There is nothing like a major change in one’s life to introduce a mood of introspection—in this instance, the culmination of nearly 40 years of commercial activity in the wine trade. My career began in September 1979 with a job at a fledgling retail business, Birley & Goedhuis Ltd, and finished at the end of July 2017, when I retired from my position as Burgundy director at Berry Bros & Rudd. In between, I founded and ran Morris & Verdin from 1981 to 2003, becoming somewhere along the way a specialist in the wines of Burgundy. There was no intention at the outset to do so; it happened as a series of chances, such as an early introduction to Becky Wasserman, and opportunities grasped.
I have been fortunate to live through the golden age of Burgundy, perhaps encapsulated within the 30 years 1985 to 2015, or the narrower framework of 1990 to 2005. Either version is a relatively Pinot-centric view, though, since I do not think the white wines of Burgundy have since matched what they were offering in the 1970s. More of that later.
At the start of my professional wine-buying career, only the keenest aficionados were interested in Burgundy. Most importers were happy to choose from a range of the better appellations as provided by one or two merchants (négociants). My first employer, Birley & Goedhuis, had only a small selection in its winter 1979 wine list, but it did include some interesting wines, such as Marquis d’Angerville’s 1972 Volnay Clos des Ducs at £6.50 a bottle, while magnums of Marquis de Laguiche Montrachet from the same vintage were a snip at £34 each.
The expression “good, hearty Burgundy” was in common use in past decades. Indeed, the heartiness, if not the goodness, used to come from the admixture of juice from outside Burgundy, typically from the deep south of France or Algeria. Light vintages might require this bone-setting red, and then the good vintages needed to be in line with the others. This style of Burgundy may well have continued to be shipped to the UK until our accession into Europe, whereas stricter rules applied within the community after the Treaty of Rome.
The 1960s had been a difficult decade on the weather front, with disastrous years in 1963, 1965, and 1968. The 1970s were not easy either, though 1971 and 1978 were both very fine—indeed, the latter a reference point; 1976 also has provided some fabulous, long-lived wines but also plenty that did not turn out well in this exceptionally hot, dry year. Certainly by the 1970s a very different style of Burgundy was prevalent. Now the watchwords were “finesse” and “elegance,” but in point of fact the wines were frequently altogether too light.
Not only had there been a reaction to the adulterated reds of the past, but a long period of chemical pesticides and herbicides in partnership with chemical fertilizers was damaging the health of the soil and, indeed, the balance of pH in the soil, leading to a surplus of potassium in the grapes and the wines—and microbial misadventure thereafter unless the wines were acidified. Jacques Seysses’s supposed comment that “I only acidify if I have to, and so far I have needed to every year” may well be apocryphal, but it illustrates the issue nicely. The wines might have been pure, and they might have been fine-boned, but they could be fragile, even undernourished.
The 1980s saw the start of a revolution that has brought about the golden age of Burgundy. We will get to the technical aspects of this later, but it all began with the people. Prior to this time, the vast majority of Burgundy seen on the export markets came from the leading merchant houses—I remember an early visit to a major figure in Beaune who told me firmly, “Monsieur, in Burgundy we are four: ourselves, Jadot, Drouhin, and Bouchard.” There were also some useful cooperatives for inexpensive wine and a limited number of top domaines, one or two in each of the best-known villages. The trade in Burgundy was becoming fossilized, with the marketing centered on the region’s glorious past and its historic pageantry.
But all this was on the point of changing. A new generation of young growers was about to step up to the plate. Some were the sons and daughters of the well-to-do families in Burgundy, whose parents may or may not have been bottling some or all of their own produce, while their vineyards were frequently managed by sharecroppers (metayeurs). These young vignerons, born in the late 1950s, were the ones I met on my first trip to the region in 1981. It was possible to knock on doors and get allocations from domaines that have now achieved cult status—Dominique Lafon, Christophe Roumier, Etienne Grivot, and Ghislaine Barthod, for example. Anne-Claude Leflaive and Eric Rousseau belong to the same generation, though their domaines were already known internationally. Other stars such as Denis Bachelet, Denis Mortet, and Etienne de Montille are only a little younger.
What was different? This was the first generation that trained together at the Lycée Viticole (“le viti”) in Beaune, who tasted in each other’s cellars, who began to understand what Burgundy could be rather than just accepting the status quo inherited from the previous generation. Later on they began to travel abroad, to present their wines, to taste Pinots and Chardonnays being made in California, New Zealand, and elsewhere, perhaps to consult at wineries in the New World, and certainly to receive young interns from around the globe to work in their own cellars.
