LA DAME NATURE LE FERA À CA MANIÈRE: 2016 BOURGOGNE
Words and Photographs by Sarah Boisjoli
I make this dad-joke to guests at my bar pretty frequently when they’re on the fence about ordering another glass of wine or beer: “Oh it’s mostly water so don’t worry about it!”
Chemically speaking, that’s true kind of in the same sense that it’s true to say that humans are mostly made of water: the kind of truth that totally misses the complexity of a thing. Grape vines use energy from the sun to trap water they pull from the soil in their berries which get pressed and whose resulting juice is fermented into wine. Obviously this is a vast over-simplification of a much more complex and nuanced process but the fact remains that an elemental key to making wine (or beer, rum, cider etc for that matter) is the presence of water. Where things get a bit complicated in this process is exactly where they always seem to get complicated for human beings: in attempting to control the behavior of all that elemental water and the forms that it takes.
April is not a particularly compelling time to travel to Burgundy. There’s not much action. No one is making wine yet and we’re half a year away from harvest. But, it’s my birthday, I’m turning thirty and that’s traumatizing enough so I’m not trying to let it happen in Trumps America. So we arrive in Meursault to a peaceful scene. Buds are breaking on vines, not quite ready to mature into fruit and the wine from the previous vintage is in barrel resting and maturing. In fact everyone seems still to be resting and taking respite from the drama of the previous vintage; 2016 in Burgundy was harrowing by all accounts.
Our first stop is at Domaine Marc Rougeot. His family has farmed their 14 hectares of vine in Burgundy for five generations. You really feel Burgundy standing on this property and looking at it. Some of its newest architectural structures are older than New York’s most ancient. It feels established, immovable and largely immune and untouched by the world’s significant dramas over time. It’s serene and pastoral and perfect. At least on its surface. “C’est sublime!” I say a bit breathlessly. He responds, crushing marly soil in his hands and then letting it fall back where it belongs: “Oui. Mais c’est dure.” Yes. It’s beautiful. But it’s hard. Marc looks over the small collection of vines on his property with reverence and just a little torture; some combination of love, respect, maybe a bit of skepticism and definitely a lot of surrender to the idea that despite the care and attention he gives them they, like he, are slaves to a force of nature beyond his control. Mother Earth operates to accommodate her tempers. When she’s angry, she has her ways of letting us know and 2016 in Burgundy was a hard lesson in that concept.
Rougeot’s is a small family run operation with an appropriately small cellar. My expectation as we climb down is to be fighting for real estate and knocking elbows clumsily as we taste through wines. On the contrary. His cellar is very comfortable. Roomy. A bit too roomy. We taste through the 2015 offering still maturing in barrel at least for another month or so: Pommard Clos de Roses, Volnay Santenots 1er Cru, Monthelie Les Toisières, Meursault Charmes 1er Cru. They are everything they should be. Even the Passe-Tout-Graines reconciles everything I felt and saw just outside in the vines to the wine in the glass. There are 40 or so barrels in cellar and as I walk through reading dusty labels I realize they’re all from the 2015 vintage. I ask where they are keeping the 2016 vintage and Marc gestures maybe a bit sheepishly at a collection of 10 or so barrels segregated from the rest: “C’est tout ce que nous pourrions faire”- it was all we could do.
In good or bad vintages, water is among the most important aspects of winemaking. Are the soils draining enough to make the vines work hard enough to yield interesting fruit? What about the fruit? Too much water yields a diluted pressing too low in sugar for the yeast to be well fed and happily turning it into alcohol. Not enough water results in a flabby wine with too much alcohol and not enough acid. But this is all assuming the water is cooperating with the process and is in a liquid state. Hail bludgeons vines, knocking fruit off and battering roots and branches. If it strikes early enough in the season, before significant fruit sets, careful farmers and winemakers can coax the damaged vines back to health. Late season frost, too, poses a threat covering berries and puncturing their thin skins with its icy crystals causing the fruit to become too dehydrated to yield enough juice to ferment. These are extreme examples with water taking some of its fiercest forms. But it can be impactful and damaging even in more demure expressions: One early morning while in Meursault I look over the hilly vineyards that can be seen from our window and a light fog hangs and dips in and out of small valleys. The moisture in the air softens the early morning light and the hard edges of stoney medieval architecture. For a tourist, it’s an ideal vista. For a winemaker, fog, however romantic or beautiful to look at, is a harbinger for mildew too much of which can irrevocably threaten a vine’s ability to produce healthy fruit.
2016 in most parts of Burgundy offered a perfect storm of all of these. Hail early in the vintage. Early enough that though vines sustained extensive damage, they could be redeemed for the vintage to some degree. But then, a moist and moody spring wracked the already struggling vines with mildew and last, a frost unlike had been seen in a generation left the vines sparse and the yields tragically low. It’s quite easy to write this kind of vintage off. They can’t all be perfect with all elements, water and sun and heat and cold, in harmony with one another. Bad vintages are part and parcel of being a winemaker. And this is true but it’s a truth, once again, that completely misses the complexity of a thing. Marc Rougeot, when explaining the whole ordeal is regretful and disappointed about the outcome of the vintage, but largely taking it on the chin and in good humor throws up his hands a bit and surrenders, “La Dame Nature le fera à ca manière”. Mother Nature will do as she pleases. This statement gets us closer to the truth.
Bad vintages happen. They always have. But they’ll become the norm as elements in our environment, as a result of our having tampered with them too aggressively, become disharmonious. The storied wines of Burgundy, largely unbothered by time and technology won’t escape the fate we are sealing for ourselves or the whims of la Dame Nature.