An early glimpse of the 2011 Burgundy vintage

Berries in Pernand-Vergelesses on June 6th, well on their way

It only takes 10 days to get a real sense of the unpredictability of Burgundy weather and why vintages matter so much here.  Unlike Bordeaux, whose climate is relatively moderated by its coastal location, Burgundy is semi-continental with only about 25″ of rain per year – much less than Napa Valley’s average.  But unlike Napa Valley’s predictable rainfall during the winter and spring, Burgundy’s precipitation can also fall during the growing season – and with force.

Until the day I arrived on June 4th, Burgundy had been experiencing a two-month “drought” with sunny conditions.  In fact, the vintage was well ahead of normal with flowering in mid-May.  Driving down from Charles de Gaulle, it was indeed sunny, hot and getting more humid by the hour.

As I was settling down in my hotel room in Beaune, I was startled by a sudden pounding on the skylights above – the skies had opened up to release a veritable deluge of water that would continue for a couple of hours.  I was strangely drawn to it and began heading out with my petite collapsible umbrella when a Brit walked in – drenched – and said “you know, that’s not going to do anything for you….”  But I went anyway on the premise that I was hungry.   Rue de Faubourg Madeleine had become a torrential river in just a few minutes time.  I scampered down the skinny two-foot wide “sidewalks” and dodged into shallow, so-called doorways which didn’t provide any shelter.   And then I saw the car.  You know the kind of car (usually a cab) that barrels down a flooded curb during a thunderstorm in NYC for entertainment?  I turned around in circles, scanning futilely to find shelter but was doomed.  The locals would later say the rain they got in those two hours was equivalent to what they would normally have gotten in the last two months.

The weather improved early in the week.  On Tuesday morning, we visited Pouilly-Fuisse in the southern part of Burgundy.  It was a gorgeous day, sunny and very comfortable walking in the ampitheater of Pouilly-Fuisse vineyards and at the foot of the dramatic Rock of Solutre.  In the afternoon, we headed back up north to Mercurey in the Cote Chalonnaise, about 45 miles as the crow flies.  While we waited in the sun for vintner Francois Raquillet, his wife informed us that he was in the vineyards surveying damage from a hailstorm just a couple hours earlier – 40 mm (about 1.6″) of rain and hail fell in one hour – where he lost 30% of crop in some plots.

A couple of days later another Mercurey producer, Lauren Juillot, would tell us that in 12 hours, a total of 85 mm (3.4″) of rain and hail had fallen on the 7th.  He only lost about 10%.  Further north, in Gevrey-Chambertain in the Cote de Nuits, Romain Taupenot said that they only got 25 mm (about an inch) that day.  According to Taupenot, they usually get this kind of hail in July.  It seemed to him that the entire season so far in terms of bloom, sun and hail has shifted forward, leading some vintners to think it could be an early harvest.

But one can’t really predict vintages in Burgundy – weather changes dramatically here.