More good vintages and producers
During the 1980s, the modern era of red Burgundy began to fall into place—it would take a while for all the improvements to filter through into the wines, but the seeds were there. The breakthrough vintage was perhaps 1985; it was certainly the first time I heard the phrase, “The only way to make a bad wine this year is to do it deliberately.” By the 1990s, Burgundy had really found a new rhythm that heralded its golden age.
No vintage is universally successful, but there is so much to enjoy during the ’90s. 1990 itself remains powerful and full of fruit, though some might prefer a cooler style. 1991 was ignored because of frost damage and global recession when it emerged, but the small volume that was made has often turned out to be exquisite. 1993 in the Côte de Nuits has certainly outperformed expectations, and the better wines are still only just beginning to blossom. 1995 remains an enigma, the fruit having taken a prolonged leave of absence in most appellations apart perhaps from Volnay and Chambolle-Musigny.
I remain a believer in 1996, a vintage with high acidity alongside otherwise ripe fruit. More time is needed, and past vintages with high acidity (and much less ripe fruit) have evolved well over decades. 1999 earned a great reputation from the start, though it is a more consistent success in the Côte de Beaune than the Côte de Nuits, where some wines were perhaps overcropped—but in general these wines remain in their infancy. 2002 is the most beautifully fine-boned vintage, coming into its own now, albeit without the exceptional concentration of the greatest years. Who would have thought that 2003 would have turned out as well as it has—though of course the sumptuous, peachy richness of the fruit in this very hot vintage makes the wines somewhat atypical. The apogee for me is 2005—a vintage in which the generic wines remain a thrill to drink, the village wines are only just beginning to open, and the crus should certainly be kept.
The omitted vintages—1992, 1994, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, and 2004—all produced a number of decent wines, mostly for earlier drinking, while either lacking the concentration to kick on or else suffering from less attractive features such as the pyrazines present, but on the whole diminishing in 2004. But it is worth noting that even an easy-drinking vintage such as 2000 has remained in good condition for much longer than originally expected.
More important perhaps than the reputation of a particular vintage, is the fact that there are now so many more reliable, often exceptional producers from among whom to choose. Take Gevrey-Chambertin, for example; in the 1980s, there were perhaps half a dozen domaines, led by Armand Rousseau, whose wines were being widely distributed in overseas markets. In 2015, one might well be clamoring for an allocation (price considerations apart) from any of the following, and I will surely have overlooked further contenders: Bachelet, Burguet, Charlopin, Damoy, Drouhin-Laroze, Dugat, Dugat-Py, Duroché, Esmonin x 2, Fourrier, Geantet-Pansiot, Harmand-Geoffroy, Herezstyn, Mortet, Rossignol-Trapet, Rousseau, Roy, Sérafin, Trapet, Varoilles…
Advances, fads, and fashions in vineyard and cellar
To what can we attribute the relatively consistent success of this period? On the technical front, we have seen considerable advances in both vineyard and cellar. Herbicides are largely a thing of the past, and pesticides and other chemical treatments are much rarer than they used to be. A key element has been the move toward plowing vineyards, an essential prerequisite to making high-class wine, except in circumstances where deliberate grassing between the rows is deemed appropriate. Nowadays, it is rare to see vines that have not been at least occasionally plowed, and the microbial life of the soil, deemed by Claude Bourguignon to be less active than the Sahara desert when he first came to Burgundy, is now clearly much healthier.
The biggest factor in the cellar is the widespread use of the sorting table, a phenomenon that has spread rapidly since the turn of the millennium. In earlier times, producers would use pretty much all the fruit that could be picked, and if that included some rotten or otherwise faulty grapes, then too bad—that was just the nature of the vintage. (Years such as 1983 could have turned out very differently two decades later!) Today, grapes will be sorted once in the vineyard, again on arrival at the cellar, and possibly, at some domaines, a third time after destemming. Top-quality grapes are, indeed, essential to top-quality wine.
Many other techniques come and go, finding favor for a while in response to a particular problem, being widely “discovered” and shortly thereafter exaggerated, then relinquished in favor of the next trend. At the moment, the tendency is for a little less new oak and a little less extraction, two decisions of which I heartily approve. There continue to be several producers in Gevrey-Chambertin noted for their dark-colored wines, but today their wines retain a degree of succulence as they mature, rather than degrading toward the tough tannins of the overextracted.
