Burgundy’s winds of change

  • Tuesday 23 January 2007

The quality of fine Burgundy has never been better, but Clive Coates MW still fears for the future of a region vulnerable to corporatisation

Take yourself back to vintage time in the early 1980s. Dominique Lafon has just taken over at the family domaine in Meursault. René Lafon, his father, and an engineer by profession, has leased off his vineyards on a métayage (share-cropping) basis: the métayer looks after the vines and keeps half the fruit for himself (it was invariably a him in those days).

Some of these share-croppers are good. Lafon has the perfectionistic Pierre Morey in his white wine vineyards. Others are less assiduous. Lafon has given them all notice that as the leases come to their end he will take over the viticulture himself. Meanwhile, however, he has to cope with what he is given.

It has not been a good year. When one load of Volnay grapes arrives it is obvious that much is unripe, and even more is rotten. ‘How am I supposed to make good wine with this rubbish?’ explodes Lafon. ‘Well,’ replies the share-cropper: ‘The unripe grapes will give you the acidity, the ripe ones the fruit, and with the rotten ones you’ll get your alcohol. The sugar bags will do the rest. Don’t worry – it’ll be perfectly all right!’

Today it’s a different story – there have been a host of changes in Burgundy. Most importantly, today’s Burgundian is fully cognisant of the fact that he/she lives in a fiercely competitive wine world. ‘Perfectly all right’ is not good enough. There is a sea of acceptable wine now coming from all sorts of corners of the planet no one had even taken seriously a generation ago, and at prices today’s Burgundians cannot possibly match. But what other countries cannot match is that tripartite combination of man, grape variety and terroir which in Burgundy can produce the exquisite delicacy of Chambolle, the majesty of Vosne and the subtlety of Puligny. Back in the 1980s, the young tigers such as Lafon realised that Burgundy could and should be unbeatable; that the perfectionist’s road was the only one to follow.

Change for the better comes more quickly and simply in the winery than the vineyard. Repairing a neglected vine takes time. Yes, you can stop using herbicides, start ploughing, refrain from fertilising, restrain the crop and adopt a reactive stance to any treatments you apply (instead of spraying by rote) but the vine will take a few years to get back into form. The change to biodynamism, now increasingly common in Burgundy, requires seven years for its effects to be fully apparent.

Improvements in the cellar can be made more quickly. In the early 1980s the only sorting table in Burgundy was at the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Now everyone has one. Some of these are very sophisticated, and can vibrate to shake off excess water or are attached to a wine tunnel to dry up the fruit.

A region of individuals

Nowhere else in the world is there such an individual approach towards vinifying red wine. Just permute the following: cold soaking before fermentation or not; the percentage of the stems used; the temperature of maceration (29–35°C); the length of this maceration; the frequency the cap is punched or trodden down; the amount of new oak used; and the length of time the wine spends in cask. Each winemaker will have his or her basic recipe, which will be adjusted according to the vintage. Faiveley vinifies cool, Jadot warm; DRC and Leroy with all the stems, most of the rest without any; lots of people cold macerate, but not Rousseau. Even within the same cave, approaches can be different. At Jadot, Jacques Lardière de-stems his Musigny, but vinifies his Chambertin using whole clusters.

Together with the minute but discernible differences in soil structure (which you can taste in the cellars of Ghislaine Barthod, for example, in eight different premier cru Chambolles from grapes grown a few hundred metres one from another, and, yes, they all taste different, and these differences are the same, whatever the vintage has been like – this one always the softest, that one the more robust), this infinite diversity of winemaking nuances and the seemingly endless subtle variation in the wines which result is one of the fascinations of Burgundy.

The last 25 years have seen a move to a more hands-off approach. The vine is encouraged to delve deep into the mother rock to bring out all the individuality of that particular climat (vineyard). Green-harvesting is employed more to even up the potential ripeness of the remaining bunches, and to lessen the threat of rot, than to concentrate the crop – that comes earlier. But while all cellars are equipped with temperature control, for use when necessary, the wine is essentially left to make itself. There is a tendency to less pigeage (treading down) and longer maceration, especially in the lesser vintages; standardising devices such as the use of artificial yeasts have been dispensed with; and enzymes which help clarify the musts but which degrade the flair of the wine are no longer used. In general there has been a reduction in the manipulation of the results: less racking, less fining, less filtration.

One of the leading explanations for the rise in quality of the wines from the less well-regarded villages – and hence the splendid value for money of today’s Savignys, Santenays, Monthélies and the like, has been the change to total destemming. In the grands crus such as La Tâche the stems may be ripe in most vintages and can give body and dimension to the wine – which is why Domaine de la Romanée-Conti believes in them – but in the lesser villages their use only makes the wine rustic.

Back in the 1980s a young grower from Gevrey-Chambertin approached the late, great Henri Jayer: ‘Maître, would you tell me what you think of my wine?’ ‘Young man,’ was the reply ‘you are using too much of the stems.’ Jayer taught Burgundy two things: the first was that all wines, even Richebourg in his view, were better if produced from entirely de-stemmed fruit; the second was the importance of the élevage, the period between the end of the fermentation and the bottling. Cellars should be spotless, barrels topped up regularly, the wine protected from excessive heat. Eighty percent of Burgundy is fine at the outset, he is quoted as saying. But only 20% is fine in bottle. (That was 25 years ago. Today, I would suggest that three quarters is still fine in bottle.)

