Complicated it might be, but there are treasures in Burgundy if you know where to look. Navigating his way through whirlpool prices and puzzled natives in search of vinous gold, Hamish Anderson finds that the region is shining brighter than ever before
If you conducted a straw poll of the UK wine trade and asked its members to nominate his or her favourite wine region, in all probability Burgundy would come out on top.
At first glance, there are three very good reasons why it shouldn’t. Firstly, Burgundy is variable; secondly, it is expensive; and lastly, it is fiendishly difficult even for the expert to understand.
So why do we all seem to love the wines so much? Well, while I won’t debate that Burgundy is terribly
complex, the first two points – that it’s expensive and variable – are no longer strictly true. Whereas in the past selecting a bottle of Burgundy was often a haphazard affair, today the region’s quality is far more balanced.
As with all famous wine regions around the world, there has been a gradual realisation that the consumer will not buy wines for long on reputation alone. A dynamic new generation, keen to grow the best possible grapes, has changed the face of Burgundy. And this trend is not confined to the small, boutique domains, but has also reached the large négociants, which were in the past responsible for many of the wines that created Burgundy’s patchy reputation.
The effect of this recent spate of work in the vineyards has been that even in the poorest, coolest and wettest years, good wines are now being made. Burgundy in the 21st century might be less reliable than the Maipo Valley, but it’s a whole lot more consistent than the Burgundy of 20 years ago.
For the love of it…
But there is another reason that Burgundy has always been a firm favourite with the trade and it has more to do with the feelings that the wines conjure up than their taste. Burgundy appeals to our sense of romance and fits perfectly with the reasons that many of us decided to pursue a career in wine in the first place.
Selecting a Burgundy often used to bea haphazard
affair, today the quality is far more balanced
While Parker points, the euro, brokers and first growths at £11,000 a case dominate many of our everyday commercial decisions, they are not what attracted us to the industry. Burgundy has impossibly small vineyards and a ludicrously intricate appellation system. It’s a place where, if you visit the greatest vignerons, you are likely to be met, not by a PR team, but by a larger than life character who is late, having just returned from pruning his (or increasingly her) vineyards. It is wine as we’d all like it to be.
Moreover, in Burgundy, like in many other regions, allocations of the top wines are granted on the basis of loyalty, rather than simply going to those with the biggest chequebook.
All these elements, many of which are under increasing pressure, appeal to our sense of romance. And that is before you even get to the food: a trip to Burgundy is guaranteed to raise the cholesterol levels and leave not only the stomach but also the soul fed and watered. >>
Value for money?
But is Burgundy expensive? Well, in the past I think it was, compared to other classic fine wine regions – particularly as the quality of the wine in the bottle was a bit of a lottery. Now, though, I am not sure. There is no denying that to get out of the starting blocks you need to pay more than any other fine wine region in the world, but if you look in the £10–£25 price bracket you can enjoy the full gamut of what the region has to offer.
And if you compare Burgundy to its great ‘fine’ wine rival Bordeaux, it comes out favourably. With a bit of saving, we can all still afford to drink most of Burgundy’s top producers; the same cannot be said for the wines of its counterpart to the west.
It will be interesting to see over the coming years how the great estates react to the prices now being paid for the top 2005s. For the first time, Burgundy has fallen victim to the trophy hunters – attracted by high Parker points and promises of a ‘once in a lifetime’ vintage. The result? Hyperinflation.
Rare wines have always risen in value, of course. But many grand crus, such as Domaine Dujac’s Clos St-Denis, are already trading at seven times the price at which they were released. How long will it be before owners and wine merchants decide that they want a slice of the profit and increase their prices? After all, demand for these wines is not going to diminish and they are made in miniscule quantities, so from a cold-eyed economic perspective, it makes sense – however much we wish it weren’t so. Sadly, I suspect that 2005 could come to be seen as a watershed vintage in terms of Burgundy pricing.
Bag a bargain
So, given all this, where are the bargains to be found in Burgundy today? The names that immediately spring to mind when you think of this region – Puligny-Montrachet, Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne-Romanée – are some of the most hallowed rows of vines on the earth, but they are not places to go looking for a deal. Any half decent producers in these villages will have little diffculty shifting their wares.
That does not mean, however, that those looking for some affordable Burgundy should totally ignore these vignerons. The canny buyer will search out a bourgogne blanc or rouge from great producers, as these are often made from grapes that are grown just outside the village boundaries, or even declassified young wines from the village itself. The bourgogne blancs from Leflaive, Ramonet or Coche-Dury are expensive of their type. They will, however, give you a glimpse (respectively) of what great Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet or Meursault can taste like.
Many of Burgundy’s lesser regions
sit bang next door to illustrious vineyards
If you take the sensible approach to buying Burgundy – following producers rather than regions – then the great vignerons in the classic areas can be the starting point for some serious bargain hunting in the lesser regions. For example, the stellar wines of Domaine Méo-Camuzet in Vosne-Romanée are perceived to be out of reach for all but the most Michelin-bejewelled restaurants. There is nothing, however, to prevent an innovative gastropub selling its charming red Marsannay or rich Hautes Côtes de Nuits Blanc.
