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How Climate Change is Altering Burgundy’s Wine Identity

From left, Winegrower in Cote de Beaune. / Photo courtesy of BIVB Michel Joly; Chablis cluster. / Photo courtesy of BIVB Sebastien Boulard

Whether the perfumed, chiseled Pinot Noir of Chambolle-Musigny, or the steely Chardonnay of Chablis, Burgundy’s classic wines are icons of typicity. These are wines that are so distinctive, they could only come from Burgundy.

Notions of terroir—the unique soil, topography and climate of each vineyard—and a wine’s typicity, or how faithfully it reflects its origin and grape variety, are central to Burgundy’s identity. So much so that terroir and typicity are fundamental to how the region developed its hierarchy of crus, or demarcated vineyards also known as climats, classified by quality based on centuries of winegrowing history.

Climate is a large part of what defines terroir, and Burgundy is one of the world’s great archetypes for cool-climate viticulture. Whether red or white, classic Burgundian wines are distinguished by their finesse, raciness and pristine fruit profiles, a tension and verve attributed to grapes cultivated in cool climates.

With warming climates, however, the expression of Burgundy’s classic wines has changed significantly, challenging core notions of typicity and terroir, and perhaps even the sustainability of Burgundy’s historic hierarchy.

From left, Vine plantings. / Photo courtesy of BIVB Aurelien Ibannez; Cluster of Chardonnay grapes. / Photo by: Michel Joly of BIVB

A Riper Shade

While climate change has introduced catastrophic flooding, frost and drought around the globe, it’s also introduced a pattern of extraordinarily dry, sunny vintages that have been commercial blockbusters for Burgundy.

This pattern is indisputable, as scientists and historians have traced near-annual records of grape harvest dates to 1354. Since the late 1980s, researchers say, growing seasons have become significantly warmer. Contemporary harvest dates are two weeks earlier than in the previous six centuries.

“The greatest problem of our ancestors was to reach [grape] ripeness,” says Frédéric Drouhin, the president of the Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB) and president of the executive board of Joseph Drouhin, a leading domaine that produces wine throughout the region.

The hot, dry vintages that were celebrated outliers in the past are increasingly the new normal in Burgundy. “We now produce more often good vintages than bad,” says Drouhin. Compared to 20 years ago, growers are harvesting grapes much riper, with higher sugar accumulation and physiological ripeness of tannins and grape skins.

Historically, Burgundy’s best climats, its storied premier cru or grand cru vineyards, were demarcated based on outperforming terroir known for consistent grape ripening and resulting typicity. However, with warmer growing seasons throughout Burgundy, grape ripening has improved everywhere, from the humblest regional Bourgogne appellation to village-level, premier cru and grand cru designations.

Contemporary Burgundy wines, both red and white, are riper and richer than ever before. They are bolder in fruit concentration and higher in alcohol but also softer in acidity and tannins. Many of these changes have been embraced by winegrowers.

In Chablis, Chardonnay has become “much more expressive,” says Anne Moreau, co-owner with her husband, Louis, of Domaine Louis Moreau. “[There’s] more roundness and fruitiness,” she says, with “much more grapefruit notes or tropical fruit, very ripe lime and apricot.”

Similarly, Drouhin suggests that Pinot Noir throughout Burgundy “has gained a ripeness and [a perception of] sweetness” and compared to wines from 20 years ago, “we rarely have green, unpleasant tannins that don’t soften or ripen with age.” Contemporary Burgundy is more seductive and charming young, but also likely to age well, he says.

Cotes-de-Beaune vineyard sown grass. / Photo by: Aurélien Ibanez of BIVB

Defining Typicity, Past and Present

While welcomed by many, the new normal of a riper, more potent Burgundy challenges notions of typicity central to Burgundy’s identity.

“With climate change, we produce wines [with alcohol levels] closer to 13.5% abv than 12.5% abv,” says Drouhin.

And with jammier, even tropical, expressions of wine more common in Burgundy, the oft-discussed fear among winemakers is that Burgundy may someday taste more like Châteauneuf-du-Pape or other southerly, Mediterranean wines.

Burgundy’s first formal wine classification was developed in 1861. Even prior to that, however, winegrowers in Burgundy associated typicity as a quality of a vineyard.

In 1936, this classification became the basis for Burgundy’s Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). Today, typicity is still a baseline characteristic in determining whether a climat is considered generically representative of Burgundy as a basic Bourgogne or village-level wine, or exceptional enough to merit a premier cru or grand cru designation.

Defining typicity over centuries of winegrowing, however, has noticeable pitfalls. Climate conditions today are undeniably different from how they were in the 19th and early 20th century. While the terroir envisioned by Burgundy’s classification system is frozen in time, the typicity of wines produced there have arguably changed.