Our Gevrey winemaker came back the next year, and the year after that, and each time Jayer advised him to reduce the percentage of the stems. Finally he destemmed completely. ‘Now you are beginning to get this right,’ said Jayer with approval.

Over the last 25 years the Burgundian wine scene has been transformed. Lafon and his friends have done their utmost to encourage other young growers to start domaine bottling. Many of today’s superstars – the Dugat cousins, the late Denis Mortet, Christophe Perrot-Minot to name but four – have only been bottling seriously since the late 1980s. Today much grand cru and good premier cru is likely to be bottled at source. This makes life difficult for those merchants who do not own vineyards. It is no coincidence that the best – Bouchard Père & Fils, Drouhin, Faiveley and Jadot – all have an extensive domaine of their own.

At the same time many growers have become merchants, buying up the crop from a friend or neighbour in the same or an adjoining village, and vinifying the fruit as if it were their own. For some reason this trend is particularly apparent in white wine and in the villages of the Côte de Beaune. Among these joint grower-merchants are Jean-Marc Boillot, based in Pommard, his brother Henri in Volnay (Domaine Jean Boillot), their brother-in-law Gérard Boulot (responsible for Domaine Etienne Sauzet in Puligny-Montrachet, various Colins in Chassagne-Montrachet and St-Aubin) and Pierre Morey (Maison Morey-Blanc) in Meursault. Give a good grower some good grapes and the ‘bought-in’ wines will be every bit as good as the domaine wines.

However, all is not sunshine.

Firstly, but this is true for every wine-growing region in the world, there is still, sadly, a great deal of not-very-good Burgundy: wines made with a cynical ‘perfectly all right’ attitude towards vinification and marketing. Thankfully very little is exported, at least to Great Britain and the USA, but visit a French supermarket, or even the majority of the seemingly endless number of shops selling wine in Beaune, and you will soon realise what I am talking about. And the wines are not any cheaper either.

The international trend

The chief clouds on the horizon are twofold. The first, encouraged by intermediaries who want to impress influential journalists who should know better, is a trend towards over extraction and the excessive use of new oak. The monsters which result not only display no terroir characteristics whatsoever, but are sadly inelegant and merely fade quickly into lumpy grape juice. You ask: what is the point? I can’t answer. But if you think I am just getting at certain American wine writers, think again. There are journalists in France and importers in Britain who are equally at fault.

This trend began to emerge a dozen years ago. There were more culprits then than today, for many of the growers were bright enough to see the error of their ways. Bernard Dugat of Domaine Dugat-Py, his cousin Claude Dugat, Christophe Perrot-Minot and Denis Mortet are among those whose wines today are much more civilised and terroir expressive than they were in vintages such as 1993, 1995 and 1996. I remember Mortet, on a visit chez lui as part of the Bouilland Symposium I run with the American wine broker Becky Wasserman, taking us aside to ask our judgement on three young 2000 Gevrey premiers crus. Which did we prefer? The last. Yes, this was his favourite too. It was the wine he had least extracted.

Sadly, not everybody has taken their foot off the accelerator. Domaine Michel Magnien and the merchant wines of his son Henri (who is responsible for the domaine wines as well) is one culprit. I cannot come to terms with the wines of Dominique Laurent. Even worse are those of Lucien Lemoine. Where’s the finesse? And they all taste the same.

In July 2007 the well-reputed Domaine René Engel in Vosne-Romanée was sold, following the death of Philippe Engel in 2006, to François Pinault, owner of, inter alia, Château Latour.

This is just the latest in a gradual infiltration of big business and multi-millionairedom into the Côte d’Or. Insurance group AXA owns Domaine de l’Arlot in Nuits-St-Georges. Businessman François Feuillet recently more than doubled his estate by acquiring the Truchet-Martin vines in Morey-St-Denis. Château de Pommard belongs to a millionaire from the Savoie; Domaine des Lambrays to the German Freund family; and Maison Camille Giroud to a consortium of American businessmen.

While all these establishments are run by local managers, (though Engel is currently being run from Bordeaux), and the wines cannot be criticised for under-achieving, I nevertheless view this trend with anxiety. A manager is not as free as an owner when difficult decisions have to be made. Is the sheer magnificent individuality of fine Burgundy, built up over the year, and splendidly fine-tuned over the last 25 years, under threat? Look at Bordeaux. Among the crus classés of the Médoc, hardly more than a handful are today family owned. And the wines taste increasingly alike. Is this mere coincidence?

There is a second factor here. Land values for death duty assessments are based on the last transaction in that climat. Monsieur X’s holding in Clos de Vougeot is now worth what François Pinault paid Madame Engel. I have nothing personally against Pinault, whom I have never met. But I fear for the future of Burgundy should Monsieur X’s successors be forced to sell up to meet monstrous death duty taxes. Who’d be able to afford to take over? Only another millionaire like Pinault.

