A typical Burgundian
- Friday 1 March 2002
Ex-computer salesman and son of a Burgundy broker, Pierre Meurgey came to the region's oldest négociant as both outsider and insider. AMY WISLOCKI finds out how this influences his business strategy
In a historic building on a quiet, winding backstreet of Beaune, Pierre Meurgey sits in his office, surrounded by gilded ornaments, heavy brocade and the faded elegance of antique furniture. A more conventional scene in Burgundian wine commerce would be hard to imagine, and yet the man at its centre is a far cry from the conservative follower of tradition you might expect to find. Meurgey has an urbanity, a restless perfectionist streak and a gleam in his eye which go some way towards explaining the success of the company since he and his partners took over more than a decade ago.
Founded in 1720, Champy can claim the honour of being Burgundy's oldest négociant house. 'At the beginning of last century it was one of the largest companies,' says Meurgey. 'But by the late 1980s it had become old and slow. When we took over in 1990 it was healthy financially, but its importance and influence were waning. The manager and owner was in his 80s and never travelled. He was convinced that what they'd been doing for the past 50 years was the right way to continue. It was a real challenge for us to bring the company back to life.'Meurgey, his father Henri and Pierre Beuchet, all associate directors of broking company DIVA, have tripled turnover and achieved an annual average production of 40–50,000 cases since buying Champy, despite having to borrow 95% of the asking price and acquiring the company on the eve of difficult times in the early 1990s. 'After we bought the company the Gulf War and the recession hit. Many companies in Burgundy were sold in those days, but luckily we were able to stay independent.'
The DIVA association is beneficial in more ways than one. Meurgey admits that the money to live on comes from DIVA, while Champy's profits are ploughed back into the business. 'And DIVA has given us the opportunity to taste the best of other people's wines, which not every négociant does. If you don't do this, you naturally think your wines are the best.'Learning from outside and eschewing the traditionally insular attitude of Burgundy's trade are recurring themes with Meurgey, who says: 'I try to keep an outsider's view of what we do here.'
His father worked for 35 years as a broker and winemaker in the region and knows the land intimately, yet Pierre Meurgey began his career not in his father's footsteps, but in the computer industry. 'I didn't want to work in wine,' he explains. After business school in Dijon, he worked for an American company, NCR, selling mainframes to governmental organisations, for three years. 'In 1987 I decided I wanted my own company – I had a few ideas, and it could have been computers, but I ended up starting an agency, selling wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne.' After realising the potential of Burgundian domaine wines, Meurgey joined his father at DIVA and worked as an agent there until the opportunity arose to buy Champy.'While in business outside the wine trade I realised that things are always complex to organise, especially in old companies. Nobody expects you to do something new – that's especially true in Burgundy, where many are born into the trade and don't feel the need to look outside as everything sells so easily. 'You have to remember also that it's easy to have a short memory in this business, because you're working the soil, paysans, and every year you start afresh.'
Working the soil is at the centre of the new Champy philosophy. The company has acquired 12.5ha (hectares) of land since 1990. 'We knew that we could offer the same quality without owning any property, but if we were successful, we would be able to guarantee consistency, quality and quantity. We'll continue to buy land for as long as we can control the quality of the grapes. Today we produce about 500,000 bottles a year.' The company also has long-term partnerships with growers and works their land itself where possible, at no profit, to guarantee the quality of the crop. Meurgey is fanatical about achieving the best possible quality, and even uses his regular jogging outings as an opportunity to inspect the vines. The talented Champy winemaker, Dimitri Bazas, a graduate of the University of Dijon, has learned to expect a telephone report after Meurgey's run.
A measure of success is typicity, says Meurgey, a philosophy which stems from his father's influence. 'My father knew for several generations how good authentic Burgundy can be. He knew what this little parcel of Savigny could taste like when well made. And he knew exactly where to go when we needed grapes for 10 barrels of Gevrey-Chambertin. We wanted to keep this typicity obvious in the bottle. 'If you want to produce the best possible wines, you have to be selective. We'd prefer to have only one or two barrels of a grand cru, and be really proud of that 25 to 30 cases. Even if our turnover is less, that's our choice.' Meurgey's 70-year-old father has now formally retired from the company, but still joins in with the odd tasting, finding it difficult to let go entirely.
This belief in typicity and selection is reflected in the range – around 80 different wines are made each year, 200 when you include wines from earlier vintages. Burgundy expert Clive Coates MW comments on this typicity in The Vine. 'A feature of Champy wines is the total absence of a Champy signature,' he writes. Meurgey would count this as praise indeed. 'I'm more a Chambolle-Musigny or Vosne-Romanée person than a Pommard, but I don't want the Champy Pommard to taste like a wine that would please me – it should taste rustic, because that's the character. I just want a balance between ripeness and freshness.'
With the traditional boundaries between négociants and growers becoming increasingly blurred in Burgundy, Champy is a prime example of the new trend, but Meurgey doesn't see it in these terms. 'The point isn't whether you're a négociant or a grower; the point is to decide what kind of wine you want to make. There are small négociants producing cheap wines, large négociants making cheap wines, and large négociants making good wines, and the same distinctions among producers. 'Champy is typical of a new desire in Burgundy to produce the best wines possible. It's difficult to do this without land, so we're prepared to cut quantity and pay higher prices for grapes, and to work the vineyards. While Champy is the oldest company, we started afresh in 1990 and so we're also brand new. And it's the new négociants that have this flexibility to change direction.'
Meurgey believes that some of the best wines ever produced in Burgundy have been made in the last few years. 'In the 1980s there were too many average wines being made – highly priced and of inferior quality. Thanks to good vintages and a new generation, we've seen big improvements over the last 15 years. This younger generation has travelled, speaks English, and has worked vineyards in Australia, New Zealand or California. They've learned that they can ask questions and change the way things were done before.'
While there will always be a market for the top Burgundian wines, Meurgey recognises that there is tough competition at the regional level. 'This is where a New World style of winemaking can help. Consumers want fruit-driven wines that are easy to understand and drink young. There's no danger in going down this path so long as winemakers don't try to do it with premier and grand cru wines. Grand vins deserve ageing.' Essentially, though, Burgundy isn't a wine for beginners. 'To really enjoy Burgundy, it's easier to learn about wine first. People will discover wines with the more upfront New World style, will progress to more sophisticated wines from the New World, and will then seek a different type of balance – less fruit driven, with more delicacy and nuances.'
Despite his optimism, Meurgey still finds nothing more frustrating than seeing wonderful land in the hands of those who don't share his high standards. 'Too many vines are in the hands of people who just don't care,' he laments. 'It's true in every business – you don't always get excellence.' His involvement with the regional body BIVB's 'Project Burgundy' shows that he finds this hard to accept. The project aims to improve quality control and better communicate Burgundy's wines, especially the regional appellations, which represent 55% of production. You get the feeling that Meurgey will never give up in his search for excellence, and will be out there jogging for a long time yet, resting only with the vines over winter.
Champy's wines are available in the UK from Pol Roger Ltd: +44 1432 262 800.