On the face of it, 2014 was another troubled and much-reduced year in Burgundy. In fact, says Hamish Anderson, looking outside big-name areas could pay real dividends for approachable reds and exceptional whites
The Burgundy en-primeur season is unique. It rounds up sommeliers, journalists and trade at the beginning of a new year to sample a region most have real fondness for.
Bordeaux’s annual bash might garner more press but few in the on-trade experience it, while the Rhône only shows its wares in the best vintages. The fixed, unchanging format of the first two weeks of January gives the impression of stability.
Yet beneath the routine, Burgundy is a region undergoing profound change.
These changes are being driven by demand; a wider audience than ever appreciates Burgundy at all levels. It was fitting, then, that the first major event of the 2014 vintage was not climatic, but the acquisition of the historic and prestigious (it is predominantly grand cru vineyards) Clos des Lambrays by LVMH in April.
While this caused consternation in the region and press (unlike Bordeaux, most top estates in Burgundy are still family-owned), in the vineyards winemakers were welcoming a warm, uneventful spring. This led to an early and good flowering. Growers were happy the first major hurdle towards having a usual quantity of grapes to harvest had been cleared.
The context of yields is particularly important in Burgundy just now. The last normal year was 2009. Both 2010 and 2011 were below average, while 2012 and 2013 were even worse and catastrophic for some regions. Over the same period, demand globally has risen. By spring 2014 the cellars of many were bare.
Sadly, having negotiated flowering, early summer saw hail play a major part in a vintage for the third year in a row. It arrived about a month earlier (in late June) than 2013 but unfortunately for those in its path targeted nearly the same vineyards as the previous year. Corton, Beaune, Pommard, Volnay and Meursault were badly hit.
The results were obvious: Domaine Chanson with 45ha in Beaune lost 70% of its crop, and for the second year in a row there is no wine from its most renowned Beaune vineyard, Clos des Mouches.
In Meursault, damage was more localised but still meant Domaine des Comtes Lafon did not bottle any of the premier cru vineyards Les Poruzots, Genevrières or Bouchères. The vagaries of nature are emphasised by Alexandre Moreau of Domaine Bernard Moreau, only a few kilometres down the road in Chassagne-Montrachet, who saw his ‘quantity not affected’ with only ‘a few seconds of hail’.
Some have drawn (a little) comfort from the fact that the early storm date at least gave the remaining fruit time to recover and the resulting smaller yields produced excellent quality.
But Guillaume Guiton of Domaine Jean Guiton put a contrary position to me. Tasting his usually charming Beaune premier cru Les Sizies together we both noted its clunky nature. He lost 75% of this vineyard in 2014, and 80% in 2013. He attributed the wine’s hard edges to the damage done to the canopy by the unusually large hailstones of the late June storm. Without sufficient leaves, the ripening stopped for 10 to 14 days, accounting for the greenness at harvest.
As ever in Burgundy, individual area and producer is all important; generalisations are hard to make and often mislead.
A period of relative normality lasted only a few weeks after the hail. From mid-July to late August, the weather across the region was unseasonally damp and cool. The vintage was made by an Indian summer that started towards the end of August and allowed producers to pick generally as they pleased through September.
But nature was not quite finished with Burgundy’s vignerons. Although not a new phenomenon, the Asian fruit fly became a major problem in 2014. Its numbers were likely bolstered by the very mild 2013/2014 winter.
Anyone who has tasted in wineries around harvest time will know about fruit flies; they are everywhere and have a habit of drowning themselves in your wine glass if you are not careful.
In 2014 there are delicious reds from the less fashionable villages such as Marsannay, Maranges or Fixin
In the past these would have been the common vinegar fly. These insects feast on rotting or split fruit so in a normal vintage they are an annoyance rather than a disaster. The Asian fruit fly is worse, laying its eggs in unripe fruit (although only in red grape varieties) and turning the juice acetic.
The answer was to sort assiduously at the winery for pre-harvest affected bunches. The best producers’ quality was unaffected, but it doesn’t bode well for the cheap reds from the south where machine-picking is the norm.
The resulting wines are unusual: it’s the first year in my memory when whites have taken centre stage. Christopher Delalonde MS from Medlar describes it as ‘a generous year – more than decent. I am pretty impressed and will buy some’, while Alastair England, head sommelier at Zuma, calls it ‘a white vintage, for sure’.
It is a sentiment that ran throughout the introductions to the merchant tastings and it is a valid one. This is the best collection of young whites I have tried since starting en-primeur tasting in 1996. They are wines with depth and power, yet with a precise sense of place and refinement, all achieved at moderate alcohol levels.
I had a few insipid entry-level wines, which tasted as if the producer has pushed the yields too high to make up for the previous years’ shortfall, but generally it is good at all points. There is Bourgogne Blanc that tastes like Chassagne-Montrachet and wines from the Mâconnais that taste like the Beaune’s.
This is also the time to explore whites from supposedly lesser areas such as Saint-Romain or Santenay – wines that were previously simple and easy are now complex and serious. In the north there are breathtaking wines coming out of Chablis.
My only reservation is that at the top of the pyramid they will be at their best in five years plus, by which time many will have been drunk. They feel too good to not go through a dumb, closed stage – something we are used to for reds but are not accustomed to for whites. Sommeliers at the country’s top establishments will need to follow their progress carefully so as not to disappoint their customers.
