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Anson on Thursday: A game changer for Burgundy winemaking?

Two Burgundy winemakers, Dominique Lafon and Pierre Merguey, have launched what is believed to be the first custom crush-style winery in the Côte d’Or.

In what is a potentially significant move for Burgundy winemaking, their plan has been to follow the traditional California model where winemakers source their own fruit and then pool resources for equipment.

Burgundy winemaking in ‘The Wine Studio’

This one, known as The Wine Studio, is located in the cellars of Chateau de Bligny-les-Beaune, a few miles to the south of the city of Beaune.

The winery’s cellars contain equipment for the whole winemaking process, with up to 750 barrels, 40 vats, two sorting tables, two grape presses, a bottling line and all the rest.

It will be available for young winemakers to rent space and have access to the facilities from €400 per barrel, known as a ‘pièce’ in Burgundy and holding 228 litres of wine.

Rising land costs

‘This reflects the evolution in Burgundy,’ Merguey told me. ‘Rising land costs [are] making it tougher for new entrants to get started. Even if young winemakers inherit a few hectares from their parents, it can be difficult to justify buying new equipment for a few dozen barrels. It makes economic sense to pool resources.’

So does this mean that the famously closed world of Burgundy is opening up before our eyes? Might wine lovers be able to sign up for making their own bespoke barrels, as they can do through VINIV in Bordeaux?

The Wine Studio is professionals only at this point, but it’s an interesting development.

VINIV almost started in Burgundy

I caught up with Stephen Bolger, founder of Lynch-Bages backed VINIV, which gives wine drinkers the chance to blend their own Bordeaux wine from specific vineyards. Bolger nearly set up in Burgundy.

‘When I was in the early planning stages of VINIV, I didn’t know much about the structure of either Bordeaux or Burgundy, but knew that both would be of interest to wine lovers who wanted to make their own wine’.

He spent several days with the Boisset family in Burgundy, looking into the possibilities of working with them – as he eventually did with first Jonathan Maltus and now the Cazes family in Bordeaux.

Jean-Charles Boisset told him with highly useful bluntness. ‘Your idea is brilliant, but I just can’t see how it can work in Burgundy. If ever a great parcel of fruit became available for your clients, your biggest competition for it would be me’.

Bolger says, ‘Burgundy is just a much smaller market than Bordeaux, and there are a multitude of quality focused big and small négociants looking to buy grapes.’

He pauses, then adds, ‘At least, that was how I saw it. But maybe having two industry insiders (setting up The Wine Studio) will change everything.’

The American connection

Chateau de Bligny has been limbering up for this role for almost 20 years. From 1999 to 2012, it was owned by cooperative cellar Les Vignerons des Hautes-Côtes and so was well used to working with small growers who brought their grapes to its 14th Century vaulted stone cellars.

It was sold on to US company Evening Land Vineyards (ELV), founded by Mark Tarlov and based in Oregon but present in Burgundy since 2008.

ELV shut down its French operation this past summer, but it had been making wine for restaurants and sommeliers alongside its own labels, which meant that Bligny’s cellars continued to be used for a variety of small production wines.

Dominique Lafon enters the fray

Dominique Lafon had been consulting for ELV’s Oregon vineyards since 2007 and continued until early 2015.

When ELV first came to Burgundy, it made wine out of the same small Meursault cellars once owned by Domaine René Manuel that Dominique Lafon used for making his wines under his own name – so not those of Domaine des Comtes Lafon.

So when ELV shut its French operation, Lafon took the opportunity to step in at Chateau de Bligny. He looked to his old friend Pierre Merguey, former director of Maison Champy and making his own wines under the Merguey-Croses label from the Maconnais.

Five hundred spare barrels

Both men were looking to scale up production of their own-label Côte d’Or. he winery at Bligny was perfect except for just one fact – its capacity was too great for their needs.

Lafon has his own 4.5 hectare estate and currently makes around 100 barrels under his own label from both owned and bought grapes, while Merguey was looking to expand his wines from the Maconnais into the Côte d’Or.

‘I’m only making 15 barrels from the 2015 harvest, as this opportunity came around late in the season, but will build up from here’.

They expect to rise to around 250 barrels for their own production over the next few years, but that still gives 500 spare barrels.

First Wine Sudio client

For now, The Wine Studio is for professionals only. The first client is the brilliantly-named Jane Eyre, an Australian winemaker who has been in Burgundy for several years also vinifying in the Meursault cellars of Dominique Lafon.

Merguey told me that the pair were also in talks with an unnamed wine broker and consultant (‘not French but long time Burgundy resident’) to begin working with them.

This would open the doors to bidding on grapes that could then be split between clients who do not have the right contacts to buy for themselves.

Merguey also confirmed that extra winemaking assistance for those who do not live in Burgundy full-time could be available, ‘although clearly the pricing would reflect that’.

‘We want to create a space where we can exchange ideas with other small winemakers,’ said Merguey.

‘In the past Burgundy has been very closed, with winemakers fiercely protecting their contacts. Slowly but surely, things changing.’

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