Jefford on Monday: Burgundy's Buy Signal

If you've followed Burgundy regularly over the last decade and a half, you will have seen its prices make for the mountains.

Burgundy

Rousseau’s 1990 Chambertin could be had in November 1996 for just under £50 each (my two bottles are long since drunk, alas); the same wine from the 2009 vintage commands just under £1,000 a bottle. The 1999 Nuits St Georges Les St Georges from Chevillon was under £25 a bottle in June 2002; the price of the 2009 has quadrupled. The Clos de Tart 2005 fetched £135 a bottle as recently as January 2008; the 2010 will set you back double that.

The lesson from this year’s Hospices de Beaune auction, though, is that the cost of great burgundy is about to get steeper still. “Buy, buy, buy” are not three words I’ve often typed out without further qualification. If you like fine burgundy, though, take them as written now.

Perhaps it was the Carla effect (Gérard Depardieu, in the end, never made it), but I’ve never seen the relatively small auction room in the centre of Beaune besieged as it was this year. Tradition decrees that the celebrity ‘président’ of each auction is given a cask whose proceeds go to their own charity.

France’s former first lady, in combination with the French football trainer Guy Roux, had 350 litres of Corton to sell. She promised to deliver it personally once bidding crossed €200,000, and to take her husband with her once it crossed €250,000 (there was speculation that these thresholds should have been reversed). At €300,000, she was meant to break into song – but, in the end, the rafters never echoed to ‘Quelqu’un m’a dit’. Monsieur and Madame Sarkozy should, though, be Ukraine-bound to deliver the Bichot-bottled Corton 2012 at €579 a bottle (plus costs) to the successful bidders, Igor and Zvetlana Iankovskyi.

Underneath this agreeable froth, prices powered forward by over 18.11 per cent for whites and an astonishing 68.85 per cent for red wines. Why? For two reasons, neither of them reassuring for those of us hoping to buy the occasional Grand Cru bottle.

First of all, the 2012 harvest has turned out much better than anyone dared hope; indeed Anthony Hanson MW, in whose veins burgundy has flowed for 30 years, claimed in the Christie’s pre-publicity that quality is comparable to 2005. If so, this is remarkable.

I remember Sylvain Pitiot of Clos de Tart saying that he’d ‘done nothing’ in 2005, a claim to idleness that many growers echoed, explaining that ‘nature’ had made the wines that year. In 2012, by contrast, Pitiot told me that “we had every problem except hail” – and many on the Côte de Beaune had that, too. Marc Rougeot in Meursault said his vines were frosted, sunburned, suffered from both downy and powdery mildew and were hit by three hail storms; instead of the usual 430 barrels, he has made just 136. “Mais,” he added, “il y a des très belles choses.” The key to the weird success of 2012 burgundy was hard work combined with late summer warmth, which somehow pulled the surviving grapes out of the jaws of the catastrophe that had threatened by late July. The surviving grapes, note: all of those problems plus an often aborted flowering means the third short vintage in a row in Burgundy, something that even older growers can never recall before.

At the same time, the market for burgundy is roaring. Asian purchases increased by 30% at this year’s Hospices sale, in part owing to quickening Chinese interest; the traditionally strong Japanese market is up by 35%; Burgundy outsold Bordeaux in the USA in 2011 (sales worth $182 million compared to $169 million for Bordeaux, a yearly increase for Burgundy of 33%). Of course, the price of the 33 Grands Crus rises disproportionately steeply under these circumstances – yet it is precisely those wines which have been hardest hit this year. “We have a normal harvest for village wines in 2012,” Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac told me. “But we have a small harvest for Premier Cru wines, and a tiny harvest for Grand Cru wines.”

These are, too, worrying times for Burgundy’s négociants, the merchants who customarily market up to 70 per cent of the region’s production. Around 90 per cent of those growers supplying fruit to négociants also make their own wines nowadays. With harvest levels cut by as much as half in a strong market, many have said that they will not be able to supply merchants in 2012.

Stock may be short, but Burgundy is basking in qualitative warmth, with 2004 and 2007 the last disappointing vintages. Both 2009 and 2010 were contrastingly enticing. I love the ripe, generous 2009s, whereas Burgundy growers and classicists prefer 2010: both tasted delicious this mid-November. The early ripening 2011 has produce attractive wines, too. Stocks of 2009 and 2010 are still available, while 2011 is about to go on sale. If you’ve been sitting on your hands, do so no longer.

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com