It’s been 10 years since CLIVE COATES MW last graded the top Burgundy producers. After his latest judgement, he is struck by just how much quality has improved.
When I first started prospecting in Burgundy region at the beginning of the 1970s, there were few domaines which sold their wine in bottle. From south to north, there was Ramonet and Albert Morey (the father of Bernard and Jean-Marie today) in Chassagne- Montrachet, and Leflaive and Sauzet in Puligny. (I remember having to pay Etienne Sauzet’s widow for a couple of samples I wanted to have a further look at back home.) In Meursault there was Michelot and René Monnier, whose wines were better then than now; in Volnay, Marquis d’Angerville and Lafarge (though no one told me about the latter – it was 1983 before I first tasted his wines in situ). In the Côte de Nuits there was Gouges in Nuits-St-Georges; Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC) in Vosne-Romanée; Rousseau in Gevrey- Chambertin; and Clair-Daü in Marsannay. Jacques Seysses was in Morey-St-Denis, but no one had heard of him at that time. And that was it. No Vogûé, no Bonneau du Martray, no Lafon, no Coche, and none of the rest of today’s superstars. It’s important to remember that estates which sell their wine in bulk will have been paid in full by next year’s harvest. Bottle it yourself and you don’t get the money for at least two years after the wine is shipped. In the meantime, you have a cashflow hole, plus the added cost of bottling equipment, bottles, corks, capsules and cartons.
The move towards domaine bottling was a gradual revolution, beginning in around 1982, with many estates not getting involved until the early 1990s. At René Engel in Vosne-Romanée, for instance, the change to 100% estate-bottling took 10 years. Even in 1996, when I started writing Côte d’Or, my first book on the Burgundy region, many of today’s big names had only a few years’ experience of élevage: the important techniques involved in transforming young wine from its initial fermentation vat to the bottle. There are a number of other reasons for this increase in quality: almost all the top domaines now practise lutte raisonée (reactive viticulture), if not being organic or even biodynamic; the vineyards are ploughed, and herbicides and artificial ferlilisers outlawed – all ensuring much more of a terroir signature in the wine. Yields have been reduced; everyone has a sorting table; everyone has temperature control; and the techniques of élevage are well understood. In short, there is less manipulation: the translation from vine to bottle is more precise. In Côte d’Or, published in 1998, I ranked the leading domaines.
There were just five three-stars: Lafon, Leroy, DRC, Rousseau and De Vogüé. Twenty-two estates gained two stars, and I awarded one star to a further 62. So 89 in total. I have just finished my second book on the region: The Wines of Burgundy. Naturally, there has been progress. More and more properties now bottle their own wine, to the extent that there is precious little grand and premier cru wine available to merchants who do not have their own vineyards. And there has been a continuing improvement in quality. I have not diluted my standards, yet I have now awarded 17 domaines three stars, 29 two stars, and 98 one star. That makes 144 properties, in the Côte d’Or alone (Chablis and the Côte Chalonnaise are separately assessed). In all, a 60% increase – that is progress.
So, who are the 12 new three-star estates to join the original quintet who retain their ranking: Comtes Lafon (Meursault), Leroy (Vosne-Romanée), Romanée-Conti (Vosne-Romanée), Armand Rousseau (Gevrey-Chambertin) and De Vogüé (Chambolle-Musigny)? Let me introduce the new superstars… D’Auvenay (St-Romain) Having awarded Madame Lalou Bize- Leroy’s Domaine Leroy three stars, maybe I should have given this wine, from her own private 3.67ha (hectare) estate, three stars in the first edition a decade ago. The reason I did not was that I was not convinced about the white wines. I found them a little four-square. They no longer are. The very best wines include a minuscule amount (usually two barrels) of Chevalier-Montrachet. There are similar quantities of equally fine reds: Mazis-Chambertin and Bonnes- Mares. All this is vinified at Bize-Leroy’s farm on the plateau above Saint-Romain. Wines to keep for a long time. Price: Very expensive indeed. Supplier: No UK agent, but the wines do turn up at brokers from time to time.
Sylvain Cathiard (Vosne-Romanée)
Sylvain Cathiard gradually took the reins at his father’s domaine in the 1990s. He looks after 7ha and has recently taken over plantings at Nuits-St-Georges, Aux Thorey. The estate’s best wine comes from his 0.17ha of Romanée-St-Vivant. This has been absolutely delicious for a decade or more: complex, harmonious, fullbodied, concentrated but not overdone in the slightest; a wine of huge finesse. Give a good vintage 15 years before broaching.
Price: Not as expensive as some of its peers.
