From Chalk and Lime Peel to Pineapple Jam

From Chalk and Lime Peel to Pineapple Jam

In 2024 Wine Scholar Guild proudly announced the Albert Sheen Memorial Scholarship in memory of our dear friend and dedicated wine traveler, Albert Sheen. The scholarship application invited applicants to discuss the challenges of climate change in Bourgogne. We received a number of truly exceptional submissions and thank all our participants for their in-depth essays and perspectives. The selection committee has selected Marek Zelewski and is pleased to share his winning essay below. Marek has been awarded a seat on our upcoming Bourgogne Masters Immersion taking place in May 2024.

Albert would have been honored to witness the positive energy and enthusiasm that this scholarship has ignited.

A medium-acidity, off-dry, full-bodied white with aromas of baked yellow apple, starfruit, mango and ripe pineapple, pronounced notes of lemon curd, vanilla and pie crust, paired with elevated alcohol lingering on the palate. While it sounds delicious if one’s looking for a fun wine substitute for a tiki cocktail, hardly anybody would place this Chardonnay on the map anywhere close to Burgundy. However, given the predicted increase in its average temperatures (1), fast forward to 2050 and it could well be a glass of Mâconnais. While certainly not great for those taking blind-testing exams, the consequences of climate change for the French wine industry will be way more far-reaching. 

It’s a sunny October Saturday on a picturesque vineyard among the rolling hills near Mâcon. A group of 713 visitors strip naked, hold hands, line up raising empty wine bottles and lie down covered in grape clusters like Mena Suvari among rose petals in ‘American Beauty’. It’s 2009 and Greenpeace uses Burgundy as a backdrop for its global warming awareness installation photographed by artist Spencer Tunick. The impact of climate change on humankind had been known way before the photographs were taken, but Tunick is among the first ones to draw public attention to the havoc that global warming can wreak on the wine industry. While many may think this is an epitome of a frivolous first-world problem when polar ice caps are melting, one must not forget that it’s not only Bourgogne aficionados’ sensory pleasures that are at stake, but also the livelihoods of thousands of vignerons and their families dependent on fine wine production. Climate change has become a subject of political battles and conspiracy theories. Re-reading it at a level of local Bourguignon communities is a valuable step towards a better understanding of the impact it has on individuals, way beyond well-off Pinot Noir enthusiasts. 

A 2014 study (2) based on the data published by Météo-France, the French national meteorological service, analyses the evolution of average annual temperature patterns in Burgundy over 50 years from 1961 to 2011. A sudden spike is observed around 1987, resulting in a significant difference between the average values for the periods 1961–1987 and 1988–2011. Not only did the latter turn out to be 1.1 °C warmer of the two, but also, perhaps more strikingly, the rate at which the temperature rose was twice that of the global average of about 0.5 °C. Certain villages, like Saint-Léger-Vauban, saw an increase of nearly 2 °C in the warm season (April to September), which roughly corresponds to what sets apart the elegant, perfumed Pinot Noirs of Côte-d’Or and deeply pigmented, phenolic Côts typical of Cahors. According to another data source (3), by 2100, the climate of Beaune may become similar to that of Nîmes, with its hot summers, annual semi-drought and some of the highest temperatures in France, where heady GSM blends are produced. 

Although an increase in average annual temperatures is one of the flagship symptoms of global warming, sudden weather changes and its unpredictability have also taken its toll. Both may have a dramatic impact on the vegetative cycle of the vine and pose a considerable challenge to winemakers. 2021 turned out to be an annus horribilis for many a vigneron in Burgundy, starting with unusually warm February and temperatures reaching 25 °C in mid-March. What promoted a premature budburst, particularly marked in Grand and Premier Cru level Chardonnay, was followed by an abnormal cold spell caused by masses of cold air descending from the Arctic in April. The resulting black frost proved immune to air circulators and turbines. Occasional sunny days didn’t help either, worsening the damage even further by burning the fragile buds due to a magnifying-glass effect of the ice. The rainy summer that followed encouraged the development of mildew and oidium, while further precipitation during harvest preceded by weeks of moderate sunshine posed a serious risk of rot. Certain winemakers lost significant parts of their crops, with production of their high-end labels falling to less than one-fourth of their usual volume. In Meursault, Louis Latour’s famous 1er cru ‘Genevrières’ rendered as little as 20 % of the previous year’s worth, while in Vosne-Romanée, about 70 % of ‘Aux Reignots’ was lost. Many smaller producers released no 2020 vintage at all. 

