Burgundy: Negociants

  • Thursday 20 August 2009

Burgundy’s fragmented nature means négociants are the region’s glue –
and sources of great value. Stephen Brook introduces the major players

Anégociant in Bordeaux is a merchant who finds markets for wines bought from local

producers. A Burgundian négociant is very different. His role is to assemble wines from a variety of sources and then sell them to private customers, importers, restaurants and retailers. Individual growers may make excellent wines but because their holdings can often be divided among small plots in many vineyards, they often don’t have the volumes to supply clients in need of larger quantities. The négociant will buy either grapes (and vinify them) or must (and ferment it) or finished wines (and age them in their cellars). A network of brokers gives négociants access to these raw materials, or they may have contracts with growers who supply them regularly. They can then blend the resulting wines, offering a more substantial quantity of wine than an individual grower.

But Burgundy’s négociants are more than just blenders and merchants. Many are substantial property owners, offering both limited-volume wines from their own domaines, as well as blended wines. Grapes bought from outstanding growers often result in wines as good as those made from the négociants’ own vineyards, since many top estates regularly sell off barrels to maintain cash flow.

Nor is the distinction between a grower and a négociant that clear. Many domaines, unable to expand because of the high cost of land, will act as smallscale négociants to up production. There appears to be no legal requirement to differentiate wines made from purchased grapes from domaine-bottled wines, though in practice many growers do make that distinction. Thus Domaine Dujac offers its négociant wines under the Dujac Père et Fils label, and Domaine Robert Arnoux uses the Pascal Lachaud label for its excellent négociant range.

Some négociants still make wines of nocharacter and identity, but their number is dwindling. For the most part, négociant wines offer a welcome route into a region which can otherwise appear unwelcoming both in terms of its complexities and prices. Here are some of the best:

The big names

Founded in 1731, Bouchard Père et Fils (Fel) is one of the oldest firms, but it stumbled in the early 1990s, and the Bouchard family put it on the market. Champagne magnate Joseph Henriot bought it and acted swiftly, declassifying or throwing out any bottlings not up to

standard. He also expanded the firm’s own holdings to a 130ha (hectares) in the Côte d’Or, of which 74ha are premiers crus and 12ha are grands crus, including one third of Chevalier-Montrachet. A new winery was built in 2005, permitting the vinification of hundreds of different wines. Quality is now excellent across the board, with white grands crus of superb

quality, and sleek and subtle reds from the Côte de Beaune. One house speciality is Beaune du Château, a blend created in 1907 to mop up numerous small parcels of Beaune Premier Cru, white and red.

Maison Champy (HHC), founded in 1720, has enjoyed a new lease of life since 1990 when it was acquired by wine broker Henri Meurgey and his son Pierre, who now runs the business. The Meurgeys have bought 17ha of vineyards, mostly in the Côte de Beaune, but still buy in grapes and wines. Since 2005, the Champy vineyards have been farmed organically, with many parcels now converted to biodynamism. The best Champy wine is probably the Corton-Charlemagne, and its best red is often Mazis-Chambertin. Quality was patchy in the 1990s but has been more consistent in the past five years.

The great Voltaire was a customer of Chanson (Men), a venerable firm run for generations by the Marion family. By the 1980s, however, the wines were bland, and dubious practices in the cellar only came to light after the company was bought by the Champagne house Bollinger in 1999. Chanson had seen little investment for 50 years and Bollinger moved quickly to restore the vineyards and renovate the cellars. Herbicides were no longer used and mechanical harvesting ceased. Chanson’s trump cards are the numerous Beaune premiers crus that it owns, of which the best known are Clos des Fèves and Clos des Mouches (white and red). Among its top white wines is the robust Corton Vergennes. The reds can be a touch extracted, but overall the wines have far more personality than previously.

Robert Drouhin, who has been handing over the family business of Joseph Drouhin (Pol) to his children, is the epitome of refinement and sobriety; his wines tend to have the same character. The Drouhins are not interested in wines of deep colour, rugged tannins and concentration, so those unfamiliar with their ageing potential often dismiss them as lightweights. Nothing could be further from the truth. The most important family holdings are 31ha of premiers and grands crus in the Côte d’Or, and they also own 28ha of good sites in Chablis. Philippe Drouhin has looked after the vineyards for years, opting for high density

plantings in some sites, replacing old vines with massal selections rather than clones, and, since 2007, farming biodynamically. The Drouhins are not keen on excessive new oak, which rarely exceeds 25%. Among their best known wines are the Chassagne-Montrachet and

Montrachet made from parcels owned by the Marquis de Laguiche, an arrangement initiated in 1947. Also noteworthy are the whites and reds from Beaune Clos des Mouches, wines from top sites in Chambolle such as Amoureuses and Le Musigny, Griotte-Chambertin, and a host of top sites in Vosne-Romanée. Often mrestrained in youth, these can develop

into wines of great poise and beauty.

The US-owned firm of Jadot (HaM) makes forthright, full-flavoured, wellstructured, oaky wines, benefiting from the winemaking brilliance of Jacques Lardière for almost 40 years. With 78ha under its ownership or control (not to mention 70ha in Beaujolais), the company

makes a huge number of wines – no fewer than five premiers crus from Beaune and seven from Gevrey- Chambertin – but there are few disappointments. Informal agreements with growers allow Jadot to influence the farming, and it will sometimes send in its own harvesters. This helps Lardière and his team to maintain the highest standards. Some of Jadot’s own vineyards are farmed biodynamically. Whites and reds are equally fine. Beaune Clos des Ursules is a signature red, but there is a vast range to choose from, and although the wines are on the expensive side, there are splendid bottles among lesser appellations such as the Santenay Clos de Malte and Savigny Clos des Guettes. The whites show tremendous flair, especially the Chevalier- Montrachet which, when young, often outshines the magisterial Montrachet. Lardière also plays close attention to the cheaper end of the range, and Jadot is in the process of building a new winery just to make its excellent Bourgogne wines.