Anne Gros (Vosne-Romanée)
Anne Gros, younger cousin of Michel, below, took over from her father in 1989, and quite rapidly started producing threestar wines. This is a small estate, at 5ha, but was recently expanded with 0.6ha of Echézeaux. No first growths, but both Clos de Vougeots are from the best parts in the Maupertuis (under the wall that separates this grand cru and Grands Echézeaux) and Richebourg (0.6ha of it; around 10 barrels). Both are spectacular wines: rich, concentrated, succulent, harmonious and pure; the essence of all that is magical about Pinot Noir. Keep a top vintage at least 15 years. Price: Expensive.
Suppliers: Adn, Jer, Lay, L&W, HoR
Michel Gros (Vosne-Romanée)
The unassuming, somewhat shy Michel Gros has been producing the family wine for more than 30 years, at first under the name of his father Jean Gros, and under his own name since 1992. At that time, he lost his Richebourg to his sister, in exchange for preserving the monopoly of the first growth, Clos de Réas. He has since acquired vines in Vosne-Romanée, Les Brulées, and elsewhere. In 1986, a strip of vines in Clos de Vougeot, next to Anne Gros’s, dating from 1902, had to be replanted. This parcel is now mature, and produces Michel Gros’s best wine. It is intense, rich, perfumed, full and gently oaky: a wine of great nobility, elegance and subtlety. Keep at least a decade. Price: Expensive. Suppliers: HBJ, Jer, Lay, Tan, WDi
Michel Lafarge (Volnay)
Michel Lafarge, now in his mid-70s, is one of the shrewdest winemakers in the Burgundy region, and a perfectionist. His son Frédéric is a worthy – I was going to say second in command, but this a joint effort. Typically for the Burgundy region, the Lafarges produce 14 different wines from their 14ha, for a long time run biodynamically. Pride of place goes to Clos des Chênes in Volnay, from the best part: the lower slopes, next to the main road, of what is arguably the best red-wine vineyard in the Côte de Beaune. This is Volnay at its finest, although it needs time: fragrant, elegant, balanced, and velvety smooth, if you are prepared to wait. In retrospect, I should have given Lafarge three stars 10 years ago. I was too snobby: it didn’t have any grands crus.
Price: Very reasonable for what it is.
Suppliers: BBR, Bib, Gdh, HHC, HoR, Win
The Ramonet domaine, now in the hands of Noël Ramonet and his brother Jean-Claude, produces different wines from most of the others that I admire in the Burgundy region. Elsewhere I love the subtlety, the quietly restrained finesse and discreet balance. Here, we have assertive wines: big, dangerous, dramatic and exciting. Sometimes they don’t come off. Butwhen, most of the time, they do, they explode in the glass. This is a large (17ha) estate, with a number of premier crus in Chassagne and elsewhere, but most importantly 0.45ha in Bâtard and 0.53ha in Bienvenues, not to mention 0.26ha in Le Montrachet itself. Ramonet has no parallels, no equals: it is unique and magnificent. Price: Expensive. Suppliers: C&B, Far, HoR, Loe
Guy Roulot (Meursault)
Guy Roulot died prematurely at the age of 53, and for a few years, with son Jean- Marc in Paris cultivating a career as an actor, the estate was run by outsiders. Jean-Marc returned in 1988, and has been making wines of beauty, great elegance and very fine balance ever since. Once again, the descriptors pure, understated and honest-to-their-terroirs come to mind, for Roulot has a number of lieuxdits up on the hill above the first growths in his portfolio. He also offers most of the premiers crus, of which the best, as so often, is the Perrières. This splendidly mineral wine is what draws real wine lovers to the Burgundy region, rather than elsewhere. Chardonnay at its most refined.
Price: Not unreasonable.
Suppliers: Arm, DDi, HHC, HoR
Bonneau du Martray (Pernand-Vergelesses)
With DRC occasionally making a Vosne- Romanée, this is the sole estate just selling grand cru. Some 10ha of this is Corton- Charlemagne, and is quite simply the best example of this wine by a long way. There is another hectare of Corton rouge. Ten years ago, while I adored the former, I found the red not up to grand cru level: hence two stars, not three. But Jean- Charles le Bault de la Morinière is now making serious red to sell alongside his brilliant white. Price: Cheap by Bâtard-Montrachet standards. Supplier: C&B
Is there any one commune or area where progress has been most impressive? One is tempted to say Vosne-Romanée, for there are now five three-star estates in the commune, but in fact, there is no single place to cite above any other. The improvement ranges from the Mâconnais, through the Côte Chalonnaise to Chablis – the Côte d’Or is not the only source of exciting wine today.
What the dozen estates above have in common is a passion for wines which speak of their origins. The result is wines which are not tiring to drink; neither over-oaked, over-extracted nor over alcoholic. Each has a personality, and each is totally individual. Vive la difference!