So Long, Farewell Vieilles Vignes

Recently I put on my Pinot goggles (available from all good wine retailers) and commenced my marathon of barrel tastings across the length and breadth of the Côte d'Or. It is a laborious, time-consuming exercise necessitating over 100 individual visits instead of time-efficient comprehensive tastings. My over-worked laptop is often precariously balanced between barrels in the dank cold, damp belly of ancient cellars, caked like loft insulation in black or white mold.  I am not sure how many iPads have suffered a fungal infection. Mine will surely be the first case.

It was while chatting with winemaker Michel Coutoux at Domaine Michel Niellon that I began ruminating upon long-term impact of the 2016 growing season, twelve torrid months when Mother Nature blitzed growers with everything she could muster: frost, hail and rot throughout March until June. By the beginning of July, growers' spirits were at their lowest ebb. Some were doubtlessly ruing the day their ancestors opted for a vigneron's life. It has left some growers on the precipice of financial disaster, indeed two have lamented that they are unable to afford new barrels this year. Négoçiant operations find it difficult to source fruit because there simply isn't any in some places, others out-priced by those with deep pockets.
I took this photograph looking over Bâtard-Montrachet to illustrate one of many parcels lying fallow. This may or may not be Michel Niellon's parcel - that's by the by. Precious vineyard land without any vines produces not a drop of wine.

Another trend is that growers are taking that most difficult decision and uprooting their sacred time-buckled vines. Those vineyard veterans with gnarled thick trucks welded to the earth, armor-plated bark beaten, scarred and weathered over innumerable seasons. The act is tantamount to treachery. What malice drives a winemaker to wrench these soldiers that have given 70, 80 or 90 years of unstinting service from the ground? In their twilight years these long-serving vines bestow high quality fruit and become naturally resilient to weather conditions. The downside is that like all of us, their productivity inexorably declines. It begs the question, when do you stop delaying that decision, stop kicking the ball into the long grass and finally say "Merci et au revoir?" I mean, it's not as if you can replant them with identically aged vines the following year (although no doubt some billionaire proprietor has a team of bio-scientists locked in a bunker working out how to obviate this obstacle). You will have to leave the vineyard fallow to cleanse the land, then replant younger vines that take 15-20 years to reach full maturity. It is a momentous decision that affects generations, since what is planted today will yield fruit upon which your children's livelihoods will depend. There exist many examples with lack of forward planning; constant postponement of uprooting has impoverished a generation of winemakers that ultimately led to the family having to relinquish ownership.

When I was tasting the Bâtard-Montrachet from Michel Niellon, Michel told me that this 2015 would be the final vintage of this particular grand cru for some time. Their vines were planted back in the 1920s and now after 90 years of service, they have been pulled up. For sure, they were riddled with viruses and their crops were tiny. However, the decision was made after a run of difficult vintages since 2011, and the 2016 season seems to be the straw that broke the camel's back, here and in several other places I visited. With such swathes of vine damaged by frost, yields stymied by the natural weather conditions (not to mention the insidious menace of the Esca vine disease taking its angels' share of vines each year), then best to pull the trigger when losses are minimal. Bite the bullet now, not later. The long-term consequence is that the 2016 vintage has coerced the replanting of vineyards so that some labels will be either severely diminished in quantity or at its most drastic, go on hiatus for a number of years. Hopefully the benefits will be reaped by the next generation of winemakers who will one day look back and thank the difficult decisions being made now. As I tasted the 2015 Bâtard-Montrachet from Michel Niellon, I felt moved in contemplation of this being the end of the road. I wondered how Michel himself felt? Surely a tear in the eye, if he could look at all. It's like a violinist losing a string on their Stradivarius or a jockey deprived of his favorite horse.

So this little article is just to raise a toast to those long-serving vines, both at Niellon and elsewhere, and the countless wines they produced over decades. When you see fallow patches in prime vineyard sites busy doing nothing, ponder the pot-marked landscape, spare a thought for those vines that served wine lovers so well over many years and the joy that they brought.

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