- Wednesday 19 August 2009
I fell in love with Burgundy 40 years ago. I went to live there, and then started trading and writing about its wines. Back then, red Burgundies in particular used to be fiercely criticised, but they have improved immensely, especially since the mid- 1980s. Some problems persist, and the region remains complicated to buy from, but today we can confidently say that
Burgundy is in a Golden Age.
One reason behind this is that many famous Burgundian négociants have extended their vineyard holdings, and expanded their grape-buying and winemaking (as chronicled in Stephen Brook’s article, following this one). I will concentrate instead on the progress made by the region’s domaines – some longestablished, some new, some enlarged. Whatever their provenance, most are vastly improved – and it’s all down to a generation who were in short trousers when I first set foot in this hallowed land.
Burgundy’s winemaking history goes back to at least 312AD, but we are more concerned with the recent past. In the years after WWII, there was growing demand for fine wines in export markets. This encouraged Burgundians to spread fertilisers, particularly nitrogen and
potassium-based, to increase production. Horses were replaced by tractors, making the work less onerous and more efficient. Alas yields rose (partly due to the chemical additives, and partly to the planting of productive vinestocks) and there was little understanding of the
effect fertilising would have on soils, or the character of the wines produced. Benefiting from famous place names, for a time in the 1950s and 60s the wines opened up new markets. But the reds were often pale in colour and weak on fruit intensity. Pinot Noir rarely produces
deeply coloured wines. But the reputation of the region had been made through their succulent fruitiness and structure, with balancing, gentle tannins and acidity, allowing wines to improve with ageing.
Potassium fertilisers had damaging effects on soil balance. So did herbicides and pesticides), which reduced the microbial life in the soils. The natural acidities of the wines dropped away,
diminishing their staying power. It soon became clear that you could only make wines that reflect the character of the village, or vineyard, from which they come (i.e. terroir), by strictly controlling yields. Large harvests gave diluted fruit concentrations and neutral wines that were susceptible to grey rot.
In 1963, 1965 and 1968, bad weather made it almost impossible to make good red Burgundy. 1974 was challenging. In 1977, some wines from two famous Côte de Nuits domaines contracted tourne – spoilage caused by bacteria, which destroys tartaric acid and raises volatile acidity. One domaine (Armand Rousseau) to its great credit took the wines back; the other refused to discuss the matter.
In the 1950 and ’60s, winemakers in Burgundy spent more time in laboratories than vineyards, doing analyses, and recommending cures and treatments for wines which were falling sick. An alternative, preventative approach was pioneered by, among others, Henri Meurgey, who founded Bourgogne- Services-Vins in 1972. From 1956 to 1974, he was broker for Alexis Lichine (who owned vineyards in Corton and Nuits-St-Georges) and was one of the few to deal directly with export markets. He knew what overseas clients wanted. Winemakers became more involved in winemaking, rather then curing. The individualist spirit of your average Burgundian winemaker means he would rather undertake his own experiments – albeit making a few mistakes – than follow a media-loved celebrity expert.
In the 1970s and 80s a new generation was taking over at famous, family estates: winery children who had learned viticulture at Beaune Lycée and qualified as winemakers picked up the baton and set out on the long journey towards progress. Dominique Lafon, Patrick Bize, Jean-Marc Roulot, Frédéric Lafarge, Christophe Roumier and Jean-Marie Raveneau are just some pioneers still at the helms of their domaines. This is the generation that invested in cooling equipment, from the mid-1980s, to ensure that fermentation temperatures did not swing out of control. They also started making their wines in the vineyard, by sensitive grape cultivation, so they could have a hands-off approach in the winery. Some domaines were influenced by Guy Accad, a consultant winemaker and soil analyst who used pre-fermentation cold soaking to aid extraction of colour and aromatics. His influence was not entirely beneficial, but he was a catalyst of change, helping growers analyse soils and
Clonal research was bearing fruit, allowing vineyard replanting with healthy Pinot Noir vines (though some of them were rather too productive). Just north of Dijon, Claude and Lydia Bourguignon established a soil research laboratory. They could demonstrate that your soil was full of mites, grubs and tiny worms – or as dead as the sands of the Sahara. Microbial life in soils is necessary to enable plants to absorb elements they need, like iron or boron. Under the Bourguignon microscope, a speck of soil untreated by chemicals was revealed as teeming with life.
Soon, more than 100 domaines had grouped together (in the Groupement d’Etudes et de Suivi des Terroirs) to study their soils, share experiences and pool resources – making compost, for instance, in sufficient quantities so that soil structures could be repaired, where necessary. A reasoned approach to vineyard treatment replaced the previous spray on-a-regularbasis habit. And more estates embraced organic, then biodynamic methods.
