With zillions of producers, huge variations in quality and high prices, Burgundy can be a minefield for the sommelier. Louis Villard quizzes the experts to find out where they go to pick up bargains
Finding good-value Burgundy does not mean you have to hit every tasting in London or even fly out to the notoriously expensive region. Both of these help, of course, but after talking to some top sommeliers, I discovered that you can beef up your offering with a few maps, a magnifying glass and a bit of perseverance.
Burgundy is in a constant state of change, like some sort of evolutionary bubble worthy of a David Attenborough nature series. ‘It’s the place where discoveries are important, not in terms of the region but with the people,’ says Mathieu Longuere of La Trompette in west London. ‘Burgundy is always changing. If there is a divorce, if there is a death, there is usually a new label immediately.’ Longuere keeps an eye on this sort of information year after year, with the peculiarities of France’s Napoleonic law governing inheritance often throwing up new and exciting producers.
In fact, people seem to be the key. The way to find success in Burgundy, according to most on-trade authorities, seems to be to follow the producer, not the region. Hamish Anderson of the Tate Group, to name but one, suggests you ignore the textbooks and keep an eye out for individual growers.
‘What happens when you look up Santenay or Marsannay? It says it’s underripe and green. But actually, there are a lot of young growers who have inherited land and are making entirely different and better wine than their fathers did,’ he says.
Good producers, in other words, can make some decent wine even if it is from relatively unpromising locations – particularly if they’re smaller. Why? Jason Haynes, buyer at merchant Flint Wines, uses an interesting analogy.
‘It is like horse trainers,’ he says. ‘When you’ve got a trainer from one of the bigger stables, he’s got loads more to deal with; he can’t pay meticulous attention to each horse as would a smaller stable. A smaller stable has four or five horses and that’s where all the trainer’s attention is focused. The smaller trainer is much like the producers in the smaller regions of Burgundy. They work harder as they have nothing to lose and all to gain.’
Head for the hills
We are well aware of the famous walled-in sub-regions of Burgundy. Tiny plots of land, home to some of the most expensive soil in the world. There’s not much attention paid to good value here – let them worry about that in the Languedoc. But what you’ll discover if you turn your attention further away to the hills (in some cases, considerably far into the hills) is that good-value wines can be found. ‘The producers on the edges of Burgundy are producing some exciting stuff and it’s affordable,’ says Ivan Dixon, buyer at Harvey Nichols.
So, starting from the northern end of Burgundy, let’s take a gentle wander southwards in search of good-value, off-the-beaten-path recommendations.
‘The producers on the edges of
Burgundy are producing some exciting
stuff and it’s affordable’ Ivan Dixon
Côte de Nuits
‘It gets expensive and is a bit unimaginative to have a column of Vougeot on your list, a column of Meursault, and so on. We’re looking to expand out of the normal areas, to somewhere like Fixin for example,’ says Dixon.
Fixin and Marsannay sit on the northern end of the Côtes de Nuits just south of Dijon and are a perfect example of what you should be looking for: sub-regions at the extremities. Growers to look out for in Marsannay are Domaine Jean Fournier and Sylvain Pataille; in Fixin, Domaine Philippe Naddef and Domaine Pierre Gelin.
Donald Edwards of Le Bouchon Breton in London has a quirky little theory of his own. ‘I’m finding there are some great deals with what I call “the three Ms”: Marsannay, Mercurey and Montagny. Within these regions there are some spectacular wines.’
Côte de Beaune
Moving further south, about halfway down the Côte de Beaune, there are more good-value areas. Specifically, northwest of the area between Meursault and Chassagne-Montrachet, there is a cluster of satellite villages. Monthelie (just north of the town of Meursault) is a good starting point, then west from there is Auxey-Duresses – both are just on the wrong side of the tracks, and therefore cheaper than their big-name neighbours.
‘A lot of these vineyards are touching Meursault vineyards and are very similar in style, but because of the appellation they are sometimes a lot cheaper,’ says David Varielle, formerly of Bleeding Heart, now at the new Bar Boulud, Daniel Boulud’s bistro at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in London.
‘What you’ll find is a lot of the producers with more expensive, sought-after wines, also make regional wines from the outer edges of Burgundy,’ says Ronan Sayburn MS of the Hotel du Vin Group. Longuere agrees, suggesting that Domaine Potinet-Ampeau (which owns vineyards in both Montrachet and Monthelie) is particularly worth looking out for. Domaine Rousseau and Dujac in the Côte de Nuits are also producers bottling great wines under generic Burgundy labels.
Perhaps one of the best examples of less-illustrious neighbours is St-Aubin. The premier cru vineyards towards the southern end of St-Aubin are literally a small patch of trees away from Chevalier Montrachet. It’s here that some of the sommeliers’ favourite producers are situated: Jean-Claude Bachelet et Fils and Domaine Roux Père et Fils.
