Subtitled: Don’t mention Burgundy – or Bourgogne!
Something is stirring just outside of Beaune, but I have to be careful how to describe it, there are certain words that I’m not allowed to use. But head east on the arrow-straight Roman roads of the Saône plain, hardly 20 minutes from Beaune’s Place Carnot and you will find vines – new plantations. There’s already 60 hectares, with plans for 180, there’s even a modest plot planted with 11 different varieties – just to see. But before telling you more, let’s take a step back.
The origin of this is simple, since January 2016 the EU has opened the possibilities of new vine plantings all over France by liberalising planting rights. Vin de France (VdF) was once a big problem, mainly due to overcapacity. Much of that wine came from the Languedoc, though the sales of that product slowly ground to a halt as there was too much – the wine became virtually unsaleable – at least in the quantities offered. But once it exited the market there was a growing hole, a demand which is currently being filled with wine from Spain and Italy – and even further afield such as Chile. So there’s been much discussion on how to re-engineer things so that imports are less necessary, which will also reduce the associated carbon footprint of importation. The home (French) market is looking for product that comes from their own country – there’s an element of traceability to this too. Bordeaux have too many vines just now so are already declassifying some to VdF, Champagne already have a very strong brand so have virtually no excess production. The Charantais has a strong model but all the wine that they produce is distilled to produce cognac so, again, it’s not a fit – but a fit for what? You will see later!
In response to the relaxation of planting rights, JC Boisset and the Cooperative Bourgogne Sud – who are based in Verdun-sur-les-Doubs and are cereal and fruit producers – began talking together; ‘Why not plant vines instead of cereals in the Saône plain? And only 25km from Beaune!‘ It’s a revolution, that’s for sure, and one that pits traditionalists and modernists against each other. The traditionalists have an image problem with planting new vines next to the ancient centre of Burgundy, particularly post-UNESCO, and worry about the potential misuse of the Burgundy image, not to mention the danger of fraud – grapes disappearing from plain and suddenly there’s more Corton-Charlemagne. Though let’s be clear, in the 1920s these same villages were filled with vines – at the time it simply wasn’t economic to replant them as they succumbed to phylloxera.
These new plantations are not the first, some projects are much longer in the tooth; Bernard Gros planted pinot for his Chemin Des Moines de Vergy cuvée, and though this is on the hill above Vosne-Romanée and close to Hautes Côtes de Nuits vines, it is actually on land classed as Vin de France.
In fact the relaxation of planting rules means that you can plant virtually anything except some of the Alsace varieties and put that grape’s name on the label.
So what’s new here?
Boisset were the initiators, the innovators even, but they are not the ones owning the land, doing the planting or indeed tending the vines – cultivation will be by the agriculteurs – the farmers, fruitiers and cereal producers – they are the entrepreneurs, looking to expand their options, as the metier of a farmer producing cereals is not an easy one as they face much global competition. These farmers had been looking for the keys to a new business model – being so close to Beaune with its world-class producers and exploiters of the vine, there is a considerable resource of expertise nearby – by diversifying into grape production the farmers have the potential to reduce the influence the volatility of global cereal pricing on their income, replacing that part with a fixed long-term contract. And the business opportunity? Vin Mousseaux. This is a business looking for new suppliers – as the Italians and Spanish see more demand for their own production of Prosecco and Cava, they progressively have less grapes/bulk wine to sell.
The plan here is to make a sparkling wine – at least to start with – Vin Mousseux – and of-course not referencing Burgundy, so there is zero connection to Crémant de Bourgogne. And nor should there be; you can make crémant with 80 hl/ha but vin mousseux has no upper limit – if you can do it, 300 hl/ha would be allowed for mousseux! Then there’s the work in the vines – crémant has mandated hand harvesting of all grapes, all the new plantations near Beaune are planned, spaced and trained with machines in mind. Three main varieties have been planted – chardonnay, colombard and ugni blanc, all of which can tolerate high yields.
This new approach to viticulture would have a revenue of around 5-6,000 euros per hectare – almost half that of Beaujolais – but potentially with larger surfaces in play. It’s certainly a new adventure. The cultivators are planting and so are responsible for the up-front investment, but supporting their investment are the expertise of, and contracts with, JC Boisset who will buy their production. Of-course we are talking timescales of (possibly) 15 year contracts – no-one would invest, for example, for three years – indeed there are practically no grapes to harvest until year 3.
The first-chosen areas for planting have deep, well-draining, soils, and the locals are planning for organic approaches plus keeping bees and chickens – et-cetera – but early production start with herbicide use in the vines until they become established, but with about one-third of the high dose that is allowed, and the plan to use whatever is homologated in the future (Glyphosate, in theory, will be banned in 3 more years). The vine-spacing is 1.7 metres to allow machine passage and the cultivators are only aiming for 10.5 degrees, of course, as the grapes are initially destined for the production of sparkling (mousseux) wines. It’s important to note that, for the moment, there’s no cuverie available with the right setup to take the product – but Boisset have another 2.5 years to accommodate that!
The main market for mousseux is currently the grande-distribution (supermarkets) of France, that said, the team of Boisset will also look to export the product – so they expect it to be good quality, i.e. not made from 300 hl/ha!
The majority of us may never (knowingly) sample the products of this alliance, but there’s no doubt that it’s incredibly important for the region – even if most of Burgundy’s producers might prefer that it wasn’t happening on their doorstep!