Nowhere is the concept of "vintage" more important than in France. The word frequently peppers the stuck-up musings of wine snobs, as talk of French rain and sunshine monopolizes lavish dinner-party conversations. Freak occurrences like monster hailstorms, torrential rain — or worse, no rain — can, and often do, destroy harvests, leaving a winery with little or no fruit to work with. Yes, it's tough to feel sorry for Burgundy producers who garner $100 for a single bottle, but they don't have it as easy as consistent California. Draconian laws prevent ever watering the crops, and the unpredictable climate sprouts nerve-racking stress each year. During the 2003 vintage, brutal heat and virtually no rain created in-your-face, concentrated red Burgundies that tasted nothing like the subtle, shy French pinot noirs we know (and buy). The next vintage brought completely different weather and wine results, so collectors follow the reports like a cult leader's teachings.
On a recent harvest visit to Burgundy, I saw firsthand the wrath Mother Nature can inflict on innocent grapes. The 2007 summer provided plenty of rain, but early in the season, hailstorms pummeled many of the expensive northern Burgundy Chablis vineyards. In one of my favorite parcels, Domaine de Vaudon — owned mostly by the family of Maison Joseph Drouhin — 85 percent of the chardonnay grapes were destroyed. Although jovial and optimistic, a tired Denis Mery, Drouhin's vineyard manager in Chablis, said 2007 is the hardest vintage he's seen in 27 years in the business. Similar climate-related issues affected other pricey vineyards, such as Montrachet and Richebourg, which endured mold, rot, and the influx of pests.
For the elements they can control, forward-thinking Burgundian estates are turning to organic farming, although that has its own unique set of complications. In Burgundy, and in many other wine areas of France, one plot of valuable land is often owned by 50-plus different estates, due to French succession laws. In fact, one 37-acre pinot noir vineyard, Clos de Vougeot, is owned by 84 different entities. It's not unusual to have one row of vines tended by one owner and the next by someone totally different. So organic farming seems a bit futile if the guy two feet over still thinks DDT is a good thing. To the unenlightened family farmer who sells his grapes, the chemicals represent a time-saving, crop-maximizing tool, but larger companies such as Drouhin see the long-term benefits of organics. It farms all its 174 acres organically (most are grouped together, so it avoids nonorganic neighbors), overseen by the passionate fourth-generation grape grower Philippe Drouhin. He, along with other Burgundian growers, is trying to spread the organic gospel to the old-school guys.
Other French estates go even further, embracing biodynamic practices. Think organic farming on natural steroids: Biodynamic wine-making emphasizes diversity in the vineyards, such as growing a variety of plants to attract friendly insects and raising animals to provide manure for fertilizer. Family-owned Burgundian grape négociant (buyer) and élèveur (grower) Domaine LeFlaive is Demeter-certified — the international organization that gives the stamp of approval for biodynamics.
With discipline, dedication, and a strong sense of quality, even bad years can yield good wine. The 2007 vintage will test the mettle of most Burgundian houses (my bet's on Drouhin and LeFlaive), but in the current 2005 vintage on the shelves, everyone should have made stellar wine. Perfect climatic conditions produced vibrant fruit with good acidity and ageability. Basically, it's safe to buy a 2005 without memorizing the weather report.
Joseph Drouhin 2006 Rully. $18. ****
Drouhin Chambolle Musigny 2005 $60. *****
Vero 2005 Pinot Noir. $20. *** 1/2