La Dame Nature Le Fera á ca Manière

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 the 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. On a recent trip to Burgundy, I had the opportunity to hear first hand about this struggle with the elements that so acutely impacts the wine industry. 

Overlooking Burgundy
Beaune

Arriving in Meursault in April is peaceful. There’s not much action. 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. Marc receives us warmly and speaks about the small collection of vines on his property. 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 worlds significant dramas over time. It’s serene and pastoral and perfect. At least on its surface. I remark a bit breathlessly: “C’est sublime!” 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. 

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Rougoet’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. 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 slightly 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. 

Marc Rougoet Cellar
Marc Rougoet Estate

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 the vines 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 and 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 vines ability to produce healthy fruit. 

Perfect Burgundian Weather

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 wracking the already struggling vines with mildew and last, a frost unlike had been seen in a generation leaving 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 seamless 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 Roegout, 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.