeastern France. “These are not GMO,” he stressed, referring to genetic modification of crops. “This is crossbreeding to see how they fare over several years in our changing conditions.”
Results won’t come soon. “The scale of time for a vineyard is not three years, it’s at least 10 years,” Drouhin said. “But climate change is progressing at a greater pace than the research we are doing. So we cannot waste time.”
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