In the long term this will hopefully be the vintage to re-establish the ageing credentials of white Burgundy and banish the bad memories and present realities of premature oxidation.
The reds are more varied and will be overshadowed by the whites and the promise of an already hyped 2015.
This, though, would be a mistake as Pascal Marchand (ex-Domaine de la Vougeraie and Comte Armand and now runs his own négociant business, Marchand-Tawse) says ‘they have more depth than people think’.
More importantly, the good ones are perfect on-trade fare. They will drink well young, are mid-weight, have supple tannin, moreish but not tart acidity and bright, fresh fruit. The Côte de Nuits is more successful than the Beaune both in terms of volume and quality although there are some excellent wines from the latter.
In the Nuits there are lovely wines throughout the region and I particularly enjoyed areas such as Nuits-Saint-Georges and Morey-Saint-Denis whose natural, early reticence has been pushed to one side by the charm of the vintage. In other vintages categorised as varied, like 2008, the lesser sites lacked appeal. In 2014 there are delicious wines made across the region from the less fashionable villages such as Marsannay, Maranges or Fixin.
There are must-have wines in both red and white, so the question becomes how to access them.
Merchants (especially those with a strong private client list) have to make tough decisions. Restaurants pay slowly and want older vintages; private clients pay quickly and are happy to cellar wine. It is not hard to see who often wins.
At Goedhuis & Co’s tasting, over half the whites from the superb Domaine Marc Colin et Fils were already sold out before the tasting, as a result of a pre-offer offer. This is a trend which I am sure will increase in the best years. Though you may ask why bother having an en-primeur tasting if you can sell wines without showing them to the wider trade or public?
In the bag
For the on-trade, however, these tastings remain useful. Even if you cannot afford to lay down any wine, attending is invaluable as you can get a feel for the producers you like. Then you need to contact one of the specialist on-trade suppliers of Burgundy and hope they have some older stock.
Delalonde says his customers ‘want wine with a little bit of age’ but adds ‘if you find any 2007, 2008, 2009 you are a happy man’. Gearoid Devaney MS explains Flint Wines ‘choose wine that does not go near retail’. They ‘hold wines for the on-trade’ at considerable ‘cost to us’.
Devaney also indirectly highlights that, for once, the balance of power is with the supplier not sommelier. He says all their allocation of their Domaine Duroché wines could be sold through their retail arm, but are not. If you want to get the best slice of Burgundy action you will need to build a relationship and this will entail buying wine from across a range. Having the ability to buy parcels as and when they appear is also invaluable.
Best on-trade suppliers of Burgundy
Charles Taylor Wines, 020 78221 1772
Domaine Direct, 020 7404 9933
Fields, Morris & Verdin, 020 7819 0360
Flint Wines, 020 7582 2500
Goedhuis & Co, 020 7793 7900
Howard Ripley Wines, 020 8748 2608
H2Vin, 020 3478 7376
Lea & Sandeman, 020 7244 0522
OW Loeb & Co, 020 7234 0385
Prices are stable, or lower than the generally inferior 2013s, helped by an improved exchange rate and, if you are a red producer, the promise of 2015 that is likely to be heavily oversubscribed.
Some bemoan that Burgundy is now out of reach for all but the wealthiest. Every year the number of growers that many of us used to be able to drink – and pour – but are now out of reach for all but the most elite wine lists, grows.
Domaine de La Romanée-Conti is long gone, and I do not think I will be selling or drinking much Dujac, Armand Rousseau, Sylvain Cathiard & Fils, Roulot or Denis Mortet wines in the future.
However, there is a wealth of young talent coming through, and areas dismissed as rustic and hard-to-sell are being transformed. Maranges was only created as an appellation in 1989 and for years barely registered with the Burgundy lover. Now producers such as David Moreau and Bertrand Bachelet are making brilliant wine that is accessible in flavour and price.
The négociant scene is also vibrant. Tiny, micro outfits such as Jane Eyre, Mark Haisma and Chanterêves are thriving, while some of the most consistent ranges I tried in 2014 came from two mid-sized companies, Jean-Claude Boisset and Maison Roche de Bellene.
The elite Burgundians are pricier than ever and will likely continue to rise. Such is the law of supply and demand.
However a vintage like 2014 shows how much more consistent in quality the region is and this, coupled with the dynamism of its producers, means I will keep looking forward to the first two weeks of January.
Hamish’s top 2014 wines under £20
Domaine Bernard Moreau et Fils Bourgogne Blanc 2014
£115, Flint Wines, 020 7582 2500
Jean-Claude Boisset Marsannay Blanc 2014
£156, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350
Bret Brothers, La Soufrandière, Pouilly-Vinzelles ‘Les Quarts’ 2014
£162, Fields, Morris & Verdin, 020 7819 0360
Jean-Philippe Fichet Auxey-Duresses Blanc 2014
£174, H2Vin, 020 3478 7376
Jean-Paul et Benoît Droin, Chablis Premier Cru Montmains 2014
£200, Goedhuis & Co, 020 7793 7900
Domaine Bertrand Bachelet, Maranges Premier Cru La Fussière 2014
£135, Flint Wines, 020 7582 2500
Maison Roche de Bellene Nuits-Saint-Georges Vieilles Vignes 2014
£205, H2Vin, 020 3478 7376
Domaine Lignier-Michelot Morey-Saint-Denis Vieilles Vignes 2014
£240, Lea & Sandeman, 020 7244 0522
All prices for 12-bottle cases, in bond.