Burgundy, both in quality and demand, is on a roll, writes Steven Spurrier. However, due to the severely reduced overall production in 2016, many of the top wines are now priced out of the hands of all but the wealthy and committed collectors, even if they can get an allocation. To quote Laura Seal Decanter magazine’s Market Watch in March 2017, “Experts believe the ‘relentless’ rise of Burgundy shows no signs of abating, but lower yields in 2016 could make it even harder for investors to acquire the most renowned names.”
The key word here is ‘investor’, limited in the past to the top wines of Bordeaux, a select number of ‘collectable’ Grands Crus from Burgundy and the northern Rhône, but such has Burgundy’s quality been since the turn of the century that the wines have now become a must in every wine lover’s cellar. The bad news is the rise in price across all but the lesser appellations; the good news is the quality, whose ‘trickle down’ effect has made these lesser appellations very interesting indeed.
Over the second week in January, the London merchants give extended tastings to the trade during the day and often to their private customers in the evening. The usual soft approach from merchants, that a good vintage will always sell itself, was in most cases replaced by an element of urgency, typified by the, “Get your skates on!” heading to the Justerini and Brooks offer by their Burgundy buyer Giles Burke-Gaffney, stating that in “a year of unprecedented low yields and great quality, this is a vintage well worth snapping up quickly.”
It was the night of April 26 and 27, 2017 that changed the Côte d’Or from looking forward to a generous crop to scenes of complete devastation. Decanter’s Burgundy consultant, William Kelly writes: “Burgundy is no
stranger to frost, but the night of April 26 and the following morning (when the rising sun’s rays were magnified through the frozen buds and burned them) were unique, striking not just the low-lying regional and
village appellations, but many celebrated brands and premiers crus upslope. reflected Emmanuel Rouget, “my uncle Henri Jayer said that even Richebourg froze in the winter of 1947, but never Echezeaux.”
The villages hardest hit – from north to south – were Marsannay, Flagey-Echezeaux, Vougeot, Chambolle-Musigny, Nuits-St- Georges, Pernand-Vergelesses, Savigny-les- Beaune, Beaune, Meursault and Chassagne-
Montrachet. Santenay and Morey-St-Denis were almost entirely spared, while Puligny- Montrachet, Volnay, Pommard, Aloxe-Corton,Gevrey-Chambertin and Fixin were damaged in places and untouched in others. Based in Meursault with 22 hectares across 30 different appellations, Domaine Genot-Boulanger’s Puligny-Montrachet Les Nosroyes cropped a high 55 hl/ha, while their Meursault Meix Chavaux produced just eight.
Jason Haynes, founder and Burgundy buyer for Flint Wines, who presented the Genot-Boulanger wines, told me that all his domaines agreed that 2016 was the most challenging vintage ever, an emotional roller-coaster that drained both them and their teams. Opening his tasting, he stated that “the vintages of 2014-15-16 look set
to be heralded as the most exciting threesome since Charlie’s Angels. In the middle stands the most hyped vintage to date, 2015, whose red wines are lush, seductive and generally fantastic at all levels. Preceding that we have 2014, which is very much for the purists, being a vintage that is high class and will make for some great debates in the future over its relative merits alongside 2015. Finally, we have 2016, whose wines though greatly diminished in volume, are incredibly thrilling: to show such natural concentration yet such energy and drive at the same time is very, very rare indeed.”
Perhaps the last word can go to Giles Burke-Gaffney, buying director of Justerini & Brooks, “After the frosts, incessant rain followed until June, causing a further loss of crop through mildew … but then a glorious summer began to kick in, with dry and sunny weather lasting through to the end of a late harvest in early October,
punctuated only by some insignificant mid-September rain. The skins of the Pinot Noir were thick and needed gentle handling; thankfully growers are more inclined to ‘infuse’ rather than to extract these days, resulting in some truly captivating wines of classical Burgundian character.”