Curious to learn more, I reached out to Solène Panigai, technical director at Olivier Leflaive, to inquire about how these effects have been felt and dealt with at their renowned maison. ‘Today's vintages swing from one extreme to the other, with weather events such as hail and frost occurring more frequently and more violently than ever before, leading to a serious instability in yields and production. We no longer have linear patterns, but rather a jumble of random spikes and drops. All this has a huge impact on our economy and on the markets, which hate instability,’ she explains.

In the past decades, those extremes could have also been observed as unusually hot summers, which have become the bane of winemakers’ lives in this historically cool region of France. Pinot Noir is a delicate grape variety owing to its thin skin, rendering best-quality wines when high acidity is retained and paired with slowly developed fresh primary aromas. Chardonnay, although more resistant and versatile, traditionally produces burgundies that—even in their richer, oaked style variants—are significantly leaner and fresher than their Californian or South African counterparts. Nowadays, this unique elegance and subtlety risks becoming a thing of the past. The vegetative cycle of the vine has changed dramatically, with veraison occurring on average 9 days earlier than before 1987, and grapes being harvested on average 15 days ahead of what would have been the case in the past. Research (4) clearly shows a link between these changes and the chemical composition of the berries. A significant increase in their sugar levels has been observed together with a considerable drop in acidity. This particularly concerns the content of malic acid, which contributes both to the much sought-after freshness of traditional Chablis, and to the malolactic creaminess of Meursault. Oftentimes, when the acidity and sugar content are already approaching the limits whose exceeding would put quality and/or typicity at stake, aromatic compounds haven’t fully evolved yet. While longer exposure to UV-B rays helps grapes to achieve phenolic ripeness, which on its own would be a good thing, it must be noted that it also leads to an alteration in the composition of aroma precursors and may have a negative impact on wine’s organoleptic characteristics. All this requires snap decisions to be taken which, in extreme cases, may save or ruin the whole vintage and that year’s source of income of the vigneron. ‘On the one hand, our aromatic profiles have changed a great deal, and we’ve noticed our wines are very unstable. On the other, the windows of opportunity for intervention and decision-making have been greatly reduced,’ points out Panigai. ‘We need to be very agile and adapt on the spot, and we're in a sector in which it's becoming increasingly difficult to recruit labour.’ 

Even agile decisions, however, won’t always work wonders against more adverse circumstances like hydric stress. Combined with heatwaves, insufficient water availability is particularly dangerous to the vine. At temperatures over 30 °C its stomata close, which slows down the flow of water in the plant. When this resource is even further limited by drought, tissues start to die, which leads to the leaves’ falling off. Even if bunches don’t suffer further damage, exposure to direct sunlight could bring ripening to a stop. Paradoxically, a long-lasting ban on irrigation in force in many of the best wine regions in the world, although increasingly difficult for vine cultivation, has helped to save water resources. Given how quickly climate has been changing, though, legislation will soon follow suit. The percentage of parcels enduring some level of hydric stress in Burgundy reached nearly 95 % at the end of the last decade, with around 50 % qualified as ‘moderate to severe’ and ‘severe’ in 2019 and 2020. In 2022, in slightly warmer Bordeaux, Pomerol’s winegrowers were granted an unprecedented irrigation permission y the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité to deal with extreme weather conditions and water shortage. Burgundy may need to start issuing such moratoria, too. While some researchers, like Dr Yishai Netzer, argue that irrigation practices need to be updated to optimise vegetative growth, physiological aspects, and yield parameters5, one must not forget that water resources have been becoming increasingly scarce even in cooler climate zones. On the one hand, renewable water resources have been shrinking, with river flows and water table of the lakes fed by them set to decrease by up to 30 % by 2050 (6). On the other, although the average number of rainfall days seems to be remaining stable, their distribution over the course of a year has been increasingly erratic, contributing to much longer dry spells. Another aspect of climate change, the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, also contribute to a faster plant growth, which increases the burden on available water resources even further. That said, any changes to irrigation laws, although possibly crucial to winemakers’ subsistence, must ensure that the exceptions to the rule, which will likely become more and more common, are based on a well-studied, sustainable scientific approach. 

