Le Mois des Climats de Bourgogne

19th June 2019

Tags : Burgundy, climats, terroir, globalisation

In 2015 the climats de Bourgogne (the parcels of land which represent the terroirs of Burgundy) were given world heritage designation by UNESCO.  The body which manages this organizes each year a month to celebrate the climats – essentially to promote them.

Today’s event is off a track at the foot of a vineyard in Nuits-St-Georges – les Charmois.  It’s not very prestigious (north-east facing) but attractive, with an incline of vines and beyond forest at the top of the slope.  We are promised a sensory exploration for children (including organic grape juice), the chance to touch and smell the soils from the vineyard, and seesaws to play on!

We’re sitting on a small strip of scrubby land off the track, and this is designed as a family event.  There are children playing in the long grass, face painting, cake and biscuits and, for those who aren’t young enough to play in the grass, wine to taste from one of the more renowned local producers.  There are a number of posters up about the idea of the climats, and some maps of this specific vineyard explaining its terroir, though I’m uncertain how many of those present pay more than passing attention to those.  I’m here because there is going to be a presentation about this particular climat. It’s due to begin at 5pm but I have to wait 25 minutes longer with the others in the heat and dust for it to start.

There are two presenters. One is a historian from the UNESCO chair in the Culture and Traditions of Wine, based at the University of Burgundy, and the other is a local vigneron.  The key focus is on biodiversity in the vineyard and how this designation can help sustain it.  The vigneron talks about his small land-holding from which only 300 bottles come.  He is trying to support the biodiversity of the spot.  They leave flowers amongst the vines all year round and in five or six years hope that they will be able to put beehives alongside their plot.  They are ‘very interventionist with the vines but in the cellar we work very little with the wine.’  The vigneron adds later that ‘the human element is the most important part of the terroir’ – a move away from what was the traditional idea a couple of decades ago.  Today, he argues, you buy savoir faire before anything else; this could be a wine which is produced from many climats.  Thus, he seems to suggest, quality, including the sense of place, is what is guaranteed by the winemaker.

There are about 16 adults listening to this, with flies buzzing around and the noise of the children enjoying themselves on the seesaws.  Quite a few listeners ask questions; one local grower in the audience complains that outsiders are buying land here but they don’t have the savoir faire needed to make good wine. They cannot make true wines because they don’t understand the place or its soul, nor have they experienced its intricacies, history, quirks, and traditions; by implication wine production is just a recipe for them, not a thoughtful response to what nature offers you.

The historian reminds us that it was only with a law passed a century ago that there was a guarantee that you could defend a wine as coming from a specific place.  Before that (with a few early exceptions such as champagne) place names were interpreted very fluidly.  He too underlines that even if we seek quality linked to a place it also comes from the producer; the climat is not just geology.  It is the esprit – the philosophy – which makes the wine, even if the geological structure is identical to neighbouring plots owned by others.

Both the speakers are evidently keen to talk to their community and promote the authenticity of what is made here.  The vigneron comments that the wines of the ‘60s and ‘80s were ‘very chemical’.  Now it is all about organics, quality, place, and continuity with the past – a more distant past, rediscovering the wines made before the 1970s (or maybe even earlier; the era of chemical intervention in the vineyards really took off in the 1950s).  But ‘our vineyards have always been transformed’; they aren’t static.  ‘In the 18th century Domaine de la Romanée Conti brought carts of earth down from the hills above the vineyards to supplement the soil there’.

So, I’m left wondering if savoir faire is now the new weapon to be used against the globalisation of the wine industry (‘globalisation’ is a very dirty word to lots of French people – especially in agriculture).  Twenty years ago the threat was from New World producers.  Now they are often friends, and their wine may be treated with respect.  The new enemies in Burgundy are the rich incomers, often but not always foreign, buying local vineyards.  They have the right terroirs – that can’t be denied.  So what don’t they have?  The local knowledge, the innate understanding born of decades or centuries of what the vineyards are really like and how the local grapes need to be treated.  This argument is probably a little reductionist; I’ve no doubt the two speakers wouldn’t consciously accept that this is what they are doing, but it does make sense in the light of what is happening here.