Uncomfortable bedfellows? Burgundy and natural wine
Why is it so difficult to talk about natural wine in Burgundy? Simon explores the increasingly blurred line between classical and natural techniques in the region.
When a region is as steeped in history as Burgundy, legends and romantic notions tend to breed like rabbits. Studying for a wine qualification in the early 2000s, I clearly remember the lecturer illustrating the importance of terroir on this hallowed ground: “When it rains in the Côte d’Or,” she mused, “you can sometimes see vignerons with a wheelbarrow at the bottom of their slopes, scooping up the soil that’s been washed away and carrying it back up to the top of the hill.”
Apocryphal or not, the irony of this little tale only struck me later: if Burgundy’s growers were resorting to such desperate measures, there must have been something seriously wrong with the farming. Erosion signals disaster when the topsoil is your primary asset. Despite the region’s timeless reputation, the last few decades of the 20th century were far from its finest hour. The herbicide-driven farming of the 1970s prompted brutally interventionist cellar practices to compensate for sub-standard grapes. By the time Burgundy’s growers realised they needed to up their viticultural game, the fine wine world had fallen in love with Parker points and all that that entailed – super ripe, extracted wines with as much toasty new oak as the winemaker could afford. Whither Burgundy’s supposed epitome of terroir?
About 100km south of the Côte d’Or, in Beaujolais, a small band of vignerons launched a counter-offensive against the increasing industrialisation of wine growing and production in the 1980s. Morgon winemaker Marcel Lapierre, négociant and wine scientist Jules Chauvet and his maverick assistant Jacques Néauport evolved the methodology and ideals that would later be christened natural wine. They were out to prove that their beloved Beaujolais could do a lot better than the over-cropped, over-sulphited and over-chaptalised concoction that drove the nouveau marketing campaigns of the day. With Beaujolais’s reputation and wine prices at rock bottom, there wasn’t much to lose. Forty years later, the movement they spearheaded has become a vibrant, global phenomenon. Even if it remains niche, natural wine’s tenets and philosophies have influenced winemakers on every continent. But what about Burgundy? Has this back-to-the-roots ethic penetrated the illustrious cellars of Meursault, Nuits-Saint-Georges or Vosne-Romanée?
Soils and microbes
Unsurprisingly for this complex wine region, there is no simple answer. There are now growers from Chablis in the north to Mâcon in the south – and just about all points in between – whose output is accepted as part of the natural oeuvre by importers, retailers and consumers alike. But, compared to France’s natural wine heartlands – Alsace, the Loire, Jura, Beaujolais and Languedoc-Roussillon, Burgundy hardly overflows with cheeky ‘glou glou’ labels or its equivalent of Lapierre’s 'Raisins Gaulois'.
Burgundy’s vignerons had different problems to solve than their Beaujolais neighbours. In Beaujolais, Lapierre and his colleagues Guy Breton, Jean Foillard, Jean-Paul Thévenet and Yvon Métras needed to rebuild their value proposition from the bottom up, or face a lifetime of selling bottles for bargain prices. In contrast, Burgundy’s reputation survived its viticultural self-harming in the 1970s, along with high prices that just kept climbing into the new millennium. But for all the region’s fame and repute, its farming was a disaster waiting to happen. The wake-up call came in 1992, courtesy of a husband-and-wife team of microbiologists named Claude and Lydia Bourguignon. The now world-famous couple quit their jobs at the French agricultural institute in the 1980s, dissatisfied with its focus on synthetic products, to create their own consultancy LAMS (Le Laboratoire d’Analyses Microbiologiques des Sols).
The Bourguignons commenced with a detailed soil analysis of several estates in the Côte d’Or. “We wanted to find out why they plant red grapes in the Côte de Nuits and white grapes in the Côte de Beaune,” explained Claude. They discovered something quite different. “We showed that the biological activity of the soil in Burgundy was less than the soil of the Sahara desert.” Decades of reliance on glyphosate and other synthetic herbicides and pesticides had taken its toll, rendering the soils effectively dead – devoid of microbial life.