‘It’s when I can’t find much detail of the region in the atlas that I really start itching for a good find,’ says Edwards. And this is exactly what happens on the southern tip of the Côte de Beaune, in the communes of Maranges, which actually disappear off the end of the map (have a look for yourself in The World Atlas of Wine, sixth edition, 2007, page 59 if you think I’m joking). Despite being at the world’s end, both Edwards and Sayburn are fans of the producer Domaine Vincent Girardin.
Some favoured merchants, as recommended by sommeliers:
Armit 020 7908 0655
‘I would much rather buy wine from a small producer in a little region like Rully, who’s working his guts off to make better wine, than from someone in Puligny or Chassagne, who is making mediocre wine and cashing in on his vineyard’s location,’ says Haynes at Flint Wines. This is what Edwards seems to have done as well, by recently listing a Rully – Dureuil-Janthial Premier Cru – by the glass at what he describes as ‘a considerably good price’.
A lot of the grapes in Rully still go to sparkling wine production, but there are a few emerging producers bursting that bubble. Jean-Baptiste Ponsot is a favourite for numerous sommeliers – not least because he took over his family’s estate about seven years ago, aged just 20.
Further south in the Côte Chalonnaise is the largest sub-region of the area: Mercurey. Here, production focuses on reds, with the likes of Domaine Tupinier-Bautista and Domaine du Meix Foulot both producing exceptional examples. And continuing further south, to Givry, for more reds, François Lumpp has proved himself as a source of good wine in this
relatively unknown region.
The Mâconnais sits at the bottom of Burgundy (if you’re not counting Beaujolais, which, judging from the official BIVB maps, they don’t) and is considerably warmer then the other regions. Most famous for Pouilly-Fuissé, which comes with a sizeable price tag, Longuere suggests you look southeast of this region at Vinzelles. Try producer Domaine La Soufrandière, for instance. ‘The producers of Vinzelles have to try even harder to get noticed above the Fuissé growers,’ he says. ‘They don’t even have to put Vinzelles on their labels, but they are proud of their little region.’
Why off is good
Displaying columns of the best vintages is always a nice way to bolster your Burgundy kudos, and it’s satisfying to be able to roll them off to customers. The trouble, of course, is that it’s a hugely expensive option. You can avoid the phone-number-length prices, though, by sourcing wines from the not-so-perfect vintages.
Gearoid Devaney MS of Sarment, for one, likes their availability. ‘Wine collectors tend not to stock up on the lower-scoring vintages, therefore leaving the merchants more of these wines at reasonable prices,’ he says. Sayburn, meanwhile, believes that these lesser-known vintages are better suited to restaurants in any case, because they tend to drink earlier so sommeliers don’t need to sit on the stock.
So, should you stuff your list with off-vintages? Well, it’s not quite as simple as that, and picking around the seconds rail has inherent dangers that mean you need to be careful. To minimise the risk, Edwards searches out the better producers in off-vintages, believing they ‘tend to know how to handle lower-quality grapes in extreme situations’.
‘It’s when I can’t find much detail of the
region in the atlas that I really start
itching for a good find’ Donald Edwards
Of course, with a region as vast and as complicated as Burgundy, there is no substitute for actually getting out there and sniffing the terroir. Longuere regularly attends the legendary Burgundy tasting Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne (www.grands-jours-bourgogne.com) and highly recommends taking at least a few days off and heading out to the event.
Nicolas Angelina, consultant buyer of relatively new agent Sommelier’s Friend, concurs. ‘If you know how to ship wines over yourself, go to Burgundy, knock on all the doors and taste for yourself. This is when discoveries are made.’ Anderson achieves a similar ‘inside track’ effect by scanning French wine publications for producers, then contacting them directly.
So, whether it is by scanning the maps or physically going out to Burgundy, there are bargains to be had. But most of all, just remember that the region is always changing and you have to be proactive in finding that next deal.
‘Keep calm and carry on’ How to sort out your Burgundy offering
Ronan Sayburn MS,
Hotel de Vin Group
‘If it is hard to pronounce, it is lesser known and therefore can probably be found at better value. The likes of Pernand-Vergelesses and Auxey-Duresses are in this category.’
Gearoid Devaney MS, Sarment
‘Leave no stone unturned. You can’t be lazy. You’ve got to hunt for the good stuff and work with your merchants.’
Mathieu Longuere MS,
’Use merchants that change their Burgundy listings around or are always adding new domaines; when a merchant stays with a domaine for a while, a relationship is built up, but also year on year prices go up, too.’
’If you are out in Burgundy and are able to buy in relatively large quantities, just talk to the producers. They are usually willing to work something out and send you wines direct.’
Le Bouchon Breton
’If you can get a good-enough price, try adding premier-cru wines from off-vintages by the glass. Suppliers obviously like it when you purchase in bulk, plus more often than not, they are sitting on lots of wines from these sort of vintages. It’s really down to negotiation.’