Climate Change in Burgundy: The Wine Conversation featuring Jasper Morris

It’s always a pleasure to get Jasper Morris’ insights into Burgundy – after all he is one of the region’s most distinguished commentators.   We listened to a fascinating podcast, The Wine Conversation, where Jasper caught up with host, Sarah Kemp. Their focus was on his new edition of ‘Inside Burgundy’ which covers 1200 vineyards, 300 villages and 700 domaines. It runs to 800 pages and he only excluded Beaujolais because it would have had to be hand-stitched into the report! In comparison to his last edition (published some ten years ago), this edition goes into far more detail on the lesser villages of the Côte d’Or and Maconnais. 

We were particularly interested by Jasper’s comments and thoughts on the impact of climate change and geology. Burgundy, like many wine regions across the globe, is experiencing a shift in weather, which comes with new obstacles and a change in pace – as we know Burgundy 2020 was the earliest harvest in living memory. Jasper states that there are changing patterns of airflow, meaning that there are fewer warm, mild and wet South West winds and more North-South cold and hot & dry winds. In addition, there is much more extreme weather patterns – think higher temperatures, hail, frosts, heat & sunburn. The hard frost in 2021 has woken up many to the serious threat global warming places on Burgundy as we know it. 

So what are producers doing to combat the effects that climate change poses?  

New vineyard technology has been introduced including electric cables, mobile wind turbines and smudge plots, but these all have their own environmental impact. Some of these methods are not being adopted by sustainability-conscious producers as they pose significant environmental impact. Vine canopy management is vital as this gives protection from direct sun, but there is also water usage to consider. During all of this, Burgundy is also seeing some rootstocks failing as the soil changes and this is causing great concern.  

Winery practices are also adapting to changing acidity and sugar levels. Pinot Noir has been a real challenge, especially since 2018 when we saw overripe, cooked aromas and aggressive underdeveloped tannins in some of the wines (though Tom and Nathan were careful to exclude all traces of these faults from the Honest Grapes selection!) - this makes the picking date is more important now than ever. Meanwhile, Chardonnay will adapt to 15% alcohol levels, far better than Pinot Noir, and Jasper sees a good future for the whites. Whole bunch or part bunch fermentation is also discussed, but the downside to this is a loss of acidity. The upside is that it gives the wines a fresher feel and lower alcohol. This approach is different and leads to an evolution of domain style. In our most recent trip to Burgundy we heard much more about amphora and egg vinification and maturation – styles are sure to branch out and it will be interesting to see the future of ‘Classic Burgundy’ unfold. 

However, we must ask ourselves, are the glory days for Burgundian vintages over? Will every year be a solar vintage with alcohol levels creeping upwards? Is there any serious replacement for Pinot Noir? Jasper thinks not. Hotter drier years are favouring different sites - liking less the well-drained, dryer areas and favouring the heavier soils (e.g. Chassagne Morgeots, Pommard, Aloxe-Corton, and the other side of Gevrey-Chambertin). 

Then there is the renaissance of Aligoté - a truly Burgundian varietal that is famously late ripening, bringing with it freshness with bright acidity. There’s even a group passionately called the Aligoteurs! Single vineyard production is all the rage and quality is great. There is even an argument to blend a certain percentage of Aligoté into Chardonnay as this has historical precedent in famous vineyards. Aligoté is ideal for experimentation, even including some skin contact (though not to be confused with orange wine) and is excellent value for money. 

So how should one find value in Burgundy?  

Jasper recommends hunting for the better producers in lesser-known appellations. He highlights Monthélie, Saint-Romain, the Haut-Cotes and the Maconnais (where production quality is really very good now!). 

And which vintages are ripe and ready for drinking now? 

The Whites: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2016. Keep hold to that 2015 and sit on the 2014 for quite a while. 2017, 2018 and 2020 are designed to live a long life, while 2019 is a bit of a conundrum as it is a bit ripe, so can be drunk early. 

The Reds: It’s more of a mixed picture for reds, with many 2017s drinking beautifully, but will improve with time. Most wines after 2011, however, are not ready to drink yet. 

Jasper Morris Inside Burgundy S2 EP14 - in conversation with Sarah Kemp, November 2021. Listen to the full episode here.