A winegrower’s job is never easy, and every vintage presents its own unique challenges. Be it excessive rain, some new pest, severe drought, heat, or mildew, environmental obstacles necessitate constant diligence and creativity on the part of the vigneron. Having heard reports of a widespread and devastating spring frost in France, we headed into our recent tour of Burgundy, Alsace, the Jura, and the Valais with heavy hearts, prepared to receive the worst imaginable news about the 2016 vintage.
Fortunately, as is always the case in wine, nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems on the surface. While the frost did indeed devastate certain zones of the Cote d’Or, many vineyards were left relatively unscathed. Furthermore, after an aberrantly cold, gloomy spring and early summer, July and August brought plenty of sunshine and heat, and most of our growers—on the brink of harvest during our tour—were optimistic about the quality of the surviving grapes.
The April frost, however, was far from the only curveball the 2016 growing season hurled. Sporadic hail affected certain zones of the Cote de Beaune, and the Beaujolais and Maconnais were buffeted by several immense hailstorms between mid-April and late-July. Furthermore, a freakishly warm winter leading into a miserably cold and wet spring set the stage for rampant mildew, necessitating far more treatments in the vineyards than a typical growing season. As Agnes de Launay of Domaine Meix Foulot in Mercurey so succinctly put it, “2016 was exhausting”—and one could sense that exhaustion in the growers’ demeanors and faces throughout the tour.
That said, the growers had no choice but to battle the tough conditions of the growing season the best they could, and to carry through with the harvest knowing that their production levels (and profits), in many cases, will be negligible. The 2016 vintage is a stark reminder that one can never take for granted this substance upon which we have built our lives—but it is also an uplifting testament to the perseverance, stoicism, and willpower possessed by the greatest practitioners of this ancient craft.
On the morning of April 27th, after an unseasonably warm winter, a killing frost descended on a large portion of the Cote d’Or. Simon Rollin described the frost as a dramatic 20-minute affair that was carried in by a strong wind from the west. The frost, then, was most devastating in those areas of the Cote least protected by hillsides.
Cruelly, and as has often been the case over the past near-decade, the Cote de Beaune felt the effects of the frost somewhat more heavily than the Cote de Nuits. The unprotected areas below Saint-Aubin and the vineyards below the Hautes Cotes de Beaune were crushed, and the sector of southern Puligny-Montrachet through northern Chassagne-Montrachet was hit very hard, including significant damage in Montrachet itself. Jacques Carillon will likely produce no Bienvenues-Batard Montrachet in 2016, and he reported 90% losses in his two vineyards in Chassagne-Montrachet. Jean-Marc Pillot reported 100% losses in his northern Chassagne premier crus of Chenevottes, Vergers, and Macherelles, while he fared slightly better further south in Baudines, Morgeot, and Caillerets.
The frost also ravaged many parts of Pernand-Vergelesses and Savigny-les-Beaune. It was heartbreaking to walk through Rollin’s vineyards with Remi and Simon, witnessing only a single bunch here and there, and seeing the look of resignation and disappointment on their faces as they talked about the season’s difficulties. The ever-affable Jean-Michel Jacob expects to make only 10% of a normal crop—though, as an example of the randomness and unpredictability of these sorts of calamities, he expects only a 20% reduction in his Hautes-Cotes de Beaune Rouge.
Adding insult to injury, the warm winter and the wet spring created a perfect environment for mildew to thrive and spread—perhaps the worst vintage for mildew in at least two decades. Christophe Drag of Domaine Jean Chauvenet in Nuits-Saint-Georges had to apply no fewer than 11 treatments throughout the season, for instance, and other growers reported similar numbers.
Mercifully, July, August, and early September were relatively dry and warm, so the grapes—far behind in their development due to a late flowering and a cold spring—were able to catch up, and the threat of mildew was somewhat reduced. Heading into the late-September harvest, many growers were far more optimistic about the potential for producing high-quality wines in 2016 (at least from what bunches remained post-frost!) than one would expect, given the nonstop barrage of challenges and headaches throughout the season.
Fortunately, frost was less of an issue in these more southerly zones of Burgundy. Unfortunately, hail was a devastating force in 2016, with a series of hailstorms between mid-April and late-July wreaking havoc, especially in the Beaujolais. Domaine de la Chapelle des Bois was hit tragically hard, experiencing total loss in Chiroubles and near-total loss in Fleurie while the new holdings in Morgon were damaged but less dramatically. To put it into perspective, harvest at Chapelle des Bois typically takes 30 workers 12 days to complete; in 2016, 20 workers brought in all the viable fruit in a single day. Interestingly, Juliénas was largely spared, and Pascal Granger reported only a 10% production loss in 2016.
Our producers in the Maconnais suffered extensive loss as well. Nicolas Cheveau anticipates a loss of 80% of the crop in the vineyards around Solutré. Late-breaking news from Benjamin Thevenet in Pierreclos provides a somewhat brighter outlook as the overall loss in the St. Véran vineyards appears to be limited to 30%. To a person, all are deeply grateful for the favorable weather in September that compensates to some small degree for the excruciatingly trying conditions that dominated the spring-time climate.
While the warm winter, cold spring, late flowering, and mildew problems affected the Jura and Alsace as much as they did Burgundy, temperatures on April 27th did not drop low enough for any frost to set in (though they came very close). Furthermore, these regions were largely spared the hail that affected many zones further west. The biggest challenge of 2016 for the growers here was the incredible amount of rainfall—Joseph Dorbon in Arbois reported that it rained every single day during a two-week stretch in June, and he could not even get into his vineyards to treat for mildew during that period because it was simply too muddy. Dorbon, who works entirely organically, also treated 10 times in 2016, and stated that conventional-viticulture practitioners generally treated 15 or more times. Interestingly, Jean-Sébastien Schoech in Ammerschwihr reported that the mildew was not actually an awful thing to have occurred, since the vines were far too productive after such a rainy spring—and where there were no effects of mildew, there were simply too many grapes. Harvest in Alsace for Schoech and Bechtold will most likely be a long, drawn-out affair, a stop-and-start process that may cover the better part of a month.
We will update this report as word trickles back from the growers after the alcoholic fermentations have finished and each has a more precise idea of the extent of the loss and the quality of what by then is in the cellar.