A Burgundy Wine Producer: Surviving Tariffs, Covid And 40% Loss Of Yields

Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

The past year and a half has been a challenging one for many across the world with waves of the tide of coronavirus shutdowns, illnesses and deaths coming and going with intervals of brief breaks that would hint at normalcy here and there. No one can argue with the idea that this pandemic has been a devastating tragedy on many levels that has had a big impact on loss of life, on long-term health and the decimation of employment for many as well as livelihoods that were intrinsically part of business owners’ sense of self and main purpose in life. Everyone at a certain point has to deal with their lives in some form being shattered into a thousand pieces and each person will need to find a way to go on once they face that moment in their lives. This time, the world has to do just this at the same time… and for some they are actually finding a way to renew their work and personal lives with a different perspective that is energetic in ways that many haven’t felt in years.

The legendary wine producer Bouchard Père & Fils in Burgundy, France, has had many obstacles over the last couple of years that started in October 2019 with the U.S. imposing tariffs on French products, as well as other European goods, that hit the wine sector hard. Wine is a low-margin business and so any dents in profits can be devastating especially when it comes in a marketplace that an export country greatly depends on, such as the U.S., not to mention that France has spent much of its resources and money establishing a good trading relationship with America. A few months ago these tariffs were suspended and so now Bouchard is getting ready to release their 2019 Burgundy 1er Cru, Grand Cru and lieux-dits (vineyards with historical importance) after riding out some tough waves.

When Mother Nature and the Market are Both in Turmoil

After a very intense and stressful 2019 vintage in the vineyards Bouchard Père & Fils cellar master, Frédéric Weber, looked forward to his annual exciting trip to the U.S. giving him a brief break to talk to sommeliers, wine buyers and media people who loved Burgundy and always greatly looked forward to tasting their 1er Cru and Grand Cru wines as a preview; for Frédéric it is always a thrill to go to varying U.S. cities where the surroundings are very different from the agricultural villages of Côte d’Or, Burgundy. It is a true gift for Frédéric to travel to a city like New York and he could have never imagined such trips while growing up in his small town in Alsace, in northeastern France.

Frédéric Weber Visit to NYC in March of 2020
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

But when he came to New York City on March 9th in 2020, it was a visit unlike any before as it was just the time that the positive Covid cases in NYC started escalating exponentially and by March 16th and 17th schools and non-essential businesses were closed respectively. This visit would be one filled with confusion of how such a thing of finding oneself in the middle of a pandemic could ever happen that was only made more stressful with 25% tariffs on one’s wines that was being threatened to increase to 100% at any time; 2019 and 2020 will go down as two of the most difficult years that could happen side by side for Frédéric as cellar master for Bouchard Père & Fils.

2019 Vintage

Traditionally, a difficult Burgundy wine vintage would mean wet weather (that could cause mildew) or frost as well as cool temperatures that would make achieving ripeness for the grapes difficult, but things have changed. Burgundy can certainly still have wet, cool weather but over the past couple of decades they have found themselves with warmer vintages and it has been a blessing of sorts as ripeness is no longer a consistent issue but warmer, dried weather can have its own potential negatives. The 2019 vintage had issues with both cold, wet weather and dry, warm weather that would sometimes be erratic in its timing and overall would cause a yield loss of 40%1 for Bouchard Père & Fils wines.

Frédéric talked about the milder temperatures in February and March in 2019 that made bud burst come early, “two weeks earlier than 2018” but frost hit in April which caused “mixed damage”. Then the rest of spring was “much cooler than usual” and so the flowering was delayed until early June which overall caused millerandage – a.k.a hens and chicks – irregular fruit set in which the berries on a grape cluster are not uniform in size – that affected some of the Pinot Noir bunches but mainly the Chardonnay grapes.

But the Pinot Noir was more affected by the combination of “hot temperatures, wind and drought” that took place a few days before harvest causing more concentration in the grapes as the water evaporated out of them. 2019 was a vintage that was all over the place and Frédéric was thankful that, at Bouchard, they have vineyard workers who have been working the same section of a vineyard “all his life”; and so even in a vintage that cannot be compared to another in how the life cycle progressed, the workers know the vines so well that they can intuitively adapt vineyard management to what the vines need.

The Things that Stand the Test of Time

Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

At the time of getting crushed by them, challenges can seem like a nightmare that is difficult to process physically and mentally but sometimes they can eventually bring out the best in a person, or a wine for that matter. There is no doubt that Frédéric and Bouchard Père & Fils have been relentlessly challenged and only recently getting a chance to catch a breath but in a wonderful turn of events, Frédéric hasn’t felt this excited about tasting Bouchard reds since that time he went to their cellar and tasted a 1949 Beaune Grèves ‘Vigne de L’Enfant Jésus’ as there is a unique combination of richness with “very round tannins” that still has lots of acidity and layered aromatics in the 2019s – it is a vintage that has reignited the magic of it all for Frédéric.

