Burgundy, both in quality and demand, is on a roll, writes Steven Spurrier. However, due to the severely reduced overall productionÂ in 2016, many of the top wines are now priced out of theÂ hands of all but the wealthy and committed collectors,Â even if they can get an allocation. To quote Laura SealÂ Decanter magazineâ€™s Market Watch in March 2017, â€œExperts believe theÂ â€˜relentlessâ€™ rise of Burgundy shows no signs of abating, but lower yieldsÂ in 2016 could make it even harder for investors to acquire the mostÂ renowned names.â€
The key word here is â€˜investorâ€™, limited in the past to the top wines ofÂ Bordeaux, a select number of â€˜collectableâ€™ Grands Crus from BurgundyÂ and the northern RhÃ´ne, but such has Burgundyâ€™s quality been since theÂ turn of the century that the wines have now become a must in every wineÂ loverâ€™s cellar. The bad news is the rise in price across all but the lesserÂ appellations; the good news is the quality, whose â€˜trickle downâ€™ effect hasÂ made these lesser appellations very interesting indeed.
Over the second week in January, the London merchants give extendedÂ tastings to the trade during the day and often to their private customers inÂ the evening. The usual soft approach from merchants, that a good vintageÂ will always sell itself, was in most cases replaced by an element of urgency,Â typified by the, â€œGet your skates on!â€ heading to the Justerini and BrooksÂ offer by their Burgundy buyer Giles Burke-Gaffney, stating that in â€œa yearÂ of unprecedented low yields and great quality, this is a vintage well worthÂ snapping up quickly.â€
It was the night of April 26 and 27, 2017 that changed the CÃ´te dâ€™OrÂ from looking forward to a generous crop to scenes of complete devastation.Â Decanterâ€™s Burgundy consultant, William Kelly writes: â€œBurgundy is no
stranger to frost, but the night of April 26 and the following morningÂ (when the rising sunâ€™s rays were magnified through the frozen buds andÂ burned them) were unique, striking not just the low-lying regional and
village appellations, but many celebrated brands and premiers crus upslope.Â reflected Emmanuel Rouget, â€œmy uncle HenriÂ Jayer said that even Richebourg froze in theÂ winter of 1947, but never Echezeaux.â€
The villages hardest hit â€“ from north toÂ south â€“ were Marsannay, Flagey-Echezeaux,Â Vougeot, Chambolle-Musigny, Nuits-St-Â Georges, Pernand-Vergelesses, Savigny-les-Â Beaune, Beaune, Meursault and Chassagne-
Montrachet. Santenay and Morey-St-DenisÂ were almost entirely spared, while Puligny-Â Montrachet, Volnay, Pommard, Aloxe-Corton,Gevrey-Chambertin and Fixin were damagedÂ in places and untouched in others. Based inÂ Meursault with 22 hectares across 30 differentÂ appellations, Domaine Genot-Boulangerâ€™sÂ Puligny-Montrachet Les Nosroyes croppedÂ a high 55 hl/ha, while their Meursault MeixÂ Chavaux produced just eight.
Jason Haynes, founder and BurgundyÂ buyer for Flint Wines, who presented theÂ Genot-Boulanger wines, told me that all hisÂ domaines agreed that 2016 was theÂ most challenging vintage ever, anÂ emotional roller-coaster that drained bothÂ them and their teams. Opening his tasting, heÂ stated that â€œthe vintages of 2014-15-16 look set
to be heralded as the most exciting threesomeÂ since Charlieâ€™s Angels. In the middle standsÂ the most hyped vintage to date, 2015, whose red wines are lush, seductiveÂ and generally fantastic at all levels. Preceding that we have 2014, whichÂ is very much for the purists, being a vintage that is high class and willÂ make for some great debates in the future over its relative merits alongsideÂ 2015. Finally, we have 2016, whose wines though greatly diminished inÂ volume, are incredibly thrilling: to show such natural concentration yetÂ such energy and drive at the same time is very, very rare indeed.â€
Perhaps the last word can go to Giles Burke-Gaffney, buyingÂ director of Justerini & Brooks, â€œAfter the frosts, incessant rainÂ followed until June, causing a further loss of crop throughÂ mildew â€¦ but then a glorious summer began to kick in, with dry andÂ sunny weather lasting through to the end of a late harvest in early October,
punctuated only by some insignificant mid-September rain. The skins ofÂ the Pinot Noir were thick and needed gentle handling; thankfully growersÂ are more inclined to â€˜infuseâ€™ rather than to extract these days, resulting inÂ some truly captivating wines of classical Burgundian character.â€
While the reports from the London merchants are positive and theÂ red wines I tasted are almost all of purity, precision, depth and distinction,Â 2016 will be my smallest purchase â€œen primeurâ€ by a long chalk. When IÂ returned to a full-time base in the UK at the end of the 1980s, with theÂ advantage of a cool cellar below our house in Dorset just waiting to be filledÂ up, I began to buy Burgundies after their release. First, the superb 1990s,Â then a few of the underrated 1993s, more of the perhaps overrated 1996s,Â then the stunning 1999s, getting into my stride in volume terms with theÂ 2002s and 2005s, the last vintage when I could afford Grands Crus.
