They’re young, ambitious, and they’ve all given up other careers around the world to make Burgundy… STEPHEN BROOK meets Burgundy's outsiders.
Families rule the vineyards of Burgundy, and Burgundy’s outsiders rarely manage to break in, though a few have succeeded in recent years. The latest and most controversial incomer is industrialist François Pinault, the owner of Château Latour, who has bought Domaine Engel.
And American wine collector Wilfred Jaeger and ex-British Science Minister Lord Sainsbury are among the Burgundy outsiders from overseas who have bought small blocks of vines, though both entrust the farming and winemaking to others with more experience.
The car park attendant Alex Gambal is one of Burgundy’s outsiders who has implanted himself in the heart of the region, with a winery and tasting room on the boulevard circling the ramparts of Beaune. A trim and youthful 50-year-old, Gambal used to run the family business – car parks – near Washington. He would hang out at local wine shops, though at first was more attracted by Rhône wines than Burgundy. In the early 1990s he decided to bring his young family to France on a kind of sabbatical. A meeting with US wine broker Becky Wasserman, who had installed herself in Burgundy in the late 1960s, led in 1992 to an apprenticeship in her office, where his wife Nancy also helped out as a graphic artist. The Gambals stayed put.
By 1996 Alex knew he wanted to be a négociant, specialising in high-quality wines. He started his business after a year’s study in Beaune at the Lycée Viticole. Brokers helped him source good grapes, and friends he had made over the years sold him some barrels of finished wine. In 1998 he rented space in Beaune. ‘There was no heating, and a squat toilet. Every dime we made went into the wines. By 2000 I thought we could make a go of the business, so I began to invest more in the winery. I had good wines in the cellar, but the hard part was selling them. I persevered and found markets for our generic Burgundies, which are of good quality and account for about half our production. And I have developed customer loyalty by having an open-door policy. That means we welcome visitors to our tasting room and spend time with them. ‘For new négociants such as ourselves, it’s hard to find premiers and grands crus of high quality.
Many growers are poor winemakers and can’t sell their wines easily, so we’ve been persuading some of them to sell their grapes to us and let us handle the harvest. We also started acquiring grapes and then trading them for others if we were after a particular cru.’ Did he experience any hostility from Burgundians? ‘No, because I came with no baggage. In fact being an outsider was an advantage, as I could see the good and bad things about the region. Most of my transactions have been based on personal contacts: getting to know people at tastings, or finding their kids go to the same school as mine. But many growers are becoming négociants themselves, as they can’t afford to expand their holdings. That means fewer grapes are on the market. So it’s not easy to maintain continuity of supply.
I currently have three barrels of Clos Vougeot from the best sector, but I don’t know how long the grower will remain loyal.’ Gambal now produces about 50,000 bottles a year, with whites from Chassagne and Meursault consistently good. In 2005 he bought his first vineyards, 1.7ha (hectares) of Bourgogne close to Volnay.
The political journalist Blair Pethel is a more recent of Burgundy’s outsiders. An American like Gambal, he spent 25 years as a political journalist. Based in London and keen on cooking and wine, he met Jasper Morris MW, then of importer Morris & Verdin, who introduced him to Nuits St-Georges grower Patrice Rion. After numerous visits to Burgundy his fascination grew, until in 1999 he took his family over to Nuits and spent three months learning the ropes with Rion. In 2003 the Pethels moved permanently to Beaune, buying a house in the old town.
Blair studied at the Lycée Viticole, erved various apprenticeships, and set up his tiny domaine of 0.6ha, with vines in Corton- Charlemagne, Chassagne and Savigny. In 2007 he bought a house near Savigny, which now functions as his winery. ‘My goal is to focus on premiers and grands crus only, though I’m not yet there.
As well as my own small vineyards, I also buy grapes from friends, although I insist on doing my own farming. Even though I didn’t have a track record as a winemaker, I think some growers were impressed by my passion for Burgundy and were prepared to work with me.’ His winemaking is non-interventionist, and he produces about 30,000 bottles a year. He plans to expand by encouraging his financial backers to buy some more vines and then lease them to him.