While the reports from the London merchants are positive and the red wines I tasted are almost all of purity, precision, depth and distinction, 2016 will be my smallest purchase “en primeur” by a long chalk. When I returned to a full-time base in the UK at the end of the 1980s, with the advantage of a cool cellar below our house in Dorset just waiting to be filled up, I began to buy Burgundies after their release. First, the superb 1990s, then a few of the underrated 1993s, more of the perhaps overrated 1996s, then the stunning 1999s, getting into my stride in volume terms with the 2002s and 2005s, the last vintage when I could afford Grands Crus.
At this point, my theory that Burgundy had a great vintage every three years was blasted by 2008, of which I do not have a single bottle, but I geared up again with the broad, summery 2009s, the firmer 2010s, the
charming 2011s, going to town on the beautifully balanced 2012s, only two reds from 2013 and no whites. But back in with both the following year, my cellar stocks caused me to slow down on the 2015s. In 2016 I have ordered just four wines, all from Jason Haynes at Flint – Beaune 1er Cru Les Sizies and Volnay Les Petits Poisots from the very reasonably priced Domaine Jean Guiton, Mercurey 1er Cru Clos du Roy Domaine Chartron in the Côte-Chalonnais and Château du Moulin-a-Vent’s Le Champ de Cour in the Beaujolais. No whites, however good they were to taste, as they are quite rich and open, suitable more for the restaurant than for the cellar.
So what advice could be given to the Indian market, where Burgundy prices are multiplied by import duties and other taxes? First, a simple statement that quality from Burgundy, from Chablis to the Maconnais, from the north of the Côte de Nuits to the south of the Beaujolais, red, white, rosé, has never been better. Whether it is the
‘rising tide that lifts all boats’ or the ‘trickle down effect’ of quality from the top, the Burgundian region is essentially still family-owned by people who are proud of and committed to producing the best wines they can.
Financially, they are obliged to follow the market, but they do not create it, as does La Place de Bordeaux. Most domaines have a private as well as a national and international clientele, whose regular purchases kept them
going through the rough years, and they don’t wish to lose such people completely. Almost every domaine will produce wines for their own tables, while they are opening their Grand Crus for privileged clients, and these will be made with the same care and attention as the others. There is a pyramid of quality in the Côte d’Or which goes from Grand Cru at the peak, to Premier Cru, to Village, down to simple generic Bourgogne, the price halving as it descends. Then, of course, there are the negociants, who own vineyards but rely on purchasing grapes at harvest time or bulk wine soon after, to fill out their portfolios. Such merchants prefer regular clients to investors. With just the Chardonnay for whites and Pinot Noir for reds, not forgetting Gamay for the Beaujolais, there are Burgundies for every palate and every pocket.
For whites, my personal attention has long focused on Chablis, the Premiers Crus being the best value for quality and perfect at four to eight years old. The 2016s were good, if a little rich and pricey, so I will wait for the full
harvest of the 2017s. On the other hand, the Maconnais whites – Macon-Villages, St-Veran and the high quality but not over-priced Pouilly- Fuisses, were excellent, probably the best value Chardonnays in the world. From the Côte- Chalonnais, Montagny is always reliable and Rully even better. From the Côte de Beaune, Auxey-Duresses and St-Romain are replacing the Meursaults in Pulignys in my cellar.
For reds, the great game change has been in the Beaujolais. Heavy investment from Burgundy merchants and growers has upped the quality here, while the established domaines have gained more confidence. Forget Beaujolais itself, except when in the region, but go for the Crus – Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, Morgon, Julienas, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly. Such wines will repay keeping for five years or more. Further north, the Côte-Chalonnaise is a good hunting ground, especially for Mercurey, its largest appellation. Once into the Côte d’Or, bargains can be found in the slightly earthy Santenay, the elegant Savignyles- Beaune and Beaune itself, which offers the best value Premier Crus. North of Beaune, Ladoix and Aloxe-Corton are still under-valued and to
the very north, so are Marsannay and Fixin.
It used to be said that buying Burgundy resembled the board game, ‘Dungeons and Dragons’. There is little truth in this today, for the whole region, frost, hail and mildew notwithstanding, is offering the consumer better wines than ever before.
This article appeared first in the print edition of Sommelier India