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French wine revolution

A generation ago the merchants reigned supreme but today's French wine growers domaine-bottle the wine and sell it direct. So how do you make sure you get quality Burgundy at a reasonable price, asks Clive Coates MW?

In the old days we Brits had it lucky. Before UK entry into the Common Market in 1973 it was customary to ship Burgundy in cask for bottling over here. The accompanying papers declared it as ‘Bourgogne rouge’, but the merchants would have been told that this one was surplus Nuits-Saint-Georges, that one Beaune premier cru and so on, and they might even have been supplied labels to that effect. It sounds corrupt. Technically it was corrupt, but in those days the French wine appellation contrôlée laws were rather strange.

At that time, it was perfectly permissible to produce, say, 50 hectolitres per hectare (hl/ha) from Clos de Vougeot, when the official ‘limit’ was in fact 35hl/ha, so the producer would have a surplus of 15hl/ha of wine, which in France was downgraded to Bourgogne rouge but which was, in fact, just the same wine. This was what was shipped in bulk to England. Lots of it, from the less scrupulous, was ersatz, even bolstered up with something a bit more alcoholic from the south, but much was as genuine as it could be under the circumstances – and, what’s more, it was cheap.

A change in the AC laws, which replaced this so-called ‘cascade’ system with the concept of PLC (Plafond Limite de Classement) and allowed a winemaker to produce a percentage (usually 20%) above the fixed basic yield, subject to approval by tasting and analysis, coincided with the UK’s entry into Europe. Not only did the surplus disappear because everything above the 20% now had to be distilled, but wine could no longer be labelled without appellation contrôleé.

At a stroke, Burgundy prices rose by 50%, so British consumers decided to turn elsewhere. Rioja was the first premium red wine to become fashionable, some buyers started to take Italy more seriously and others looked to the Rhône. By the end of the 1970s, both Australia and, to a lesser extent, California, had found their way on to the shelves.But where did this leave Burgundy? Frankly the place was in the doldrums and between 1969 and 1985 there was a distinct dearth of good vintages. Many of the wines themselves were weak and dilute as a result of the wrong sort of strains and clones (those developed for quantity rather than quality but sold as disease-resistant) having been planted in over- fertilised soil. Moreover, because Burgundy is a fragmented wine region offering little in the way of economies of scale, the wines were over-priced. In short, Burgundy in the early 1980s held little attraction for the wine consumer, especially as 1981 and 1984 could only be classed as very poor vintages.

Youthful ruling class

Change, improvement and salvation were, thankfully, just around the corner. A new generation, diploma-ed in France but with experience abroad, was about to take charge. Christophe Roumier, Etienne Grivot and Dominique Lafon all made their first vintage in 1982. It was not that these three made radically better wine than their parents – their family domaines all had established reputations – but there was certainly a new perfectionism in the air. The younger generation talked to each other. They tasted together. They were only too happy to lend advice. And these three, together with others such as François Faiveley and Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac, and encouraged by older figures such as Aubert de Villaine of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, led by example when it came to eschewing fertilisers and herbicides, reverting to a more natural way of viticulture. They avoided over- manipulating the wine and, above all, reduced the crop to produce more concentrated bottles. Domaine bottling, of course, had been happening in Burgundy for decades. As well as Romanée-Conti, before the war there were the Marquis d’Angerville, Henri Gouges and Armand Rousseau, plus Leflaive and Ramonet further south. In the 1950s and 1960s, the concept expanded. Indeed, the older generation of American importers, such as Colonel Frederick Wildman, insisted on it, and Alexis Lichine would hire a contract bottler to turn up at his supplier’s cellars if the growers were not equipped for the process themselves.

Bordeaux wines and their youth and experience

The practice, however, accelerated dramatically from the mid-1980s onwards. This suited a number of newly set up British merchants, such as Morris & Verdin and Haynes, Hanson and Clark, who were anxious to find suppliers on a more or less exclusive basis. The fact that these new domaine-bottling estates had limited stock available was no problem. They and their counterpart importers in the USA found people like Becky Wasserman, a new breed of Burgundy broker, to help them discover the rising stars. As domaine bottling increased to the point where today little top-range premier cru and almost no grand cru is offered in bulk, naturally the supply to the traditional merchants dried up, so what were they to do? Many of the most quality-conscious had their own vineyards in the first place, having taken advantage of cheap land in the past, not just to ensure their lines of supply but to control quality. For example, Maison Bouchard Père & Fils owns 93ha, Jadot controls 60ha, Faiveley 115ha, Drouhin 63ha and Latour 45ha, and several of these have continued to acquire more vines, even at the more inflated prices which have pertained in the last 15 years. Moreover, the merchants started to take a greater proactive role in vineyards they didn’t own but had under contract. Merchants such as these now have ultra-modern vinification centres, buy grapes or newly pressed must as opposed to wine, and can even decree when they want the harvest to take place. As the growers have become merchants, so the merchants have taken on a viticultural role. On both sides, the more you can control, the better the resultant wine.

Subject to change

Other merchants, however, have found the going hard. As a result, there have been many changes in ownership. Champy, for instance, was sold and then sold again, and since 1991 has been owned by Henri Meurger. Chanson now belongs to Bollinger, and Jean-Claude Boisset has Bouchard Ain, Jaffelin, Patriarche and a host of others.Yet if the wines are top quality it is still possible to set up from scratch and succeed. The story of the 1990s was Vincent Girardin in Santenay. Girardin, like his three brothers, inherited three hectares when the family estate was broken up in 1984. He took on a lease here, a share-cropping deal there and then acquired a merchant’s licence. Today he has outgrown his first merchants’ cellars in the village and will shortly move into a much-expanded site on the plain. He now sells half a million bottles a year and the wine is good.

A few years later, Nicolas Potel took a similar path. Gérard, Nicky’s father, died in October 1996 and the family estate, the Domaine de la Pousse d’Or, co-owned by a bunch of Australians, was sold. Young Potel quickly proved himself as astute a merchant as he and his father had been winemakers, and the Potel range is wide, impressive and expanding. There is nothing, of course, to stop anyone, even a grower, from obtaining a merchant’s licence. A number have done so, whether to be able to make up what they have lost through, as one generation succeeds another, the inevitable break-up of domaines or simply as a way of increasing turnover. Among the famous estates which are now, discreetly, merchants on the side, are Michel Colin and Bernard Morey in Chassagne, Marc Colin (cousin of Michel) in Gamay, Sauzet in Puligny, Henri Boillot (Domaine Jean Boillot) in Volnay, Jean-Marc Boillot in Pommard, Alain Meunier of Domaine JJ Confuron and now Maison Fery-Meunier in Prémeaux and Frédric Magnien of Domaine Michel Magnien in Morey-Saint-Denis. There are many others. A future problem for consumers may be distinguishing the estate and merchant wine on the label. So how does all this affect you, the consumer? The first thing to say is that quality has never been better. Recent vintages have been kind – modern techniques, better understanding and an increased desire to make only the best have seen to that – and Burgundy is no longer expensive, especially compared with Bordeaux. Secondly, the choice is now huge and there are dozens of respected merchant and grower Volnay premier crus to choose from.

Burgundy Top Producers

My advice is essentially twofold: get informed and find out who the top names are and then snuggle up with a few quality wine merchants. Find out what you like (which may not necessarily be the most well-known wine names) and take advantage of your suppliers’ knowledge and experience. Be prepared not only to cellar some wine for future preference but to have the patience to wait for it to be properly mature – and then relax and enjoy yourself.

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