WINE isn’t what it used to be, especially white Burgundy. There is no doubt that over the last few decades standards in both vineyards and wineries have risen enormously.
Obviously faulty wines, once unacceptably commonplace are now rare.
But some of the best wines have lost the capacity to age in the bottle that they once had. Although other white wines seem to show a similar problem, the problem is so acute in Burgundy that the industry has felt moved to invest in research programmes to try to understand why their wines have become so subject to “premature oxidation”.
You might feel that such a problem is a bit esoteric. After all, the vast majority of us do not buy fine wines to lay down, but it does raise important issues about the effect of climate change, about the long-term detrimental effects of using chemical fertilisers and herbicides and rather fascinatingly, it suggests that some squeaky-clean modern winemaking techniques may not be all they’re cracked up to be.
The old methods seemed to have produced more robust, age-worthy wines.
I was privileged to be present at a seminar in London earlier this month, when four leading Burgundy winemakers, Bernard Hervet, Dominique Lafon, Benjamin Leroux and Etienne de Montille, spoke candidly about these and other problems and discussed how to make the best Burgundy wine.
Every time a group of wine professionals get together to chew the cud it’s only a matter of time before the subject of the effects of climate change is raised.
Even if there’s still some disagreement about why the changes are taking place, their impact is undeniable. We face more extreme weather events through the growing season. Harvests are earlier, sugar levels are higher and acids lower.
In Burgundy, growers used to worry about how much sugar they needed to add to make their wines strong enough. Now they fret about whether or not to add tartaric acid to ensure that they are juicy enough to be refreshing.
The Burgundy expert and Master of Wine, Jasper Morris, who chaired the seminar argues that the effects of abusing the land with too much chemical fertiliser may also have exacerbated the problem by altering the chemical balance of the soil.
It is true that one of the changes noticed by those who have converted their land to an organic regime is a steady recovery of the acid levels in their wine. But the changes in winemaking are intriguing. These days, winemakers like to work with very clean juice.
The traditional method of making white Burgundy was to de-stem the grapes and crush them before loading them into the press. This enabled the juice to absorb more of the tannins from the grape skins, which helped to protect the wine from oxidation.