Frédéric is always very careful of how many whole clusters he will use in fermenting Pinot Noir bunches, as although it depends on the vineyard and vintage, he typical errs on the side of caution and uses only a small percentage of whole cluster. But in general, the seeds of the Pinot Noir grapes had a “beautiful coffee and mocha” note and so he increased whole cluster fermentation from 25% to 40% for the Côte de Beaune wines and to over 50% for the Côte de Nuits wines. Of course not all winemakers agree when to use more or less whole clusters but Frédéric is firmly on the side of making the quality of the stems and seeds the most important factor.

There are many things over the years that have overwhelmed the humble Frédéric Weber with exhilarating joyous moments that includes working for one of Burgundy’s oldest wine merchants and largest landowners in the Côte d’Or, or traveling to exciting places far and wide, or being able to drink the most exquisite liquid that was made while France was recovering from World War II…  it would seem that Frédéric already had enough thrills in life with his almost two decades with Bouchard that it was time to settle in and live off of the thrills of the past yet Bouchard’s iconic 1er Cru and Grand Cru vineyards continue to astonish him with new challenges that come with unlocking more nuanced complexity and concentration. And just like how Bouchard was able to make great 1949 wines that still live on today, after so much loss and pain they have done it again with the numerous set of challenges of 2019 and 2020. Frédéric says that he always takes comfort that Bouchard has been around for close to 300 years, and just like the French spirit, it cannot be so easily defeated.   

This article was originally published in Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2021/07/29/a-burgundy-wine-producer-surviving-tariffs-covid-and-40-loss-of-yields/?sh=3b01790ccefa

Bouchard Père & Fils has a total of over 320 acres (130 hectares) and they will all become certified organic in 2024. 

Bouchard Père & Fils tastes the reds before the whites and hence the tasting order below.

Reds

2018 Bouchard Père & Fils, Premier Cru, Beaune du Château, Côte de Beaune: Yes, that is correct, this is the 2018 and the only 2018 in the lineup as it was just recently released into the market – it is a richer vintage as well with less acidity than 2019 so interesting to compare; aromas of loamy earth, ash and smoldering cedar with brooding fruit on the nose with lush blackberry on the palate that had added notes of forest floor and cocoa powder.

2019 Bouchard Père& Fils, Premier Cru, Beaune Clos de la Mousse, Côte de Beaune (Domaine/Monopole): Fresher on the nose than the 2018 Beaune du Château with pretty floral notes such as dried flowers, fresh sage and espresso hints with layers of warming black fruit and lush tannins and a touch of sandalwood on the finish. This is one of Frédéric’s favorite vineyards as it is very old and it has had vines growing there since the 12th century.

2019 Bouchard Père & Fils, Premier Cru, Beaune Grèves ‘Vigne de L’Enfant Jésus’, Côte de Beaune (Domaine/Exclusivity): Cappuccino aromas with wild truffles and blackcurrant jam with round texture and juicy cassis flavors with good weight on the mid-palate that had vivid fruit and crisp acidity on the finish.

2019 Bouchard Père & Fils, Premier Cru, Volnay Les Caillerets, Côte de Beaune (Domaine): A spicy wine – baking spice, cinnamon bark, pretty cherry blossom notes and a plush body, finishing with crumbly earth aromas. This was the first vineyard that was purchased by Bouchard Père & Fils in 1775 who became wine merchants in 1731.

2019 Bouchard Père & Fils, Grand Cru, Le Corton, Côte de Beaune (Domaine): Really lifted with star anise and jasmine tea. It had the most weight and overall plush quality in this lineup with a continued floral lift on the finish.

Whites

Frédéric noted that making the white “was a little bit more challenging” for the 2019 vintage as it needed more time in his opinion. The whites were a little too “opulent and rich” for his taste but they still have high acidity due to the millerandage (a few underripe acidic berries with riper ones) and so he has given the white wines more time to age in barrels until they become more “focused” and he can sense more of the terroir and hence why the wines are being released later this year compared to previous years; many of the Grand Cru whites are actually still aging in large, neutral barrels.

2019 Bouchard Père & Fils, Meursault ‘Les Clous’, Côte de Beaune (Domaine): This lieu-dit (historically named vineyard) is an atypical Meursault as it is usually linear instead of rich like other Meursault wines and in 2019 it has electric acidity as one would expect but also has ripe golden apple and pear cobbler flavors with a touch of almond paste. So this year it is rich yet still electric.

2019 Bouchard Père & Fils, Premier Cru, Beaune Clos Saint-Landry, Côte de Beaune (Domaine/Monopole): Toasted coconut shavings and grilled pineapple with green mango zing on the palate and sesame oil lingering on the finish.

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