Lydia Bourguignon relates that this also has a profound effect on the wines. “The surface level of the soil is more or less identical in many regions. It’s only when vines push their roots down to deeper soils that the notion of terroir becomes apparent,” she says, adding that herbicides not only wipe out microbes that allow vines to transform minerals into aromas and flavour, but that they also block the porosity of the soil, meaning that the roots can’t penetrate below the topsoil. “A wine made from these surface-level vines,” she adds, “is just a vin de cépage, not a vin de terroir”.
Many were shocked by the Bourguignons’ findings. First to pick up the phone was the late Anne-Claude Leflaive, who, under the Bourguignons’ tutelage, became a passionate and sensitive practitioner of biodynamics. Their client list rapidly expanded to include a who’s who of the Côte d’Or’s most iconic estates, with Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Comtes Lafon and Dujac among them. The Bourguignons’ message was clear: cut out any use of synthetic products, plant cover crops between the rows to help rebuild the health of the soils, and coerce the vines to send down deep roots once again.
It’s clear that this fiercely intelligent, hard-working couple go beyond science. They love wine, as is evident when they compare Burgundy wines from the 1970s with the (in their opinion) far superior examples from the pre-chemical decades. They also speak passionately about Rudolf Steiner’s beyond-organic farming philosophy. “With biodynamics, you are much more attentive to what’s going on with the soil,” says Lydia. She relates a fascinating observation made at the school of biodynamic agriculture founded by Suzanne and Victor Michon. Each student is given a vine to look after, and despite the vines being located in the same vineyard and worked in an identical fashion, they all develop differently. “The vines react to the character of the students,” she says.
It’s hard to overestimate the influence that the Bourguignons have had on viticulture in Burgundy. Claude says there were five organically certified estates in the region in the early 1990s. Now there are 400, out of a total of around 1,500. “Burgundy has made enormous progress in the last 25 years,” says Lydia. But what does this have to do with natural wine?
Farming without synthetics is an essential precursor for anyone who wants to work with wild yeasts, not to mention that organic or biodynamic work in the vineyard is an idealogical must for those allied to the natural wine world. Massale selection – planting new vines with cuttings from an older vineyard with mixed clones, rather than strict clonal selection – is also espoused by the Bourguignons, and preferred by most ‘natural’ growers for its ability to create better biodiversity and potentially more complex wines.
The change in farming methods was also arguably what pushed many of Burgundy’s winemakers towards lower intervention in the cellar. “When people go to organics or biodynamics they realise it’s not necessary to use commercial yeasts,” says Claude Bourguignon. “They just need healthy soils and grapes.” He’s also noticed a change in consumer tastes: “They are a bit tired of these over-oaked wines, they prefer to have more elegance and less alcohol.” Restraint when it comes to ripeness levels and the use of oak is a cornerstone of the natural wine movement, where one of the goals is to make wines that are more digestible and gentle on the system.
This is where the terminology starts to break down. Many wine commentators define vin nature by its literal French meaning: wine without additives, or vin sans souffre (wine without sulphites) – the original term coined in the 1990s to describe the output of Lapierre et al. But natural wine has become a broader, more overarching ideology now. Many vignerons who could be considered as pillars of the movement prefer to work with a small amount of added sulphites at racking or bottling. The unshakeable foundations are organic viticulture (at minimum), no use of must corrections such as acidification or chaptalisation, and no use of additions such as selected yeasts or enzymes. Filtration and fining are usually frowned upon.
There are doubtless Burgundy fans who would counter, “Haven’t Burgundy’s top estates always been low intervention?” After all, suggestively artisanal phrases such as “vin non filtré”, “propriétaire-viticulteur” or “mis en bouteille au domaine” litter the front labels of many great estates. The idea that top-flight wines from illustrious domaines have always been vinified along non-interventionist lines is another Burgundian myth. Dating from an era when grapes wouldn’t ripen optimally every year, chaptalisation has been a staple correction technique for well over a century, at all quality levels. The current 2010 revision of the Cahier des Charges for AOC Gevrey-Chambertin, for example, allows “enrichment”, AKA chaptalisation for red grapes up to 13.5%. Interestingly, wines sourced from Premier Cru sites are allowed an extra 0.5% ABV, up to a maximum of 14% ABV.
