Do you like Burgundy? How about Chenin Blanc? Do you have a favorite, go-to Muscadet you’ve come to depend on? If that’s true, I have some sour news. Those particular places have had such a run of vintages that the phrase ‘existential crisis’ is not too strong a turn of phrase for too many of the small and medium-sized vignerons that make those places special. It can be hard to remember that wine is a product of farmers. At its best, wine is the result of farming on the bitter edge of disaster. The hardest work over the course of a cold and wet year is rewarded with more complex flavor, more durably structured wines better able to age and more suitable to pair with food. The trouble is, if the weather is just a little colder and just little wetter, the small and medium-sized vignerons are comprehensively forked. The difference between a rainstorm that preserves that single degree of filigree acidity and the hailstorm that wipes out an entire vineyard is painfully small. If such a disaster happens once in a decade, it sucks but for the most part, the growers can survive it. If it happens six times in a decade – as in the Loire Valley, or ten times in twelve years – as in Burgundy, you get a tsunami of debt swallowing up a set of people who are already working on uncomfortably narrow margins. There’s a conversation to have here about climate change I’m not equipped to finish. But when we do finish that conversation a century or two from now, the winegrower’s struggle against increasingly unpredictable weather is going to be a small and sad part of it.
Weather is capricious. In a given October hailstorm, one vineyard might enjoy a freshening mist while the neighbor’s crop is shorn clean of fruit by a billion golfballs from the sky. As fine-grained as French vineyards have become since the days of Napoleon, everyone has a different story to tell, and tucked into the margins of all this bad news are some absolutely gorgeous wines from 2008, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2016. But as ethereal, aromatic, and powerful as Burgundies and Vouvrays and Muscadets in those vintages are, there is the inescapable fact that people are losing domaines that have been in their family for centuries. Some of the most famous wineries; people who have come to set the standard for their regions, have had no fruit to make into wine several vintages in a row, and have come to the brink of ruin after a decade of uncertainty.
So, if you’re a fan of Burgundy, or Muscadet, or Gamay from Touraine, and want it to keep happening, it’s time to be particularly loyal. Quantities are small and prices have been going up. It’s not because they’re greedy. In desperation, some winemakers from these colder climates have purchased fruit from places in the warmer, safer climates of the Rhone and Languedoc so they have something to sell, and it’s practically a moral imperative that we as customers buy these wines and do what we can to preserve the legacy of some of the world’s most important wine regions. You know what goes with Pot Roast? Red Burgundy. Squash and shallot soup? Chenin Blanc. Change out that New Zealand Sauvignon for a Muscadet. It’s a small thing, but it’s not nothing. Every time a vigneron has to sell his or her land to a negociant, a thread is pulled from the tapestry of Burgundy or Anjou. It’s time to get out the needles.