Making the transition
Today, further generational change has been taking place at several famous Burgundy domaines. Following the loss of his father Jacques (who had made 52 vintages), Guillaume d’Angerville returned to run Domaine Marquis d’Angerville in Volnay in 2003. His first career had been in banking, so he had the funds to put himself through wine school. He is now making wines of profound beauty, which surely anchor the domaine among the greatest on the Côte de Beaune.
At Armand Rousseau over in Gevrey-Chambertin, Eric Rousseau now has the firmest of hands on the tiller, though his father, the great Charles, still comes to the domaine each day, despite being close to two decades past retirement age.
Another estate where transition seems to be happening smoothly is in Meursault, where Anne Morey works alongside her father Pierre, who recently retired from his role as manager at Domaine Leflaive. Domaine Pierre Morey is one entity, a parallel one being Maison Morey-Blanc, the associated négociant-licensed company Pierre set up to buy grapes and juice.
In Bouzeron, at the Aubert & Pamela de Villaine estate, Pierre de Benoist, Aubert’s nephew, has been assuming responsibility since 2001. In Chablis, the highly qualified Fabien Moreau spars amicably with his father Christian over who should take credit for the successes, or responsibility for any shortcomings, of each Domaine Christian Moreau wine.
It’s not just the improvements at the established names that excite me, however. Various new categories of domaine have emerged over the past 20 years, several now of some renown. Some estates have created a winemaking, négociant-licensed subsidiary; others have linked with a vineyard-buying investor; others have simply fine-tuned, and added to their vineyard holdings.
Above the Côte de Nuits, David Duband’s father created an estate in Chevannes in the early 1960s. He initially delivered all his grapes to the co-operative. His son joined him in 1991,
aged 19, and expanded the domaine bottling, from vineyards mainly in Nuits, Vosne, Echézeaux and on the Hautes Côtes de Nuits. Then, in 2006, a Paris-based investor purchased the Truchot-Martin estate in Gevrey, and asked Duband to look after it. This brought him old-vines Charmes- Chambertin and Clos de la Roche, as well as vineyards in Gevrey, Morey and Chambolle, including several premiers crus. The estate has been organic
since 2006, and a deep, large, new cellar with vat house was built in 2007. Don’t expect deep colours here, but ripely perfumed wines with silky textures and charming, soft tannins.
At Domaine Hubert Lamy in St- Aubin, the new generation is represented by Olivier Lamy. He is a brilliant winemaker of both reds and whites, whose first vintage was 1996. His grandfather Jean had been one of St- Aubin’s original domaine bottlers – an activity then developed by his father Hubert. Today, the lesser-value vineyards – Aligoté, Côte de Beaune-Villages, Maranges, for example – have been sold, and finely situated premiers crus in St-Aubin or Chassagne purchased instead. The St-Aubin reds are bracingly fruity, reflecting the cold air masses which flood through this cleft in the hillsides.
On the expansion trail
In Meursault, Domaine Vincent Bouzereau has expanded thanks to its négociant licence. On his retirement, Pierre Bouzereau split the family vineyards between his sons Vincent and Jean-Marie. They work closely, sharing equipment. Back in the 1980s, Pierre, had been one of the first growers to challenge, successfully, the négociants’ unofficial monopoly of buying at the Hospices de Beaune auction. A desire to do the same prompted Vincent to form his négociant business Jéhan-Emonin in 1990. Three-quarters of his turnover comes from wines from his own domaine, which he is dynamic in upgrading – replanting red Corton in the little-known Fiètre Grand Cru with Chardonnay, for instance, to give him Corton blanc. He
left the land fallow for three years – so this is no headlong rush for growth, or volume. The reds and whites show harmony, lively fruit intensity and fine length.
Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey has two brothers and a sister who still work with their father at the excellent Domaine Marc Colin, in St-Aubin. He also worked there between 1995 and 2005, then decided to go his own way. From 2001 he set up a négociant business to buy wines, and then grapes, ‘to make wines at least equal to those of a very
good domaine’. He wanted the freedom to take certain risks – no lees-rousing, but tending his whites for a longer time in barrel, and bottling without filtration. Having recovered the vineyards due to him from the family property, and bought others, he now has 6ha in production, many of the whites being fermented in 350-litre barrels. Almost all of his production is white, and he aims for wines which are pure, fine and will last.
Burgundy has never produced so much fine and great wine, both red and white, as it does today. Revitalised négociants and domaines, encouraged by new generations of wine drinkers who have discovered the deliciousness of red Burgundy at its best, now regularly
provide dependable, exciting wines. The weather is warmer, bringing better ripeness, and people know better how to protect their vineyards from most dangers. For a generation, since 1988, there has not been a written-off vintage. That represents two golden decades.