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September weather saves diminished Burgundy harvest but price rises on way

Published:  12 October, 2016

Burgundy 2016 is likely to deliver a good but not great vintage as cost of hail and frost counted while grapes come in.

As most of the harvest comes to an end in Burgundy this week, much is being written about record-breaking April frost that significantly reduced volumes this year.

Along with hail that cut Chablis production by half - and cases of mildew and later oïdium in some vineyards - the overall harvest is about 30% less than the average, industry representatives said.

Vintners also say that crucial rainfall in mid-September proved significant for harvest quality.

Bourgogne negociant Bouchard Père & Fils, which spans 130 hectares across the region, reported that frost mainly hit precocious vines in the southern Côte de Beaune, while vineyards in the Côte de Nuits were not so affected. Some vineyards lost as much as 90% of the harvest, such as Savigny Les Lavieres, while Corton Charlemagne and Corton were virtually unscathed, with respectable yields of over 30 hectolitres per hectares.

"The 26-27 April frost covered the buds, and the morning's bright sun basically grilled them, because the ice acted as a magnifying glass," said Bouchard director Frederic Weber just a few days after his last grapes were brought into the vat room on 6 October. Cooler parcels of Meursault Les Genevrieres, for example, escaped the frost, while warmer areas with earlier budding did not. As a result, secondary buds yielded later generations of grapes, so that by the time harvesting started on 21 September, careful picking was essential for the some 200 harvesters employed.

Fine weather in August and September led to better-than-expected quality - for those plots not affected by frost or hail. "We had enormous problems with frost and hail and everyone was very fearful, and even if today some vintners are unhappy, others have had little to remove on sorting tables," said Claude Chevalier, vice chairman of the Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne.

"July and August proved to be good months, and September was exceptional," added Chevalier, who also owns Domaine Chevalier in Ladoix-Serrigny.

Weber specifically praised 30mm of rain on 17-18 September because August and part of September were getting too hot and dry. "Early September winds started to shrivel some red grapes, as the berries were very small from the heat, and we saw both stress and arrested development," he said. "The September rain really saved us."

Although some vineyards had little to sort, other domains were careful after grapes were picked. Some Batard Montrachet grapes that arrived to the vat room of the famous Hospices de Beaune domain on 26 September were affected by oïdium, for example, which director Ludivine Griveau removed on the spot.

Extractions were somewhat soft in 2016, Griveau said while overlooking the fermentation of red wine grapes the same day. She explained that ripeness was not as optimal as in 2015, so she was careful not to extract too much tannin from potentially under-ripe grape pips.

As a result, the early verdict is for softer, easier-drinking reds, as compared to 2015. "We tasted some reds at Corton Grancey, with smooth tannins and fine expressions of fruit, although acidities were perhaps just a bit low," remarked Louis-Fabrice Latour, director of the negociant house Maison Louis Latour and president of the Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne.

Comparing Bouchard Père & Fils' Enfant Jesus with the 2015 vintage revealed how 2015 is more concentrated, although the 2016 came across as charming and seductive.

Given lower acidities, Latour said that 2016 could slightly favour reds, but that is was too early to say so definitively. "There may be less concentration for whites at this early stage," Latour added.

But it seemed to depend on microclimates and domains. Some white grapes from Meursault vineyards at Bouchard, for example, reached 13.8 potential degrees of alcohol, albeit yields amounted to just 12 hectolitres per hectare, said Weber. Tasting through fermenting whites, it was clear that the village level Puligny Montrachet, at 12.5 natural degrees and about 4 grams of acidity, showed precision and did not seem to lack verve.

Weber described 2016 as perhaps a cross between 2008 and 2010, whereas 2015 resembles more a cross between 2002 and 2005.

Speaking at a press conference on 7 October, Latour stressed that the vintage, overall, will not likely be "great, but rather very good."

One sure thing, according to Latour, is that prices will go up because of lower volumes - and he was worried about a falling pound for the UK market as a result of Brexit.

The UK, which ranks only second to the US for Burgundy exports, is "vital" for Chablis, which accounts for over 14% of all white Burgundy sold there, Latour said. And even more for whites from Macon, which represent over one-quarter in volume (and nearly 30% in value) of all white Burgundy sold in the UK, according to statistics released that same day.

A combination of price increases and a weaker pound could result in "untenable" pricing, Latour said: "The psychological barrier of £10 per bottle for Macon wines has already been crossed, and we are not sure if we can go any higher."