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France is the world's largest wine producer. And grape products - wine, champagne and spirits - are the country's biggest export after the aeronautic sector. But bad weather this year has made the 2012 grape harvest the smallest in half a century. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley visited winemakers in the region of Burgundy who seem to be taking the loss in stride.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Neat rows of grape vines run down the slopes of the Cotes de Beaune, all the way to the gravel driveway at Chateau Corton Andre. The castle's traditional Burgundy black and yellow tiled roof glistens in the autumn sun.
It's a beautiful today.
ANTOINE PIRIE: Absolutely. Today, absolutely outstanding.
BEARDSLEY: That's Antoine Pirie, managing director of wine house Pierre Andre, which is headquartered in the chateau. Despite today's sun, Pirie says rain and frost this spring and three bizarre summer hailstorms cut grape yields 50, 60 even 70 percent at some vineyards. This at a time when Burgundy is increasingly popular and sales are booming in the U.S., Britain and across Asia.
PIRIE: And at the same time, we are going to face a very small crop. So, in fact, you are going to have a kind of difference between offer and demand. And in that case, the consequence is a big increase in prices.
BEARDSLEY: In the chateau's cellar, which dates back to the 14th century, tourists and wine dealers are sampling various vintages. Burgundy is about seven times smaller than France's other major wine-growing region, Bordeaux. And its vineyards are divided into much smaller plots, which are often owned and worked by families instead of large estates. Burgundy fans say each wine is unique here, reflecting not only the winemaker's style but also the soil, the sun and the specific place on the hill where the grapes are grown. Wine dealer Philip Slocombe has been coming to Burgundy for 20 years. He says his clients can never get enough of grand cru Burgundy wines.
PHILIP SLOCOMBE: I think when you taste a good white or red wine from Burgundy that is elegant, subtle, complex, and in the second glass and the third glass keeps asking questions, then you get something, you think, wow, this is something special. Once you've been taken by Burgundy, you always come back. It's - there's a wonderful soul here.
BEARDSLEY: Wine is the lifeblood of the tiny villages that dot the landscape of this region, and it will take more than bad weather or an economic downturn to change a centuries-old way of living centered around grapes.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL TOLLING)
BEARDSLEY: The church bells are ringing as we arrive in the village of Pommard, and a deep, fermented smell permeates the air.
Oh, my God, they're distilling a liqueur - hard alcohol called Marc de Bourgogne. A huge vat, a Dempster-Dumpster vat that is steaming, steaming with a huge mound of crushed grapes being distilled out here in the town plaza next to the church.
Some of those crushed grapes are from the vineyard owned by Anne Parent, a 12th-generation winemaker at Domaine Parent.
ANNE PARENT: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Eleven generations of men, and I'm the first woman, she says, calling it the second French revolution.
BEARDSLEY: Love it.
PARENT: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Parent heads down into the cellar where the 2012 vintage is aging in massive oak barrels. There is room here for 350 barrels, but today there are fewer than 200. Parent says despite the dismal season, the harvest finished on a good note with hot, dry weather, which pushed the grapes to full maturity.
PARENT: This vintage is an amazing vintage, a fantastic quality. Very nice quality, very nice balance between fruit, tannin, acidity. Very expressive. Very generous for both whites and reds. But the quantity is ridiculous. Ridiculous.
BEARDSLEY: A few kilometers away, the bottling plant at Domaine Albert Bichot is at full throttle. The company, one of Burgundy's largest, exports nearly 4 million bottles a year. Owner Alberic Bichot says no matter how good the quality of the 2012 vintage, growers will not be able to make up for the loss in volume.
ALBERIC BICHOT: No, it's impossible. Our customers, they are not ready to pay the double price or 50 percent increase. In the best conditions, we could increase by 10 or 15 percent.
BEARDSLEY: But Bichot says Burgundy winemakers are always ready for the unexpected, so they keep reserves from previous years to smooth out the lean times. Still, he warns, the shortage this year is so acute that come 2014, when the 2012 vintage hits the shelves, Burgundy lovers may have to drink sparingly. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News.
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