Swaying backward and forward over the past 35 years—or indeed century and a half—is the question of using stems in red-wine vinification. In the 1980s, the domaines that did vinify the whole bunches, and not just the destemmed grapes, were few and celebrated for their style—Domaine de la Romanée- Conti, Leroy, Dujac, and Domaine de l’Arlot, for example. Henri Jayer was emphatically against the inclusion of stems, and that was the majority view. Now, since his death, and with the effects of climate change, there has been considerably more interest in fermenting the whole bunches rather than just the destemmed grapes. The use of the stems is felt to freshen up wines that might otherwise risk appearing overripe in both taste and texture. Whether or not one is a fan of wines made with whole clusters, this is clearly a question of style rather than quality.
From the perspective of wine quality, we may very well still be in the golden age. After the duo of 2009 and 2010, good whites were made in 2011, excellent wines in both colors in 2012, some exciting top-end reds in 2013, consistently fine whites in 2014, highly praised reds and potentially fine whites in 2015—followed by exciting reds in 2016 and early interest in the 2017 whites. So, Burgundy continues to make some of the finest wines in the world. Furthermore, and this is crucial, I do not detect complacency from the red-wine producers. There is still a drive toward improvement.
The whites: still some way from former glory
So far, we have concentrated on Burgundy’s glorious red wines, but of course the region is—some of the time—deservedly famous for its whites as well. The palm for the greatest dry white wine on earth is usually given to Le Montrachet, supported by other wonderful white wines of Burgundy—though some (and I can be tempted) will push the claims of Riesling. There were some glorious vintages in the 1970s, especially the enormous crops of 1973 and 1979. A bottle of Meursault Charmes 1979 from Pierre Morey was the star turn of the evening (alongside much grander competition) when drunk at La Tour d’Argent in January 2018. The great success of red Burgundy, however, may have damaged the whites as producers started looking for elegance, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Chardonnay is a muscular grape not a ballet dancer, and attempts to produce a very pure, fine style of white Burgundy have missed the point. From the mid-1990s, the majority of Burgundy’s white wines (and indeed some from other regions) have lost their ability to age, oxidizing prematurely. In the worst instances, the wines take on a deep color, a bouquet of bruised apples and furniture polish. I wrote extensively on this subject in an earlier issue (WFW 43, pp.100–09) and have not seen much since to change my views extensively. The problem still exists, even if in a slightly more muted form than before.
Progress has been made in a number of areas, expressed in the timeline from picking to bottling as follows: a greater understanding of procedures during pressing, so that oxidases can act before it matters; avoidance of excessive bâtonnage; a more intelligent sulfur regime; better calibrated bottling machines with an understanding of the amount of dissolved oxygen in the wine; alternative closures.
There is also the more general aspect of reductive winemaking, a phrase that can mean different things to different people. The market has briefly cleaved to its bosom the gunflint aromatics found in the wines of such producers as Jean-François Coche-Dury, Jean-Marc Roulot, Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey, and others, but it is also reacting against excessive iterations of this style. Nor is there any common consensus over how to make wines in this image.
Nor alas has premature oxidation disappeared from our cellars. The time frame moves up. Personally, I am rarely experiencing “the pox” from my remaining bottles of 1996, 1999, or 2002—all vintages that were particularly affected earlier on—but 2005 and other more recent vintages have been tarnished. I continue to hold the view that, cork failures apart, the issue may be one that affects white wines at a particular stage of their development and may be reversible (but not definitely or reliably so) with the passage of time.
Any bottle, however, that is affected by premature oxidation when it is opened is a wasted bottle; and white Burgundy that is made in a style to allow for instant gratification, without the need for extended cellaring, is but a poor imitation of what these wines used to deliver.
Future challenges: supply
Overall, it is fair to say that the red wines of Burgundy have never been more consistently fine than over the past 25–30 years. There are so many magical producers of fabulous wines, many of which are accessible relatively young but that nonetheless have as great a capacity to age as ever before. The whites are not in such a good place. Certainly there are still some very good wines; and like the reds, they have been made to be appreciated from an early age—but alas, their ability to mature gracefully over decades is no longer to be expected. The marketplace, however, offers a much less rosy picture, especially given the current imbalance between supply and demand.
