When the Furies got the shears in their hands
The number one axiom in Burgundy is that the place of growth overwrites the variety. In 2016, the terroir even overwrote the vintage evaluation. Or, putting it more precisely, it made it pointless. What happened was that at the end of April, for a couple of hours, mother nature had a fit of revengeful rage and practically beheaded the wine region. It went below zero at dawn on the 27th. Then, the light of the rising sun, which the ice intensified as if it were a magnifying glass, burnt the tender buds and shoots. It didn’t happen everywhere and not in equal measures – paradoxically, the best plots suffered the most serious damage. And from this point on, the vintage broke into thousands of threads, with as many results as vineyards and as many experiments for solutions from as many winemakers.
The story’s framework might seem boringly familiar – every second year something similar happens in Burgundy: a meteorological disaster strikes in the spring causing dramatic damage, then nice weather arrives and the grapes pull themselves together. Then, at the time of the harvest, it turns out that the outstanding quality makes up for the modest quantity. However, the trivial story had a few other twists and turns in 2016.
On the eve of April 26th, the weather was rainy around Beaune, however, during the night the sky cleared up, and by dawn the temperature dropped to between –2° and –6°C. In the morning, sparkling sunshine broke on the prisms of the ice lenses and burnt the weak bursts and buds. The result: in one-quarter of the vineyards, the damage was larger than 70 per cent, on 16,000 hectares the loss of crop was 30 per cent. The frost behaved differently than the usual script, throwing out the logic of geological makings – it practically beheaded the wine region: it didn’t rip through the lower recesses but caused havoc on the higher locations.
It wrecked such legendary vineyards as the Montrachet, the Chambertin and the Musigny. At Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the yield of the Échezeaux and the Grands Échezeaux turned out at 6 and 7 hectolitres per hectare. Moreover, following the frost, rain came that went on for weeks, and in the damaged and weakened vineyards, downy mildew caused even larger damage than the frost. There were places where they had to spray 15 times within a month, and a lot of organically cultivating winemakers had to renounce the classification, so that they had something left to harvest.
The story of Thibault Liger-Belair started with 8 hectares of vineyards in 2001. The soil was grey, dead and hard like concrete. For his first step, Thibault banished the chemicals, then in 2004, he discovered biodynamics for himself and life returned to the deceased landscape. According to his credo, there is no universal recipe, biodynamic cultivation is not a miracle, all vineyards require individual treatment, and fine-tuning is the task of both the grape grower and the winemaker. The new ‘green’ winery was inaugurated in 2017. The winery uses electricity provided by a ‘sunflower’ constructed by solar-panel petals, and stabilizing the temperature was solved by six geothermal holes, while the building itself was 95% built from recycled materials. The aim in the long run is to have a winery that works with zero environmental burden and a huge step forward towards achieving this is that they purify the water they use and put it back to the soil.
Apart from the 8 hectares of his own grapes, Thibault Liger-Belair also rents 10 hectares – the wines come from 23 locations altogether. First, the style of the wines was characterised by roundness, fullness and flavour-richness, though during the last few years, they have become more refined and they bring out the characteristics of the places of growth more vividly. Thibault’s next big plan is to set up a gene bank, collecting and saving the old Burgundy varieties and clones.
From that point on, winemakers could easily find themselves as if they were in a Sudoku puzzle, where all the decisions brought along another array of questions: whether they could use the bunches from the second blossoming, and if yes, how many steps should they carry out the harvest in. Then, how should they blend the fractions, in what proportions should they destem, what the fate of the micro-batches that by themselves were miniscule should be. While the majority of winemakers were busy with minimising the damage, those lucky few who escaped the calamity were preparing for an excellent-quality vintage with usual quantity. Summer arrived in June: the sky cleared up and the weather remained warm and dry until September. They started harvesting the Chardonnay on September 15th, the Pinot Noir a week later.
Coupled with the undisturbed summer weather, the very low yield resulted in good quality grapes. The skins remained healthy: they only had to pay attention to the unripe berries on the sorting table. The red wines generally became great: they are characterised by fresh fruity character, strawberry, cherry aromas, lively acids, good balance and ripe tannins. Some winemakers think that compared to the warm 2015 vintage, the 2016 wines are more precise and they convey the vineyards’ character differences better.
The whites generally feel riper and denser than the vintages of the last few years at the same age. Still, the type of vibration that makes the big Burgundy whites so special is there in the best wines. They are possibly not as outstanding as the reds, however, there is such a huge demand for whites that this vintage will not be collecting dust on the shelves for long either.