Another, often overlooked consequence of altered rainfall patterns is their impact on vine diseases. Since downy and powdery mildew usually thrive in humid environment, one could intuitively argue that global warming may curb the phytosanitary risks related to these infections. It also is true that winegrowers have been implementing more organic and sustainable practices as a result of this decreased threat, translating into a less frequent use of certain fungicides. This is great news. Nonetheless, recent research shows that there are many more factors that play a major role in vine disease control. Whereas some domaines in Burgundy might have been successful in restricting their use of pesticides or even ditching them altogether, Sébastien Zito, a climatologist, argues that there’s been no clear upward or downward trend in powdery mildew pressure on regional levels in the past 10–20 years (7). Furthermore, elevated temperatures contribute to an accelerated larval growth of many vine-infesting insects. According to Benjamin Bois from the Université de Bourgogne, the duration of the larval stage of the European grapevine moth will have reduced by 31 % by the end of the century, with a replacement rate of a staggering +60 % (8). Moreover, although not a direct consequence of climate change, emerging diseases have become a new threat to viticulture. Recently, Drosophila suzukii, a species of fruit fly originating from Southeast Asia, has been discovered in the south of France posing a considerable risk to its vineyards. Dangerous vine pests that travel around the globe have been known at least since the times of the phylloxera plague in the 19th century. Nowadays, in the era of globalisation, their movement between continents is incomparably easier. Higher temperatures in areas that would have been deemed immune to such threats not long ago, offer increasingly inviting conditions for organisms hitherto thriving in warmer climate. Models based on the Winkler Index, a tool for classifying the climate of wine-growing regions, foresee that by the end of the century, Côte-d’Or will move down by two categories (9): from the current class Ib, with regions like Tasmania, Willamette Valley or Savoie, to class III, where Sonoma Valley, Rioja and, indeed, Languedoc-Roussillon—where Drosophila infestations have been on the rise—currently belong. 

As one of the best winemaking regions in the world, Burgundy is, without a doubt, facing an enormous climate challenge. The outstanding quality of its wines stems not only from a meticulous and strictly regulated winemaking process, but also from their typicity, the preservation of which has been a subject of sustained efforts over many decades. As seen through the lens of both scientific data and experiences of those who make their living in the wine industry, we seem to be on the verge of reaching a point of no return at which the burgundies we all love will become a thing of the past. Is it necessarily a bad thing? Let’s not forget that historically, the wines of Champagne were non-sparkling and red. While much can still be done to counter these changes, like adapting viticultural practices (for example through training vines in a way that ensures better protection from heat, experimenting with different slopes and/or altitudes, and carefully regulated use of irrigation), it may also be an opportunity to rebrand Burgundy as a more approachable wine region without compromising its quality. Many producers, for instance, have been turning to Gamay, which offers characteristics similar to those of Pinot Noir, but with a better resistance to heat, and with very promising results. 

What is crucial at this stage, is that tangible and meaningful actions be taken immediately. Curiously, such steps are known to pair wonderfully with the distinct lime peel, green apple, crème fraîche, and chalkiness of a Chablis. Just in case they vanish in a hundred years: santé! 


1. According to Météo-France, the average summer temperature in the Mâcon area will raise from 19.9 to 22 °C by 2050 (cf.:
2. Yves Richard, Thierry Castel, Benjamin Bois, Cédric Cuccia, Romain Marteau, et al., Évolution des temperatures observées en Bourgogne (1961–2011) [in:] Bourgogne Nature, 2014, 19, pp. 110–117.
3. Chambre régionale d’agriculture de Bourgogne-Franche-Comté; cf.: Repères, Périodique d’Alterre Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, N° 80, Novembre 2020, p. 5.
4. Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne, Les cahiers du Pôle Technique et Qualité #4 : "Les effets du changement climatique en Bourgogne", Février 2021, p. 8; Marie Blackford, Julie Roesle-Fuchs, Markus Rienth, Àgnes Dienes-Nagy, et al., Evolution des acides dans les baies et dans les moûts au cours des derniers millésimes, Revue Suisse Viticulture, Arboriculture, Horticulture, 2019, 51 (5), pp. 290–299.
5. Munitz, Sarel & Netzer, Yishai & Schwartz, Amnon, Sustained and regulated deficit irrigation of fieldgrown
Merlot grapevines [in:] Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research 23 (2016), pp. 87–94.
6. Elea Morel, ‘Réchauffement climatique : quelles seront les ressources en eau en Bourgogne d’ici 2050 ?’(2023) [online:]
7. Sébastien Zito, Evolution du risque phytosanitaire au vignoble dans le nord-est de la France en lien avec le changement climatique : observations et modélisation : Cas de l'oïdium de la vigne, Dijon 2021.
8. Benjamin Bois, Impacts du changement climatique sur les vignobles et remèdes proposés [in:] Rencontres du Clos-Vougeot 2012 : Crises, Mutations, Innovations : le devenir du monde vitivinicole (pp. 273–285).
9. Céline Buche, L’Outil Clima XXI [in:] Les cahiers du Pôle Technique et Qualité…

Marek Zalewski

Related Articles