Much less talked about, but perfectly legal, is the process of acidification (the addition of tartaric acid to the must to compensate for a deficit of natural acidity). Leading Burgundy commentator Jasper Morris MW notes that mass usage of herbicides and pesticides in the 1970s disturbed the pH balance of the vines, resulting in grapes with lower acidity and thus the need for corrections in the cellar. With climate change and ever-hotter summers, the practice has hardly declined in popularity. Winemaker Philippe Pacalet, who first started working in Burgundy in 1991, adds that the addition of powdered tannins is not unusual. He’s not shy about mentioning that even Domaine de la Romanée-Conti used this technique in the 1990s. “You don’t have many tannins in Pinot grapes. So, if you destem, you have to do something,” he explains, “and many people started destemming in the 1970s, because the stems were full of chemicals.” And let’s not even get started on the giant négociant Louis Latour’s policy of flash-pasteurising all of its Pinot Noir – including their Corton Grand Cru.
Pacalet was one of the first winemakers to shake up cellar technique in Burgundy. With his unruly mass of curly hair and a slightly capricious, disarming manner in conversation, he could be the Robert Smith of wine. Growing up in Morgon with Marcel Lapierre as an uncle, and Jules Chauvet as a teacher, Pacalet was immersed in the gospel of natural vinification from a young age. “Burgundy was like the holy land for me,” he says, explaining his decision to head north in 1991 to start his career. Pacalet convinced the late Henry-Frédéric Roch, then co-ower of Romanée-Conti, to take him on as winemaker and vineyard consultant for his personal project Prieuré Roch – a domaine that would later become a cult reference for natural wine in the Côte d’Or.
Pacalet focused on conversion to organic viticulture and “making compost at Romanée-Conti”, as for him, this was essential to ensure a healthy selection of wild yeasts. “The key of the appellation is the yeasts that transform the grapes,” he says. He applied the vinification methodologies he’d learned from his uncle. “We were fed up with the artificial way of making wine. We preferred to apply natural laws, and that’s why we talk about natural wine,” Pacalet explains. He recalls that Roch had no idea about winemaking, but had a clear feeling in his heart that he wanted to find a more ‘honest’ and authentic way to grow grapes and make wine.
Entrenched attitudes about both farming and vinification methods were common at the time. “The eyes of the others were full of judgement,” Pacalet laughs, adding, “but I’m not a politician, I don’t care!” After a decade working at Prieuré Roch, Pacalet left in 2001 to create his own business. Pacalet opted for a négociant structure to avoid shouldering the huge financial burden of purchasing vineyards. “I wanted to keep my freedom,” he says, “and the négociant model is the only way for a stupid guy like me to survive in this world of money.” As a négociant, Philippe Pacalet is very particular. Only grapes are purchased, never finished wines or must. Furthermore, Pacalet’s team undertakes the vineyard work and harvesting on around half of the 15 hectares they rent or contract.
Pacalet opts for whole-bunch fermentations for both white and red grapes, with zero sulphur additions until either racking or bottling. Elevage takes place in barrels which are mostly seven to eight years old, or more. Pacalet goes against the grain with his Grand Cru wines – on which many Burgundy producers would use a significant proportion of new barrels. “They miss the message of the monks, the previous civilisation, if they make a Grand Cru with lots of new oak,” he says, illustrating the point with a nice analogy. “A village wine is like a postcard, you get an overview, but you don’t see anything in detail. With a Premier Cru you see more precisely in parts, but in a Grand Cru you see fine detail like a person doing something,” he says. “It’s not about making it bigger. This was the mistake of the Parker era: it’s not because the music is louder that it’s better.”