To enjoy Comte Armand’s burly Pommards you’ll need extraordinary patience and a healthy bank balance, yet the domaine also produces an excellent Auxey-Duresses that will give you an idea of what this famous producer is all about. Again, these wines are pricey for their type, but bargains for what is in the bottle. One of the best ways to get to grips with the region and spot a bargain is to get out a map. Many of Burgundy’s lesser regions sit bang next door to illustrious vineyards. St-Aubin, for example, is sandwiched between Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet.
A top producer’s white wine from the premier cru vineyard En Remilly (costing around £16 ex-VAT) could be made from grapes that are a stone’s throw from one of Puligny-Montrachet’s grands crus, Chevalier-Montrachet (costing anything from £70 upwards). The two are, of course, not the same thing, but at least some of the characteristics found in Puligny-Montrachet can be detected in St-Aubin.
Monthélie is even more off the beaten track, having next to no recognition-factor among the average consumer, but it makes both red and white wines and borders Meursault to the south and Volnay to the north, so pick the right producers and you could have another steal on your hands. Pernand-Vergelesses is the cooler cousin of Corton, so select the right vintage and you might find a baby Corton-Charlemagne for your list at little more than a tenner.
The key for any restaurant is to communicate any gems that you do uncover to the customer. It is easier to sell a sub-standard Puligny-Montrachet than a top-notch St-Aubin – both of which will cost the same – but a few well-chosen notes, or even a map, could be the answer.
When less is more
So why should we be looking at lesser areas? Well, because it is here that the full impact of improved viticulture and the arrival of a new generation of growers is being felt. Innovative producers are no longer prepared to accept the hand that fate dealt them. While their cousin might have inherited a couple of prime plots in Chassagne, they ended up with 10ha of Santenay or, worse still, a slice of Maranges.
Ten years ago, when I first learned about Burgundy, regions such as Santenay were dismissed as rustic and coarse. These days it would be a struggle to find any wines from Burgundy that conform to this description being sold in the UK, with winemakers such as François Lequin from Domaine René Lequin-Colin redefining what can be achieved in such regions.
It is no accident, either, that these innovators were the first to embrace new technologies such as the Stelvin screwcap. This is perhaps most true to the south in the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais – traditionally the areas that are looked to for more affordable Burgundy. This has always been the engine room of Burgundy’s wine production but now also has producers with wines to rival their famous northerly neighbours.
Pouilly Fuissé is the most saleable name in the south and there are now scores of good estates here making wine to suit all tastes. From the full-bodied, opulent wines of Christophe Cordier – much loved by Robert Parker – to the restrained, mineral bottles of Denis Barraud from Domaine des Nembrets. The revolution, started a couple of decades ago by the likes of Jean-Marie Guffens (of Maison Verget and Domaine Guffens-Heynen) and Jean Thévent, is in full swing. Every year a new producer emerges and there’s now a breadth of styles to suit all.
Burgundy’s appeal will continue to grow at all levels. Demand for the top wines can only increase, while the style of wine that the region produces, particularly the fruit-driven reds, is in tune with what the consumer wants today. Increased demand, along with the worsening state of the euro, means now is the time to become a shrewd Burgundy buyer and get to grips with the full range of wines this region can offer.
Yo ho ho and a bottle of Macon!
Cap’n Hamish’s five tips for bounty hunters
1 Producer is still everything; try and list the best you can afford from a top producer. It is depressingly easy for a great estate’s generic Bourgogne to out-perform a village or premier cru wine from a famous area.
2 Balance any selection of the classics with some of the more unusual names that offer good value. These must be communicated to the consumer.
3 Négociants used to be a byword for mediocrity; now there are more good ones than bad. They produce wine from across the region, so are able to offer a full range of styles and have the bonus of some brand recognition among consumers. My favourites are Louis Jadot, Chanson and Jean-Claude Boisset.
4 Do not get too hung up on the vintage; sweeping generalisations about the overall quality of a year are rarely the whole picture. Years that in the past would have been a washout can now be fashioned into fruity, forward wines that are perfect for restaurants.
5 Burgundy’s appellation system is tricky enough for the expert to understand, so if you are listing more than a couple, think about the best way to do it; is it stylistically or by region?
Avast! Vintage roundup off the starboard bow…
2000 An early drinking, approachable vintage. Reds are now charming, although all but the top whites, with their relatively low acids, are starting to fade.
2001 Underrated at the time, the reds needed some time but are now turning out to be excellent, terroir-driven wines. Whites are more variable, but the best producers are still going strong.
2002 An excellent vintage all round. Reds show great purity, but the best wines need time. Whites are rich, but with great regional definition; most are now approaching their best.
2003 A unique year of extreme heat and controversy. The whites suffered the most and are generally now fading (although some producers maintain these concentrated, low acid wines will age). The best reds are rich and opulent but lack regional definition and some have harsh tannins. A year to select the producer with care.
2004 A cracking year for those who like classic white Burgundy with the structure to age. Reds
2005 The vintage of the century? Certainly the best I have tried young. Awesomely concentrated reds, but with great purity, although they are now closed down and need time. A similar story for the whites, although their richness and concentration makes them attractive now, high acid levels should also sustain them for years to come.
2006 Attractive, fruity reds that are destined for early consumption – perfect for restaurants. Another excellent white vintage: opulent wines but with lower acids than 2005, so for short-term consumption.
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – September / October 2008