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Burgundy's Yield Fails To Meet Grape Expectations

Workers pick fruit Sept. 22 during the grape harvest at the Gevrey-Chambertin vineyard in France's Burgundy region. Bad weather has reduced the grape yield by as much as 70 percent in some vineyards.
Philippe Desmazes
AFP/Getty Images
Workers pick fruit Sept. 22 during the grape harvest at the Gevrey-Chambertin vineyard in France's Burgundy region. Bad weather has reduced the grape yield by as much as 70 percent in some vineyards.

Neat rows of grapevines run down the slopes of the Cotes de Beaune, all the way to the gravel driveway at Chateau de Corton Andre. The castle's traditional Burgundy black-and-yellow-tiled roof glistens in the autumn sun.

Despite the sun, Antoine Pirie, managing director of French wine house Pierre Andre, which is headquartered in the chateau, says rain and frost this spring and three bizarre summer hailstorms cut grape yields 50, 60, even 70 percent at some vineyards; this at a time when Burgundy is increasingly popular, and sales are booming in the U.S., Britain and across Asia.

"We're going to face a very small crop," he says. "So in fact, you're going to have a kind of difference between offer and demand. And in that case, the consequence is a big increase in prices."

In the chateau's cellar, which dates back to the 14th century, tourists and wine dealers are sampling various vintages. Burgundy is about seven times smaller than Bordeaux, France's other major wine-growing region. Its vineyards are divided into much smaller plots, which are often owned and worked by families instead of large estates.

Burgundy fans say each wine is unique here, reflecting not only the winemaker's style but also the soil, the sun and the specific place on the hill where the grapes are grown.

Wine dealer Philip Slocombe has come to Burgundy for 20 years. He says his clients can never get enough of grand cru Burgundy wines.

"I think when you taste a good white or red wine from Burgundy that is elegant, subtle, complex, and in the second and the third glass keeps asking questions, then you get something, you think, 'Wow, this is something special,' " he says. "Once you've been taken by Burgundy, you always come back. There's a wonderful soul here."

Wine is the lifeblood of the tiny villages that dot the landscape of this region. It will take more than bad weather or an economic downturn to change a centuries-old way of living centered on grapes.

The church bells ring as we arrive in the village of Pommard, and a deep, fermented smell permeates the air.

They are distilling a liqueur called Marc de Bourgogne. A large vat steams with a huge mound of crushed grapes in the town plaza next to the church. Some of those crushed grapes are from the vineyard owned by Anne Parent, a 12th-generation winemaker at Domaine Parent.

"Eleven generations of men, and I'm the first woman," she says in French. "It's the second French revolution."

Parent heads down into the cellar where the 2012 vintage is aging in massive oak barrels. There is room for 350 barrels here, but today there are fewer than 200. Parent says despite the dismal season, the harvest finished on a good note with hot, dry weather that pushed the grapes to full maturity.

"This vintage is an amazing vintage," she says. "A fantastic quality. Very nice balance between fruit, tannin, acidity. Very expressive. Very generous. But the quantity is ridiculous. Ridiculous."

A few miles away, the bottling plant at Domaine Albert Bichot is at full throttle. The company, one of Burgundy's largest, exports nearly 4 million bottles a year. Its owner, Alberic Bichot, says no matter how good the quality of the 2012 vintage, growers will not be able to make up for the loss in volume.

"It's impossible," he says. "Our customers are not ready to pay the double price or 50 percent increase. In the best conditions, we can increase by 10 or 15 percent."

But Bichot says Burgundy winemakers are always ready for the unexpected, so they keep reserves from previous years to smooth out the lean times. Still, he warns, the shortage this year is so acute, that come 2014, when the 2012 vintage hits the shelves, Burgundy lovers may have to drink sparingly.

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Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
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