Burgundy can seem intimidating to the uninitiated, so Decanter contributing editor Stephen Brook has compiled a foolproof guide to understanding the region, including recommendations that will help you build the perfect cellar – whatever your budget.
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Building up a serviceable collection of good Bordeaux is easy: with a few exceptions, there’s a lot around. Burgundy is more problematic. Not only are quantities far more limited, but individual growers may only have a few hundred cases of wine to sell worldwide from each of their vineyards.
The structure of Burgundy is simple enough – only two grape varieties to worry about (Pinot Noir for red, Chardonnay for white), and a hierarchy of vineyards with just four tiers. No need to fret about fifth growths or crus bourgeois or complex blends of grapes. In Burgundy, the most basic wines are labelled ‘Bourgogne’, while wines from individual villages are labelled, for example, Volnay or Santenay. Within each village there is a tier of supposedly superior sites entitled to be called premiers crus, while some villages also have even more prestigious vineyards designated as grands crus. All this has been set in stone since the 1930s.
It seems too simple to be true and, indeed, it is. So it is written that Charmes is a premier cru in Meursault, and it can produce some of Burgundy’s most seductive white wines. But not every proprietor within every cru makes good wine. Nor is every sector within a cru of uniform quality. The notorious example is Clos Vougeot, a large grand cru where the terroir varies considerably from top to bottom – as does the skill of the 70 or so owners.
Some decades ago, Burgundy production was dominated by négociant houses such as Drouhin or Bouchard Père et Fils, which sourced grapes or wines from a range of small growers. Over the past 20 or 30 years, those growers have realised it is far more profitable to produce and bottle their own wines. However, a superb grape grower is not necessarily a competent winemaker. Although the proportion of wretched wines from Burgundy has dropped considerably, there is still a good deal of rather dull and overpriced wine floating around. That means Burgundy is as much a minefield as it ever was.
I’m afraid that there is no substitute for finding out who are the best producers. Their identity is no secret, and most writers on Burgundy generally agree (there are about five excellent books and websites on the land and the wines, see ‘further reading’). If your local wine merchant has discovered a ‘terrific small producer in Fixin’ that neither you nor any Burgundy expert has ever heard of, you should probably give the wines a miss.
Supply and demand
Price is a reliable indicator of quality. Wines from the likes of Lafon, Cathiard, Rousseau, Méo-Camuzet and Dujac are expensive for a good reason: their quality has been widely recognised and demand for their wines is fierce. You can’t go seriously wrong by buying famous crus from the most renowned estates – but it will cost you. And only the seriously rich need contemplate ordering a few cases from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti or Domaine Leroy.
Burgundy is also a region where vintage is significant. Unfortunately there is often a measure of disagreement about the nature of many vintages. 2009 was a splendid year, with sunshine and ripeness in abundance. But the ripest years are not necessarily the best, though they will always be pleasurable. 2010 was a trickier vintage for reds but some prefer its taut elegance to the lushness of 2009, which was probably a more uniform vintage. The white wines in 2009 are opulent – but here again many drinkers might prefer the intensity and restraint of 2010. Choosing between them is really a matter of personal taste. 2008 was a year heading for disaster but saved at the last minute by dry weather that allowed the Pinots to ripen. The wines are leaner and more ethereal but have great purity. The best wines are superb, however there are also some weaker brethren. When it comes to vintage, it’s best to trust the producer. Domaines Leflaive, Montille or Bruno Clair have the skill and experience to make the most of what nature has offered; a lesser producer may disappoint in a tricky year.
Fine Burgundy is in short supply. While I have long argued against buying Bordeaux en primeur, with the possible exception of the scarcest and most sought-after wines, it makes good sense to consider an early purchase of Burgundy if you want to get your hands on the best wines. Almost all the British importers of Burgundy organise tastings (for the press and their regular customers) in January, some 16 months after the harvest. Thus in January 2014 the 2012 vintage will be presented. Many of the white wines will have been bottled, while most of the reds will be cask samples, but close to final form. It is worth moving heaven and earth to secure an invitation to these tastings, even if it means paying a fee to attend. It allows you to make your own assessment of the wines and, just as importantly, to place an order immediately afterwards. Many merchants may have no more than a dozen cases of a particular grand cru, so it’s first come, first served. However, there is no need to panic if you can’t get to these January tastings or live in a country where there are fewer opportunities to taste. The greatest wines may sell out fast, but there is usually a good selection of more modest but nonetheless excellent wines left over for purchase later.
Buying and cellaring
Nurturing a relationship with a good importer can also off. UK companies such as Flint, Lea & Sandeman and Goedhuis are run by real enthusiasts. Their buyers spend a great deal of time in Burgundy itself, often finding a new generation of growers who are willing to offer very good wines at moderate prices. Talk to importers about your preferred style, budget and cellaring capability, and they will steer you in the right direction. It’s not in their long-term interest to fob you off with mediocre wine, and there will be few such wines on their lists in the first place. High-street chains and supermarkets need wine in volume, and that’s the last thing Burgundy can provide – so focus on the specialists. Prices may be a bit higher but they know what they’re talking about.
Auctions can also be a good place to buy top Burgundy, but the usual caveats apply: the most glittering names will also attract fraudsters, as when non-existent vintages of grand cru wines from Domaine Ponsot nearly came under the hammer in the US. There’s an awful lot of wine from the late Henri Jayer on the market at the moment, and I would be deeply sceptical unless the provenance is impeccable. I would look out for underrated vintages such as 1993 or 2001, which may not carry the premium of more celebrated years. Provenance is crucial. Burgundy is less robust than St-Julien or Brunello and needs to have been properly cellared.
This article is not the place to attempt an analysis of the problem of premature oxidation of white Burgundies. It has been a widespread problem, especially in the late 1990s, attributable to a combination of reductive winemaking, excessive lees-stirring and poor corks. Nor is Burgundy the only place where it has occurred. The incidence of such wines does seem to have subsided but it may not have disappeared. A defensive purchasing strategy might be to avoid the top crus, such as Meursault’s Perrières premier cru, in favour of less acclaimed sites, simply on the grounds that it’s easier to bear the disappointment with a £30 bottle than a £100 bottle. But then it would be hard to resist – bank balance permitting – buying a few cases of Les Perrières or Corton-Charlemagne in a fine year.
Great Burgundy evolves over 20 years or more, but not all of us have the ability to cellar wines for so long in ideal conditions. In that case, it would be sensible to focus on good wines from less renowned villages, such as Savigny-lès-Beaune or Marsannay.
These are wines that should give a great deal of pleasure within five years, whereas, for example, a Clos-St-Jacques premier cru from Gevrey-Chambertin or a Malconsorts from Vosne-Romanée really needs 10 years to come into its own. Many traditional wine merchants will cellar wines for you, as long as you have bought the wines from them in the first place. Of course they charge for this service and, when insurance is added, the cost can seem quite high. But fine Burgundy from a good vintage should be an appreciating asset, which is worth protecting. Also, merchants cellar their wines, and yours, in very good conditions.
Drinking fine Burgundy, white or red, is one of the greatest pleasures any wine lover can experience. It need not break the bank, as there are wines to suit all but bargain-basement budgets. There is no reason for buying Burgundy to be an intimidating process.
Written by Stephen Brook
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