Burgundy may be recognised as the heartland of great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but it has not historically always been closely associated with viticultural innovation. That has changed in recent years, thanks to the region’s efforts to combat the growing threat of Flavescence dorée. This contagious, incurable disease is spread by leafhoppers (Scaphoideus titanus) which suck the sap out of the vines and inject a bacteria that dramatically cut yields and prevent the grapes from ripening properly.
Over the last four years, thanks to a combination of strategies, Burgundy claims to be the only French region to have stopped the disease in its tracks while reducing insecticide use by 90%. The keys to the region’s success include the use of drones since 2015 to detect infected vines, and a policy of encouraging growers to recognize these plants, uproot them and treat their neighbours. The need for prompt reaction is made clear from reports that each untreated vine can infect as many as ten in a single year. All it takes is for a quarter of the plants to have the disease, for an entire vineyard to lose commercial viability.
Ironically, given the Burgundians’ pride in cutting down its use of chemical treatments, four years ago, in February 2014, a biodynamic winemaker called Emmanuel Giboulot was prosecuted for refusing to spray his vineyard. His defence, which was upheld later in the year – saving him from a possible €300,000 ($368,000) fine and a prison sentence – was partly based on the incompatibility of the treatment with his biodynamic principles, and partly on the unproven nature of the products he was being asked to use.
The following year brought the clones and a more focused approach which, in turn led to the preparation of a wide-ranging charter and action plan called ‘Terroir and Territory: A Commitment for the Future’ which was launched at the General Assembly of the BIVB - Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne - in July 2017.
With an initial budget of €100,000, the charter brought together representatives of the French government, the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, Côte-d'Or, Saône-etLoire, and Yonne regions, the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté Chamber of Agriculture, Bio Bourgogne, the CAVB - Confédération des Appellations et des Vignerons de Bourgogne – and FNEB - Federation of Négociants Eleveurs of Bourgogne, as well as the BIVB.
The next steps, which include a focus on combatting Eutypa dieback, will centre around a ‘Mémo Vigne’ guide, written by the Chambers of Agriculture, that promotes vineyard treatments with the greatest effect and the least impact on health and the environment. Awareness of the efficacy of these low-input products will be encouraged by the establishment of a network of demonstration plots.
Most controversially, in reaction to the challenges of vine diseases that are increasingly hard to treat, another programme was launched two years ago to cross traditional Burgundian grape varieties – principally Pinot Noir, Gamay, Chardonnay and Aligoté – with naturally resistant plants. The first of these experimental vines will be planted this year to see how they behave.
If these ‘new’ Burgundian vines perform well enough to make their way into Premier and Grand Cru vineyards of the Côte d’Or, Burgundy really will have secured its place as a centre of innovation.