Nevertheless there is much that is exhilarating in today’s Burgundy. There has been a splendid succession of good to great vintages (the last bum year was 1984) and there are more and more quality domaines. I have just (excuse the plug) finished a second mighty tome on the region. Once again I have starred the top sources. In the 2007 edition, there are 50% more starred domaines in the Côte d’Or than there were 10 years ago. That’s progress!

And compare the prices of top Burgundy with top Bordeaux. The 2005 Médoc first growths came out at an average of t480 a bottle. Few 2005 Burgundies exceed t240. If offered a choice between one bottle of Château Latour and two or even three bottles of Anne Gros’ Richebourg I know what I would plump for. Sorry Bordeaux, your prices are excessive.

Clive Coates MW is a bestselling author who published Burgundy newsletter The Vine for 25 years before retiring last year. His books include Côte D’Or, A Celebration of the Great Wines of Burgundy (£50, Weidenfeld Nicolson). His latest book, Wines of Burgundy

(University of California Press), is published in 2007.

The Ten Most Improved Domaines

Domaine d’Ardhuy, Corgoloin

The family vines were farmed by third-division merchant La Reine Pédauque until 2002. Now they are under the control of Carel Voorhuis. A quality source for Corton and much else. Ave, Blo, GwD, P&S

Arlaud Père & Fils,

Morey-Saint-Denis

Cyprian Arlaud has taken over from his father and now works from a new cellar on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Lovely wines. Loe, SVS

Louis Boillot,

Chambolle-Musigny

Louis, husband of the excellent Ghislaine Barthod, split up with his brother Pierre in 2002. Excellent results here now. RdW

Alain Chavy & Jean-Louis Chavy, Puligny-Montrachet

The Chavy brothers parted company in 2003. Domaine Gérard Chavy & Fils is no more. Both brothers’ wines have since improved. A little family rivalry is no bad thing. ABt, CTW, Dec, HoR, Pip, ThH

Maison Camille Giroud, Beaune

This moribund merchant was sold to a group of American investors in 2001. Lovely wines from the new winemaker, David Croix. Sec

Hubert Lamy & Fils, St-Aubin

Olivier, son of Hubert, has made this estate the top address in the village. BBR, HBa, HBJ, L&S, L&W, Win

Château de la Maltroye, Chassagne-Montrachet

Owner Jean-Pierre Cornut has splendidly revitalised this estate. Now one of the best addresses in the village. HoR

Prince Florent de Mérode, Ladoix-Serrigny

Didier Dubois was appointed winemaker here in 2001. Now one of the best sources of red Corton in Burgundy. L&W

Château de Puligny-Montrachet

Etienne de Montille has been running this domaine since 2002. Excellent results. Bib

Roland Rapet & Fils, Pernand-Vergelesses

Improvement over the last decade since Vincent Rapet has been in charge. Delicious Corton-Charlemagne.

Gdh, HoR, Jer, Lay

Clive Coates All Time Top 10 Burgundy Domaines

Bonneau du Martray, Pernand-Vergelesses

Corton-Charlemagne can produce magnificent wine. This is the best source, as well as one of the largest. Stockists: C&B, WSo

Sylvain Cathiard,

Vosne-Romanée

Wines of marvellous purity here, including a disarmingly beautiful Romanée-Saint-Vivant. ABt, BBR, HHC, L&W, Loe, Rol, SVS

Jean Grivot, Vosne-Romanée

Etienne Grivot offers a wide range, including six Vosne-Romanée premiers crus and Richebourg. They are all immaculately made. ABt, BBR, Bib, BoC, Dec, Gdh, HoR, L&W, Rae, SVS, WSo

Anne Gros, Vosne-Romanée

There are few more exciting reds than Anne Gros’ Clos de Vougeot and Richebourg. Adn, HoR, Jer, L&W, Lay

Henri & Paul Jacqueson, Rully

The best domaine in Rully, home itself to the best Chalonnaise whites. Very pure wines from the premiers crus of Pucelles and Grésigny. Brb, L&S, Tan, ThH

Patrick Javillier, Meursault

Apart from Corton-Charlemagne, Javillier owns no great vineyards. But his village Meursaults are splendid. The best is Tête de Murger. HBa, L&W

Comtes Lafon, Meursault

Perhaps the best white wine domaine in the world.

The reds are lovely too.

Adn, Arm, BBR, DDi, Far, J&B, L&W, Tan

Christian Moreau Père

& Fils, Chablis

A new domaine in Chablis, taking on half of the family vineyards in 2002. Look out for grand cru Clos des Hospices. Gun, HHC, ThH

Georges Roumier, Chambolle-Musigny

Christophe Roumier’s delicacies include Chambolle’s Cras and Amoureuses. He also produces Burgundy’s best Bonnes-Mares. Arm, DDi, HHC, HoR, Tan, WSo

Armand Rousseau,

Gevrey-Chambertin

In tasting after tasting, Charles Rousseau’s Chambertin is simply the best wine on the table. The rest of the range is almost as impressive. BBR, Bib, HBJ, J&B, L&W, Loe

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