By Alex Fondren
When I booked my trip to Burgundy in late August, things were looking pretty bleak for the region. There was an awful hailstorm in June that undid much of the hopeful tone that had been set by the warm, arid (too-good-to-be-true) conditions that preceded it. After three incredibly small harvests, vintners had been feeling tentatively optimistic about the size of 2014’s crop, but the June hail ravaged large chunks of the Côte de Beaune and many international harvest workers (myself included) were told to stand-by before making their travel plans.
The damage to protective leaf-cover was not helped by July’s subsequent heat, sun and humidity. Clusters that survived June’s hail then had to contend with sunburn and constant threats of mildew. August was cold and rainy, with very little sun to help the grapes along in their ripening.
Unlike much of California, it’s almost always a struggle to ripen grapes in Burgundy, so when conditions are poor – there is little that can be done to salvage the crop. Vintners in Pommard, Savigny, Volnay and Meursault braced themselves for another belt-tightening year. At the time that I booked my flight, Burgundy authority Clive Coates, MW had just written, “The more 2014 advances, the more depressing it gets”. He also told his readers to keep their fingers crossed for an Indian Summer.
Perhaps Burgundy has Coates’s Burg-worshiping readers to thank for September’s Hail Mary weather conditions, but an Indian Summer was exactly what transpired for the following month, effectively saving the 2014 vintage. Confident vintners let fruit hang on the vine to soak up the temperate sunshine with almost no threat of rain, and the volume problem was no longer an issue. Grace a dieu as the French would say!
Such was the case at Domaine Chandon de Briailles (in Savigny-lès-Beaune) where I was fortunate enough to spend some time this harvest. My schedule only allowed for a week in the cellar in late September - I never imagined there would still be fruit to pick. But lo and behold, there I was on my second day, picking Corton Blanc for the winery’s Grand Cru flagship Chardonnay bottling. The weather was truly spectacular, with warm (but not too warm), sunny days and cool nights that helped preserve the acidity of the grapes.
Chandon de Briailles wrapped up picking over a week later than almost all of their neighbors up and down the Côte as we waited for pH levels to go up (and acid levels to go down). According to assistant winemaker Christian Knott, alcohols usually hover around 13% for the Domaine’s wines and thanks to the late sunshine, this year will be no different. Having spent time in the cellar in Napa, it was such a change of pace to hear winemakers talk of struggling to reach certain sugar and alcohol levels (rather than struggling to control them). Vive la difference!
I was introduced to the wines of Chandon de Briailles a little over a year ago and have been impressed with the elegant, nuanced house style with every bottle I’ve enjoyed. The Domaine has been in the same family since 1834 (and belongs to the Count and Countess Aymard-Claude de Nicolay and their children). The Count inherited it from his grandmother, Countess Chandon de Briailles, herself related to the famous Champagne house of Moët et Chandon. The family owns 13.7 hectares (37 acres) across Savigny-lès-Beaune, Pernand-Vergelesses and Aloxe-Corton.
Biodynamic and organic, it was incredible to see the level of attention that goes into each and every cluster. With no sorting table, the sorting goes on in the vineyard, where pickers, friends and neighbors come together to pick the grapes (in between generous breaks for local cheese, saucisson, baguettes and of course vin ordinaire, drunk straight from the bottle…often at 10am…).
The winemaking team was attempting to improvise a gravity-flow cellar to be as gentle with the grapes as possible – a noble pursuit in a cellar that old. I became fairly intimate with two modest tanks of Grand Cru Corton Bressandes, especially after a few rounds of pigeage (grape-stomping) done in the traditional (read: short pants or sous-vetements) manner. Between that and the destemming process (which involves digging out almost the entire tank with a shovel) I have 2014 Corton Bressandes to thank for working off all those mid-day Époisses breaks.
2014 is now being touted as the best since 2009, with “intensely aromatic” whites and “concentrated” reds as the vintage hallmarks. I can attest that the mood up and down the Côte was fairly jovial by the time I left. I had of course read about it, but being there and experiencing first-hand how little each Domaine has to work with each harvest (and the blood, sweat and tears they pour into that pittance), truly made the financial impact of a bad vintage hit home for the first time. Those of us who moan and complain about Burgundy prices would do well to remember that. I know where my money will be – 2014 Burg.
Click each photo to see more of the trip below:
All the Swirl is a collections of thoughts and opinions assembled by the staff and industry friends of Charles Communications Associates, a marketing communications firm with its headquarters in San Francisco, California. We invite you to explore more about our company and clients by visiting www.charlescomm.com.