Burgundy’s winegrowers face sober summer as world abstains

When he surveys the lush green Burgundy landscape from his vineyard in Volnay, Didier Delagrange, like many of his fellow French winegrowers, feels only trepidation. 

The names of the villages below — Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Pommard — are celebrated throughout the world for the quality of their wines, but sales collapsed when the Covid-19 pandemic stopped international tourism and triggered the closure of restaurants and bars in the biggest economies.

“There are a few orders, but nothing like what we normally do,” said Mr Delagrange, 53, whose family has been farming this land for seven generations. Vines planted by his grandfather in 1938 are still producing the Pinot Noir grapes for his Volnay 1er cru Clos des Chênes.

In all, he produces about 100,000 bottles a year from his 15 hectares of vines. He normally exports to 25 countries, including the UK, Japan and Hong Kong, but trade has been severely disrupted. The 300 restaurants in France which usually buy his wines were shut from mid-March to mid-May. 

Didier Delagrange: ‘We have cash, but in four or five months we will have used up the cash’ © Victor Mallet/FT

With government support, banks have deferred customer loan repayments for six months, but the crunch for Burgundy’s winemakers, most of them family businesses, will come when that relief ends. “We have cash,” Mr Delagrange said, “but in four or five months we will have used up the cash. Sales are low and it will be difficult.”

There are similar tales of woe elsewhere in Burgundy — its producers sold more than €2bn of wine last year, with over half that revenue from exports — as well as in the other wine-growing regions of France, from Champagne in the east (where growers will limit grape harvesting and production this year to support prices) to Bordeaux in the south-west.

“I want the frontiers to reopen,” said Fabienne Bony in Nuits-Saint-Georges. “We need our foreign customers and we need our foreign labour from Portugal and eastern Europe.” Most borders within the EU are now technically open, but intercontinental travel remains severely restricted and will be eased only from July 1.

Fabienne Bony: ‘We’ve had the same costs as usual because we have to do the work in the vineyards — but no sales’ © Victor Mallet/FT

One of the few women running vineyards in the country, Ms Bony inherited seven hectares from her father, a carpenter who spent his wages purchasing rows of vines in the 1960s before prices rose beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest buyers.

With demand sluggish and wine fairs cancelled, French winemakers find their stocks are rising alarmingly fast. “As long as there is no foreign tourism, consumption will not return,” said Guy Mothe of the 55-hectare Domaine du Colombier in Chablis, a Burgundy town famous for its white wine. France normally welcomes more than 80m tourists a year. 

“The real Epicurean wants to taste before buying,” said Mr Mothe, who also helps run a 7,000-strong association called Independent Winegrowers of France. “What our clients want 80 or 90 per cent of the time is this contact, and the tasting of the wine.” 

The government has offered to help French growers by paying a minimum price for surplus wine and distilling it into industrial alcohol — which can ironically be used to make the ubiquitous hand sanitiser to stop the spread of Covid-19 — but that is not a solution that finds favour with Burgundy’s high-quality family winemakers. 

“We don’t want to have prices collapse,” Mr Mothe said. He recommends building up wine stocks instead and releasing them gradually to avoid flooding the market. “In Burgundy, we’ve never gone into distillation.” 

This is not the first crisis to confront French winegrowers in recent years, although it may turn out to be among the worst. There was the fallout from the global financial crisis after 2008, the impact on tourism from the Paris terror attacks of 2015 and the Brexit referendum a year later that is likely to disrupt trade with the important UK market when it leaves the EU. 

In the US, sales of French wine have been hit hard by a 25 per cent US tariff imposed by Donald Trump because of an unrelated US-EU trade dispute over subsidies for Airbus and Boeing. 

And then there is the weather. Farmers have learnt over the centuries to accept occasional damage from hailstorms or late frosts, but global warming poses an existential threat to the production of fine wines in Burgundy. 

Growers remember how they used to harvest grapes in late September or early October, but the vendange now happens up to three weeks earlier. Shorter winters, higher summer temperatures and faster ripening changes the character of the vintages.

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“We really feel climate change. We don’t make the same wine at all,” said Ms Bony in Nuits-Saint-Georges. That is not necessarily bad, because dry summers can reduce the quantity while improving the quality of the harvest. Further warming, however, will be problematic. “It’s OK up to now, but we don’t want it to go further. It mustn’t go too far.” 

The coronavirus pandemic has delivered a more immediate shock. “We’ve had the same costs as usual because we have to do the work in the vineyards — but no sales,” said Ms Bony, who normally welcomes visiting buyers from as far afield as Sweden and South Korea. “It’s restarting now, but very slowly.”

Even so, Burgundy’s winemakers have confidence in what they produce and are in no mood to capitulate. Ms Bony remains optimistic because people still want to drink good wine at home if they cannot eat out because of coronavirus restrictions. “They don’t want to just drink water and eat pasta,” she says. “They want to live and have some pleasure.”