Faiveley (MMD) also has a reputation for structured, rugged wines, though a new team is making changes. Some 80% of the grapes come from its own 122ha estate, though half of this is in Mercurey and Rully. The reds are generally better than the whites, although the Corton- Charlemagne is outstanding. From 1976 to 2006 the business was run by François Faiveley, who then handed over to his son Erwan and the experienced Bernard Hervet, formerly manager of Bouchard Père et Fils. One of the first changes they made was to seek out better-quality oak barrels from their coopers. The proportion of new oak remains quite high, especially for the top sites. Erwan also oversaw the purchase of two other domaines, thus increasing Faiveley’s holdings in Puligny- Montrachet, Volnay and Pommard. François

Faiveley always sought to make longlived wines. The new team is producing less extracted and more stylish wines that should nonetheless age as well as the more tannic models they are leaving behind. Faiveley also produces large quantities of relatively inexpensive wines from its Mercurey vineyards, but the stars of the range are the grands crus Clos des Corton,

Mazis Chambertin and Clos de Bèze.

Jean-Claude Boisset (Bis) built up a wine empire with remarkable speed, buying merchant houses and properties in Beaujolais, the Rhône, Canada, Uruguay and California, as well as

Burgundy. Quality was mixed, to put it politely, but his son Jean-Charles brought about a revolution. Some houses within the group, such as Bouchard Aîné and Ropiteau, have been given considerable,winemaking autonomy, which has improved quality. The personal holdings

of the Boisset family have been hived off into the biodynamic Domaine de la Vougeraie, and a new négociant label, JC Boisset, was created about 10 years ago. Here the focus is on very high quality, overseen by winemaker Grégory Patriat.

Over 200 years old and still in family hands, Louis Latour (LLt) remains a bit of a mystery. The company owns 50ha, of which 17ha are grand cru sites in Corton. The whites have always been better than the reds, although quality can be uneven, with some heaviness and lack of vivacity dogging some whites. Nonetheless the grands crus can be first-rate. The red wines are vinified using a technique called flash pasteurisation at high temperatures. Latour defends the practice as eliminating potentially harmful bacteria and allowing the wines to be

bottled with only minimal filtration. The reds were feeble in the 1990s but are showing signs of improvement.

Other names to know

Patriarche (Pat) is one of France’s largest producers, notably for sparkling wines. Its négociant Burgundy range is extensive but inconsistent, but the firm also owns Châteaux de Meursault and de Marsannay, run independently but marketed by Patriarche. Quality is sound. Bichot (N/A UK; www.bourgognebichot.com), founded in 1831 and still family-owned, has made great strides since the arrival of the latest generation, Alberic Bichot, in 2002. Grapes are bought for large-volume wines, such as its Bourgogne, but it has also bought domaines in Vosne-Romanée, Pommard and Mercurey, and has long owned Long-

Depacquit in Chablis. These domaine wines are of a high standard and (except for Chablis) aged in substantial new oak.

Based in Aloxe-Corton, Corton- André (RBa) changed hands in 2002, and is now part of the Ballande group, which owns Château Prieuré-Lichine in Margaux. The best wines, unsurprisingly, are from Corton grands crus, but succulent red wines from Aloxe-Corton,

Volnay and Nuits-St-Georges suggest standards are improving on all fronts. Near the legendary Domaine Leflaive in Puligny-Montrachet are the cellars of Anne-Claude’s cousin Olivier Leflaive (HHC), where a fine range is produced by long-term winemaker Franck Grux.

The reds are rarely exported, and the firm’s reputation rests on its whites: both the grands crus of Puligny and Chassagne, and good-value wines from less fashionable villages such as St-Aubin and Rully.

The energetic, likeable, well-connected Nicolas Potel (BBR, Bib, L&W) has worked wonders since he created his négociant business almost 10 years ago. Although the company was bought by another négociant, Labouré-Roi, in 2003, Potel is in charge, releasing a great array of pure, rich reds and, since 2004, equally fine whites, including grands crus.

Small but mighty

Maison Leroy (J&B) has been run for more than 50 years by Lalou Bize-Leroy, who also owns the entirely separate Domaine Leroy in Vosne-Romanée. The wines she buys are hoarded in her cellars until she considers them ready to drink. They are then released to eager collectors at terrifyingly high prices.

Former pastry chef Dominique Laurent (GrC) sees himself as an eléveur, patiently nurturing the wines he buys in a high proportion of new oak. The result is a range of powerful, often extracted and very costly reds that have detractors as well as admirers. Alex Gambal (NwG) is an American who has patiently created a small, high-quality négociant company. Whites and reds are equally good, and prices are moderate.

Camille Giroud (BBR), a longestablished company that specialised in releasing old vintages of variable quality, is also US-owned, and winemaker David Croix has benefited from new investment and the deep pockets of his investors, allowing him to buy fine grand cru wines.

Quality, especially for reds, is high.

Etienne de Montille, who runs the family estate in Volnay and the Château de Puligny, and his sister Alix have created a small négociant, called Deux Montilles (Gns). Production is limited, but thewhites from St-Aubin, Puligny and Corton-Charlemagne are excellent.

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