Pacalet might have been considered a maverick in the 1990s, but he wasn’t completely alone. Dominique Derain, based in Saint-Aubin, had created his estate Domaine Derain in 1987. Derain was an early convert to biodynamics and to a less interventionist style of winemaking – a point of view formed after spending a decade working for more mainstream estates. During the mid to late 1990s, more vignerons joined the low-intervention party. Frédéric Cossard created his estate, Domaine de Chassorney, in Saint-Romain in 1996 and forged a name for his delicate, fruit-driven style. Like Pacalet, he is a devotee of whole-bunch fermentation. Cossard started out with rented vineyards in Saint-Romain and Auxey-Duresses, but has now amassed ten hectares of his own. Cossard’s négociant wines (bottled with his name rather than that of the domaine) are more experimental, sometimes bottled without added sulphites, or fermented in qvevri (Georgian clay pots or amphorae).
While Cossard had a background in wine sales, another important name in Burgundy’s minimal intervention canon came from a background in wine technology. Sylvain Pataille was just 22 when he arrived in Beaune fresh from a Bordeaux winemaking and viticulture degree, and accidentally ended up with a job in a wine laboratory. After four years as a consultant oenologist for an incredible 65 different estates, he started out on his own in 1999. Pataille had no doubt that he wanted to work without any of the interventions or products recommended by his lab. His viticulture progressed from organic to biodynamic, starting with a single hectare of vines in Marsannay but slowly building to the current size of around 17 hectares.
Pataille’s oeuvre is fascinating on many levels. He’s a staunch defender of the potential of Aligoté grown on limestone, bemoaning that so much of it is over-cropped and badly made. Marsannay is the only part of Burgundy with an AOC rosé designation, something which Pataille also enthusiastically embraces. And while he hated the overly technical, interventionist styles of winemaking that he experienced at close quarters while working for the lab, he’s no religious naturalista either. Pataille will occasionally use light filtration or even bentonite fining if he feels it’s necessary, and he prefers to add a pinch of sulphites at bottling. Although his influence has been significant, particularly in terms of biodynamics, Pataille continues to be a bit of an insider tip. Perhaps due to the relatively lowly status of Marsannay (there are no Premier or Grand Cru sites in the village), his wines remain reasonably priced and offer outstanding bang for buck.
The only way is négoce
The négociant model now arguably offers the only route for newcomers to gain a foothold in the Côte d’Or. Pacalet estimates that a Premier Cru vineyard would cost at least half a million Euros per hectare, and a theoretical hectare of Échezeaux around 30 million – not that anyone’s selling. Finding growers with organic grapes to sell is challenging enough, as Oronce de Beler discovered in 2005 when he created his micro-négoce La Maison Romane. De Beler moved to Burgundy in 2004, as he explains, “because of a love for the Burgundian terroir”. He studied winemaking for a year, also taking courses in biodynamics and horse ploughing. It ended up being the latter that gave him his ‘in’. Unable to find work as a winemaker, he invested in a mighty Percheron draft horse which he started hiring out to local vignerons. “It put me in touch with the right kind of people, it developed my network,” he explains. “I built up confidence with one vigneron when I ploughed his vineyards, and then he was willing to sell me some grapes.”
De Beler acquired just three tonneaux of grapes in 2005, but built the business from the ground up. Working with growers in some of the Côte-d’Or’s most prestigious appellations, he crafts subtle, nervy wines using whole-bunch fermentation and zero additives apart from occasional sulphite additions at bottling. Some wines flirt with volatile acidity but, in doing so, achieve ethereal, floral aromas which enchant as only Pinot Noir can. Despite their restrained, lightweight character, De Beler feels they are wines that can age. “I learnt from tasting old Pinot Noir made with whole-bunch fermentation that the wines develop in a very discreet way in the mouth,” he says. “They are not extrovert, they develop very slowly but over a long period during tasting.”
Jean-Pascal Sarnin and Jean-Marie Berrux came from corporate backgrounds before they met in Saint-Romain in 2007, and bonded over a shared love of natural wine – something Sarnin had discovered while living in Paris in the late 1990s. They decided to create their own négociant business, Sarnin-Berrux, which has become a reference for high quality, naturally vinified Burgundy. Sarnin agrees with De Beler that it is not easy finding growers working organically with grapes to sell. He adds that it got much more difficult after 2012, when speculation in Burgundy really started to spiral out of control. Coupled with increasingly less predictable weather patterns, this has resulted in inevitable price hikes across the board.