Just when the world has taken Burgundy to its heart, supply has been threatened to a degree not seen for more than a generation. Yields have been significantly reduced across most recent vintages. Partly this is down to weather conditions, but there are more underlying worries, too. Hail and frost have damaged all but one of the past six vintages to a degree not known in living memory. The vineyard sector from Meursault to Savigny-lès-Beaune was grievously hailed in 2012, 2013, and 2014, while other villages may also have suffered to a lesser extent. 2015 was relatively unscathed—save in Chablis where a vicious hailstorm swept through on the eve of harvest (at night and in September, neither of which is usually considered as a hail risk). Then in 2016 came hail in the Mâconnais, frost throughout the region, to an unprecedented extent in the Côte d’Or, then more hail in Chablis, which suffered further major frost damage in 2017. This is not normal. But will it become the new norm?
Though hail and frost are both versions of ice events, many ascribe these extreme weather conditions to climate change—I am not competent to comment, though I have certainly noticed much warmer winters in Burgundy in recent years. The additional frost risk is exacerbated when warm winter weather sets the sap rising earlier than usual. The hail damage also evokes various theories for the detail—especially where there have been changes to the afforestation of the top slopes.
I also perceive that quality is moving slightly up the hillside, so that there is more interest in such vineyards as Taillepieds and Clos de Chênes in Volnay, or Fuées and Cras in Chambolle- Musigny than would have been the case for previous generations. However, should the effects of climate change become yet more pronounced, there is a very real danger that the Pinot grape may no longer be as well suited to the golden limestone slopes of Burgundy as it has been for the past many hundred years. There are already those considering Syrah in the granitic Beaujolais.
Some producers are also concerned that yields are lower than expected even in vintages unaffected by meteorological hazards. Vines are dying much earlier than they should from a variety of ailments, not least esca, which can cause a vine to descend from apparent health to being extinguished in a matter of days—poor grafting and pruning practices have been blamed for this. A further hopeful sign for Burgundy is that much thought is being put into improving viticultural practices, including the adoption of the Guyot-Poussard pruning method.
Some think that yields are lower because the vineyards are more intensively farmed than they were. Have producers, in their zeal to avoid the excesses of fertilization in the years after 1945, actually gone too far in the opposite direction? Or indeed, have organic practices deposited too much copper and sulfur in the vineyards?
Future challenges: demand
Be careful what you wish for! After all those years trying to persuade potential customers that it was not just in Bordeaux that wonderful wines could be found, worldwide demand has made the fine wines of Burgundy both much scarcer and much more expensive.
Partly the change is due to the expanding popularity of Burgundy around the globe, but it is also due to how wines are traded. A generation ago, the UK and USA were vying for the top spot as importers of Burgundy (it was usually the USA by value and the UK by volume), while in the Far East only Japan had really cottoned on to the glorious subtleties of Burgundy. Singapore was also a sophisticated market on a small scale, but very little was sold or drunk in Hong Kong or China. Indeed,
I remember a Burgundy dinner at a relatively upmarket French restaurant in Hong Kong about ten years ago. We had chosen six wines, so the restaurant initially proposed a six-course menu, pairing one with each, thus ending with 1993 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg to accompany dessert!
In fact, the official importers of record remain the USA and UK, but that does not necessarily mean that the wines stay there. Auction evidence (see Ella Lister’s regular reports in these pages) indicates that a considerable proportion of mature stock heads east.
Nowadays, a huge amount of very fine Burgundy is being drunk in Hong Kong, Taipei, and Shanghai, to name only three vibrant centers of wine appreciation, and by people who really understand what they are drinking and just how good it is. This level of wine knowledge and understanding has arrived extremely rapidly, in a region that has the disposable income to act on what it wants. Furthermore, many wealthy wine lovers—wherever they may live and work—are experienced travelers who source their wines from all around the globe. Fine-wine prices are now easily visible, both through companies’ own Web pages or apps, and through such sites as wine-searcher.com.
It is not just because these new markets are opening up that Burgundy has joined the ranks of the “collectibles.” There are now market prices for the top wines from the most famous producers, even though there may be so little stock around that it is hard to define a firm level. In my younger days in the wine trade, it was possible to wander into a store and pick up bottles of Rousseau Clos St-Jacques or Chambertin for between £30 and £60 each, and I see I bought some Coche-Dury Meursault from the early 1980s for about £10 a bottle. Prices for these iconic names were changing anyway, but it was with the stellar 2005 vintage that the phenomenon emerged of rare wines being listed (perhaps just one six-pack) at hugely inflated prices—and for that listing to be deemed as forming the market price.
