Helen’s blog

Thoughts and tastings from Helen Savage, wine writer.

Archive for July, 2012

Notes from Burgundy

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

Press trips are almost always a curate’s egg, but it’s surprisingly hard to predict where the good bits will come. On my latest jaunt to Burgundy, thanks to the ‘Discover the Origin’ initiative, some of the visits I imagined would be less interesting came up trumps.

We visited the following domaines Heresztyn (Gevrey-Chambertin), Jospeh Drouhin, Philippe Chapelle et Fils (Santenay), Alain Hasard (Aluze), l’Evêché (Saint Denis-de-Vaux), Joseph Voillot (Volnay), Patrick Javillier (Meursault) and Fougeray de Beauclair (Marsanny). In addition, Denis Fetzmann, technical director of Louis Latour met us at Château Corton Grancey to describe the ‘Paysage de Corton’ programme that he chairs.

Here’s a summary of some of the things I learned:

In the Vineyard

2012 is a difficult season – most growers have already had to carry out more treatments than in normal years. Regular spraying is costly and running up and down with a tractor compacts the soil. Hail damaged the northern part of the Côte de Beaune in the night of June 30/July 1. Up to 80% of the crop was damaged – the worst hit communes included Pommard and Volnay. “Lots of people say they’ve never seen a summer like it,” said Florence Heresztyn.

Vineyard practices may have to change to adapt to global warming. No-one is seriously thinking of giving up on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but it may be necessary to increase the area and height of the canopy to keep sugar levels down, argues Jean-Pierre Charlot (Domaine Voillot). Denis Fetzmann disagrees, but feels that it is mistake to extend the hang time. Phenolic ripeness is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Fetzmann argues that winter pruning should be delayed to reduce the risk of disease, especially Esca. When the sap is rising it helps to protect the cut.

I asked Fetzmann if and when GM yeasts might find their way into the winery. He believes they are already being used …

Those who treat with copper are worried about its long-term impact and are anxious to keep well below the permitted limits.

Marion Javillier suggest that a lightening strike in 2010 hastened the maturation of a plot of Chardonnay – and probably affected its pH.

In the Winery

Pigeage (punching down) continues to give way to remontage (pumping over). Many growers begin with pigeage and then move onto the gentler remontage.

Several growers are keen to introduce a proportion of whole bunches into the fermentation tanks (for red wine). Philippe Chapelle said that it emphasises more red fruit flavours, gives more volume to the wine and makes it more supple.

Sulphur levels are falling. The maximum ppm score anyone admitted to was 80 – the EU maximum is 150ppm for red wine.

Acidification is now commonplace.


While growers like Joseph Voillot can sell all they make, those who farm less prestigious slopes face a very different prospect. Wines sold in bulk to merchants barely cover the cost of production.

Exports to the BRIC countries are increasing, but wise growers selling to Russia, Ukraine and their neighbours demand payment before delivery.

A small vintage like 2011 can be a headache for those who habitually buy in a lot of new barrels. Many had placed their orders on the expectation of a normal yield and were left with expensive barrels that they couldn’t use.

One reason why some growers oppose any move to make Les Rugiens (Pommard) a Grand Cru, according to Jean-Pierre Charlot, is it will then be impossible for anyone but the big merchant firms to buy land. But the price of land on the Grand Cru sites has risen so much that even Frédéric Drouhin admits, “It’s now impossible to afford them even if you have very deep pockets.” But foreign investors, however, are interested. The price for Corton is around €3 million/hectare (not that hectare is likely to come onto the market). Village and premier Cru sites in the Côte d’Or fetch between around €400,000 and €500,000 per hectare.

Frédéric Drouhin estimates that biodynamics costs 20% more than conventional viticulture for 10 to 15% les yield.


Yet again, the quality of the 2010 vintage impressed me. The 2009’s can be impressive – more the reds than the whites – but they don’t show the differences between sites nearly as clearly as 2008, 2010 and the very promising 2011s.

Marion Javillier points out that Chardonnay from clay sites shows oak flavour much more than that grown on soil with a higher percentage of limestone. Her (excellent) wines seemed to bear this out.