At this point, my theory that Burgundy had a great vintage every threeÂ years was blasted by 2008, of which I do not have a single bottle, but IÂ geared up again with the broad, summery 2009s, the firmer 2010s, the
charming 2011s, going to town on the beautifully balanced 2012s, only twoÂ reds from 2013 and no whites. But back in with both the following year, myÂ cellar stocks caused me to slow down on the 2015s. In 2016 I have orderedÂ just four wines, all from Jason Haynes at Flint â€“ Beaune 1er Cru Les SiziesÂ and Volnay Les Petits Poisots from the very reasonably priced DomaineÂ Jean Guiton, Mercurey 1er Cru Clos du Roy Domaine Chartron in theÂ CÃ´te-Chalonnais and ChÃ¢teau du Moulin-a-Ventâ€™s Le Champ de Cour inÂ the Beaujolais. No whites, however good they were to taste, as they are quiteÂ rich and open, suitable more for the restaurant than for the cellar.
So what advice could be given to the Indian market, where BurgundyÂ prices are multiplied by import duties and other taxes? First, aÂ simple statement that quality from Burgundy, from Chablis toÂ the Maconnais, from the north of the CÃ´te de Nuits to the south ofÂ the Beaujolais, red, white, rosÃ©, has never been better. Whether it is the
â€˜rising tide that lifts all boatsâ€™ or the â€˜trickle down effectâ€™ of quality fromÂ the top, the Burgundian region is essentially still family-owned by peopleÂ 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 createÂ it, as does La Place de Bordeaux. Most domaines have a private as well asÂ a national and international clientele, whose regular purchases kept them
going through the rough years, and they donâ€™t wish to lose such peopleÂ completely. Almost every domaine will produce wines for their ownÂ tables, while they are opening their Grand Crus for privileged clients, andÂ these will be made with the same care and attention as the others. ThereÂ is a pyramid of quality in the CÃ´te dâ€™Or which goes from Grand Cru atÂ the peak, to Premier Cru, to Village, down to simple generic Bourgogne,Â the price halving as it descends. Then, of course, there are the negociants,Â who own vineyards but rely on purchasing grapes at harvest time orÂ bulk wine soon after, to fill out their portfolios. Such merchants preferÂ regular clients to investors. With just the Chardonnay for whites andÂ Pinot Noir for reds, not forgetting Gamay forÂ the Beaujolais, there are Burgundies for everyÂ palate and every pocket.
For whites, my personal attention has longÂ focused on Chablis, the Premiers Crus beingÂ the best value for quality and perfect at fourÂ to eight years old. The 2016s were good, if aÂ little rich and pricey, so I will wait for the full
harvest of the 2017s. On the other hand, theÂ Maconnais whites â€“ Macon-Villages, St-VeranÂ and the high quality but not over-priced Pouilly-Â Fuisses, were excellent, probably the best valueÂ Chardonnays in the world. From the CÃ´te-Â Chalonnais, Montagny is always reliable andÂ Rully even better. From the CÃ´te de Beaune,Â Auxey-Duresses and St-Romain are replacingÂ the Meursaults in Pulignys in my cellar.
For reds, the great game changeÂ has been in the Beaujolais. HeavyÂ investment from BurgundyÂ merchants and growers has upped the qualityÂ here, while the established domaines haveÂ gained more confidence. Forget BeaujolaisÂ itself, except when in the region, but go forÂ the Crus â€“ Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, Morgon,Â Julienas, Brouilly and CÃ´te de Brouilly. SuchÂ wines will repay keeping for five years orÂ more. Further north, the CÃ´te-ChalonnaiseÂ is a good hunting ground, especially forÂ Mercurey, its largest appellation. Once intoÂ the CÃ´te dâ€™Or, bargains can be found in theÂ slightly earthy Santenay, the elegant Savignyles-Â Beaune and Beaune itself, which offers the best value Premier Crus.Â 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,Â â€˜Dungeons and Dragonsâ€™. There is little truth in this today, for the wholeÂ region, frost, hail and mildew notwithstanding, is offering the consumerÂ better wines than ever before.
This article appeared first in the print edition of Sommelier India