Judging from the three vintages of his Corton- Charlemagne that I have tasted, he has ability. Echoing Jacques Seysses, who named his Domaine Dujac after himself, Blair has dubbed his holdings Domaine Dublère, as Domaine Pethel would be unpronounceable to most Frenchmen.
Mischief & Mayhem
An elegant house on the edge of Aloxe- Corton is home to new négociant house Mischief & Mayhem. The name suggests a vaguely bohemian enterprise, whereas its origins lie in the heart of the wine establishment. As another of Burgundy’s outsiders, Michael Ragg, a sturdy Englishman, spent nine years at Berry Bros in London and, after many visits to Burgundy, moved there in 2003 as a consultant and broker. The company was founded a year later in association with Michael Twelftree, the owner/winemaker of Two Hands in Barossa, who comes over twice a year for the harvest and the blending.
The wines are made by an unnamed female consultant winemaker, and the company specialises in white wines, though it also produces reds. Rather daringly, Ragg slaps varietal names onto the labels of the generic Burgundies, and also has explanatory back labels that seek to demystify Burgundy for the consumer. Ragg explains the thinking behind the business. ‘Quite a lot of domaines here don’t sell their crop easily every year, even if the quality is good. Larger négociants who buy a substantial amount from the same grower can be tough on pricing, and we were prepared to pay higher prices if the quality was there.
At first we focused on generic wines, but our 2004 premiers crus got good scores. Burgundy importers already have favourite sources for top crus, so that was always going to be a difficult market for us, whereas the market for good quality generics is more open. Often the top wines offered to négociants come attached to 30 barrels of rubbish, which a large house can use for blending, but we can’t. So we turn such offers down.’ Mischief & Mayhem is unapologetically commercial in its approach – the Chablis, a declassified premier cru, is produced at the behest of its American importer – but the wines are good across the board.
Ragg’s most striking innovation is a Cellar Door – a rarity in Burgundy – opposite the house. Even more radical are the opening hours: 11 to 5. ‘The Côte d’Or is flooded with tourists, but everything is shut at lunchtime. We’re not, and we expect to be pouring and selling a good deal of wine from the tasting room in the future.’
On the main street of Morey St-Denis, a grand metal plaque announces the location of Domaine David Clark. A Scots- American with a degree in engineering, the boyish Clark decided after graduating in 1997 that he wanted to make wine. He worked as a cellar rat at Mayacamas in Napa and at Tahbilk in Australia. Then he was employed by Williams Formula One as an engineer before heading to France in 2003 to work on an organic farm in the Auvergne, followed by a year at the Lycée Viticole in Beaune.
In 2004 as one of Burgundy’s outsiders, Clark became a vineyard proprietor on a modest scale, acquiring 0.3ha of Grand Ordinaire vines in Morey, and also bought his house, which had a small winery and cellar attached. The estate expanded in 2005, when Christophe Roumier sold him 1.5ha of Bourgogne below Chambolle-Musigny, (although half the vines were Gamay). He also has tiny parcels of Morey St- Denis and Côte de Nuits Villages, both with old vines.
Clark farms organically, and the wines are aged in older oak. ‘I can make a living out of 2ha, which translates into 9,000 bottles, because I do it all myself. Being a foreigner here isn’t a problem. On the contrary, my neighbours have been friendly and helpful, probably because the French like the Scots! I‘ve been helped by the fact that Berry Bros bought half my crop in 2005.’
Clark clearly isn’t as ambitious as Burgundy’s outsiders Gambal or Pethel, nor as market-oriented as Michael Ragg. But he seems to be enjoying himself. If he doesn’t feel an outsider, that’s probably because he, like the other newcomers, is a convert. They aren’t trying to import new ideas, but are willing to submit to the region’s ethos. If Burgundy were a religion, all would be regular genuflectors at the communion rail.