Sarnin-Berrux vinify and bottle a wide range of appellations each year, including some top sites in Gevrey-Chambertin and Meursault. But their consistent quality can be just as easily sampled with a theoretically humble Passetoutgrains (that very Burgundian blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay) – a seriously over-achieving wine with joyful fruit and delicate structure. Jean-Pascal expresses frustration about the process of getting wines classified for their appellations. “The regulations are made to destroy people like us. The rules are clearly against us,” he says. The pair have now decided to declassify all of their entry-level wines down to ‘Vin de France’ to avoid the hassle spent arguing with the AOC committee. However, Jean-Pascal admits that for a wine such as their Gevrey-Chambertin, the prestige and value are so great that they cannot afford to relinquish the appellation.
Few are brave enough to take a more radical stance, but one of those is Yann Durieux. With an infectious smile and dreadlocks down to his knees, Durieux looks as though he’d be equally at home DJing at a dub-reggae festival when not in his vineyards. Like Pacalet a decade before, he cut his teeth working as a viticulturist at Prieuré Roch, before creating his own estate, Recrue des Sens, in 2010. Durieux is lucky to have a precious three hectares of family vineyards, which he supplements with various négoce offerings. Taking a zero-zero approach to vinification, all of his wines are unsulphured and without any other kind of addition or correction. All are declassified and bottled as Vin de France, with cryptic references to their origin – a detail forbidden on the labels in this basic category. So, ‘DH blanc’ is a single-vineyard Nuits-Saint-Georges from a plot named Dames Huguettes. A négoce bottling labelled ‘Night Cost’ is a deliberately mistranslated reference to the Côte from whence it came. Durieux is one of the few to dip a toe in the water of skin-fermented whites, AKA orange wines – more than a toe, actually, with three different bottlings. Les Ponts Blancs and Les Grand Ponts Blancs are born of old-vine Aligoté, while Les Beurots is based on Pinot Gris. As with all of Durieux’s output, these are not ‘funky’, cidery exercises in rusticity, but rather elegant creations with a clear terroir message. The strict declassification policy does not seem to have hurt Durieux, as his wines are constantly sold out with prices headed ever more towards the stratosphere. Little, apart from his much-loved entry-level white, ‘Love & Pif’, remains below three figures a bottle.
Money money money
Perhaps because of the increasingly huge sums of money at stake, it’s hard to find natural wine radicals or ultra-experimental vignerons in Burgundy. ‘Natural’ is the medium for all the vignerons mentioned here, but not the message, which remains classical and terroir-oriented. This, in turn, blurs the lines. Where does high-quality, artisanal production stop and natural wine begin? Does there even need to be a line drawn in the sand? If there is a divide, it is more about stylistics and ideology than the minutiae of vinification. In the modern era, estates such as Romanée-Conti, Dujac or Leroy sit remarkably close to most people’s accepted definitions of natural wine – assuming one forgives a few miligrams of sulphites here and there. What sets them and their clients apart is a preference for more oak influence than most natural wine consumers would tolerate, and price points that put their wines out of reach to all but the super-rich. From its humble origins in Beaujolais, the natural wine movement always had a subtext of inclusivity and community. A bottle with a four figure price tag just doesn’t gel.
De Beler suggests that perhaps the whole discussion is redundant: “Burgundy’s terroir is exceptional, and that’s the whole problem. The influence of the land is much stronger than the people who work it,” he says. There is no clearer imperative for the need to focus on viticulture, to respect the source. Burgundy has seen a slow revolution take place in its vineyards since the bad old days of the 1970s, but with only 30% officially certified organic, there is still room for improvement. One day, the image of the vigneron carting their soil back up the hill will be banished to the history books.
Originally published in Issue 3 of Fondata magazine. © Fine and Rare Wines 2023, reproduced with permission.