15 January 2016

Why in Burgundy the wine growers have never had it so good


A few years ago, on a bitterly cold Burgundian night, I paid a visit to a negociant in Beaune to share a glass of Volnay and discuss all matters Burgundy. Over a few hours, in front of a roaring log fire, we spoke candidly about the state of the region. Prices were climbing but yields, ravaged by hail and frost, were low. There had been some good years – 2009 and 2010 – and quality, we agreed, had never been better. Times were pretty good. Until we got onto the thorny issue of the whites.

Such was the level of premature oxidation, or ‘premox,’ found in white Burgundy, that the negociant in question confided in me that he was unsure whether he could recommend laying these wines down for ageing anymore. Premox is a condition which leave wines slightly sherried in character. In the worst cases they are undrinkable and lacking in vitality. Vintages such as 1999 and 2002 were particularly badly affected and since then scores of bottles have either been returned to wine merchants or simply poured down the drain.

It’s fair to say white Burgundy became tainted, and what is the greatest wine region in the world for Chardonnay lost some of its sparkle as consumers – worried about premox – looked elsewhere. New Zealand was a notable beneficiary.

So it was with much scepticism that I approached my first cask sample of the 2014 vintage, which has just been previewed in a series of tastings in London.

It’s been 25 years since Hew Blair, then buying director for London fine wine merchant’s Justerini & Brooks, invited 20 growers to travel to London to show their wines directly to the consumer. From that first tasting in the ‘In & Out’ Club on Piccadilly the week has grown and has now morphed into ‘Burgundy week’ complete with master classes, tastings, more cask samples than one critic can possibly evaluate and even it’s own hashtag on Twitter.

The latter is surprising as the Burgundians are not known for their marketing. They don’t go in for the slick sales pitch of say, a Napa Valley grower or the lavish entertaining of a Bordeaux Château owner. Many of them just look pleased to be enjoying a few days away in London. ‘Burgundy week’ isn’t organised by some flash Paris based PR agency, but by the British wine trade. The only dinners that are held are for the growers who spend most of their time standing behind trestle tables pouring samples for thirsty consumers, journalists and curious wine merchants.

It’s an intense week, and a great way to taste through the regions great estates quickly. But this year a combination of extremely high prices for the top 30 or so domaines and the spectre of premox had slightly jaded my enthusiasm for the wines. And yet over the course of tasting dozens of samples, my opinion evolved. What swung me was the quality of the white wines. I have been attending this week as both a consumer and professionally since the late 1990s and I can’t remember tasting such stunning white samples before. After a torrid decade, it’s time to start getting excited about white Burgundy again.

So just how good are the white wines? Burgundy is fiendishly complex, a patchwork quilt of different villages, vineyards, micro-climates and producers. Grand statements and generalisations are unwise, especially from a brief snapshot of the vintage, yet in 2014 it is clear the white wines are of a very high quality. “For white wine, it is the most uniformly good vintage in my lifetime,” said Master of Wine Jasper Morris, Burgundy buying director for Berry Brothers & Rudd. Other importers I spoke to, including Hew Blair, agreed.

What the Chardonnay possesses in this vintage is a magical combination of fleshy white fruit, concentration and intensity, married with a thrilling acidity and freshness. Usually you get one aspect of this, either fruit or freshness, rarely do you get both. The reds are more mixed. My advice is that if you see a white Burgundy with 2014 on the label go for it.

But be warned, prices are not what they were. In the last 5 years price rises for the top 30 or so domaines in Burgundy, red and white, have been stratospheric. Take Domaine Georges Roumier for example whose Grand Cru red wine, Bonnes Mares 2010 has, according to Wine Owners an online fine-wine trading platform, increased 235% since its first release in 2012. Then it was priced between £180-£220 a bottle, now it is trading at more than £600, or Sylvain Cathiard’s Malconsorts, from Vosne Romanee which has climbed 172% in 4 years.

But it’s when you look back at historical en primeur release prices that the rises become so apparent. Here are a few examples:1993 Chambertin, Grand Cru by Armand Rousseau, this was released at £780 en primeur for a case of 12 bottles – it is now trading at £17,000 for a case; 1996 Chambolle-Musigny, Les Fuées, 1er Cru by Ghislaine Barthod sold en primeur for £252 a case, it is now worth £1000. 1999 Mazis-Chambertin by Domaine d’Auvenay, released at £3,900 now trading at £14,000 or La Romanée by Domaine Liger-Belair released in 2003 at the then eye brow raising price of £5,000 for 12 bottles it is today trading at £18,000. These make the price rises seen in Bordeaux look like small beer.

Many say the region is changing. The old character of the place, freezing cold cellars, small holdings owned by farmers and a general feel of authenticity is slowly giving way to what happened in Bordeaux two generations ago: corporate ownership, design led tasting rooms and more sports cars than a Monaco parking lot. I’m not so sure, but it does feel the region is at a cross roads. For the top wines, prices are now so high that one wonders who is drinking them. But in a globalised world I can’t see the situation changing any time soon. The world has woken up to the delights of Burgundy and it likes what it tastes.

Burgundy 2014: Domaines to Watch

2014 is a very good year for white Burgundy, perhaps more mixed and challenging for the reds. The whites posses both fruit and acidity. Out of the dozens of samples I tasted here are some producers who made very good wine.

Domaine Clos des Rocs

Domaine Gilles Morat

Domaine Jean-Baptiste Ponsot

Domaine Agnès Paquet

Domaine Dominique Lafon

Domaine Olivier Merlin

Domaine Jean-Yves Devevey

Domaine Hubert Lamy

Jean-Claude Bachelet & Fils

Sylvain Loichet

Domaine Jean-Noël Gagnard

Domaine Joseph Drouhin

Domaine Bachelet Monnot

Domaine Paul Pillot

Domaine Phillippe Colin

Remi Rollin

Bouchard Pére at Fils

Bruno Clair

Château de Meursault

Domaine Jean-Marc Pillot

Will Lyons is a columnist for the Sunday Times and was short listed for Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year 2015