Then, with interest in Bordeaux falling away dramatically after the overpricing of the 2009 and 2010 vintages, Burgundy came more into focus on the investment side of the market—a great shame, since while one could argue that many Bordeaux producers are keen to see their wines trading at the highest possible prices, this is true of only a very few Burgundians.
Prices: causes, effects, and inconsistencies
Some wines have undoubtedly become investment vehicles. La Romanée-Conti 1988 was originally offered in 1991 at £2,800 per case. One such case was sold by Christie’s in London in September 2017 for £198,000—70 times the opening price.
Price inflation has affected Burgundy across the board, though not to a consistent degree. The above table compares the en primeur prices of the same wine from the 2005 and 2015 vintages, as sold by the same merchant, Berry Bros & Rudd. This selection is too small to be statistically valuable, but it does point to a few trends, not least the move toward six-bottle cases. It is also clear that the grander appellations have increased in price considerably more rapidly than the simpler ones.
White-wine pricing has followed a similar if not quite so extreme profile, which is harder to understand given the doubts expressed above about the performance of these wines at the moment. The only counterargument relates to the comparative scarcity of top vineyards for the whites, which are limited to the three—now four, with St-Aubin—leading villages of the Côte, plus Corton-Charlemagne. There is more choice among the leading reds, even though for some the hunting ground appears, sadly, to be confined within the boundaries of Vosne-Romanée, Chambolle-Musigny, and Gevrey-Chambertin.
One narrative on recent pricing is that greed has got to the Burgundians, who are now “doing a Bordeaux,” referring to the period of the 2009 and 2010 primeur pricing excesses. In conversation with producers, I rarely feel this, though one could cite a very small number of producers who are actively looking for the highest possible price. Another, surprised at the negative response to a price hike for his 2012 vintage, responded that the regular stream of Burgundy lovers who visit his winery all tell him how much they love his wine and how difficult it is to find—by implication because it is sold out.
The opposite narrative discusses the shortage of supply and the hardships faced by honest growers struggling to survive after years of reduced crops—no full harvest between 2009 and 2017, and several instances of catastrophic reductions. This analysis is fair enough within the heart of the Côte de Beaune, and especially relevant to the minor appellations; producers of Savigny-lès-Beaune have not been able to increase prices by anything like the amount needed to compensate for the shortfall.
The crucial difference, however, between this recent experience and a similar run of problem years in the 1960s is that it is quantity rather than quality that has been affected, since producers now know not to include any compromised grapes. The commercial situation for many of them, however, is very tricky indeed at the moment. A grower with just over half a hectare of Beaune premier cru Pertuisots (in which I have a small share) could theoretically produce 11 barrels of wine from his 0.53ha (1.3 acres) each year—but the total yield of the five vintages 2012–16 has been 9.5 barrels.
There are important nuances underlying the declared price of the final bottle. We tend to think of Burgundy being supplied either by a domaine, in control of its costs, or by a négociant, necessarily dependent on the market price for the grapes, must, or wine that it has purchased in order to deliver the product. For the past few vintages, the price of the raw material has been exceptionally high, and at the time of writing there has been no significant decrease for 2017, despite the additional volumes available in most areas. The bulk price for the less famous appellations has softened slightly, but this is not so the most sought-after names.
If we road-test the assumption that, in contrast to the négociants, domaines can choose their selling prices more freely because they only have to worry about production costs, which are relatively stable, we find that the picture is not as clear as it might seem. It is worth noting in parentheses that the difficult, calamity-affected vintages, tend to cost much more than the abundant years to manage, but in fact there are more important underlying issues to discuss. Certain domaines own all their vineyards outright, but there is also a widespread model by which either different family members, or the family property owning company, lease the vineyards to the domaine that exploits the vineyards.
Now, the wholesale price of the grapes does come into play because the lease will typically be calculated on the value of four barrels of the relevant wine per hectare (for Côte d’Or reds) or five barrels for white. In years of short production, that can be a very heavy price to pay. Sometimes the rent is due in wine rather than cash—in which case, what happens when the exploitant has actually made fewer barrels than are owed? This has not been just a theoretical question in recent vintages.
Further underlying these issues is the actual value of the real estate. Markets should rise and fall according to circumstance and cycle, but this has simply not been happening. At no time in my career has there been a correction in the price of vineyard land. When Domaine René Engel was sold in 2006, for an undisclosed sum, the understood ballpark figure was regarded as being dangerously expensive. Yet when the same purchasers bought Clos de Tart a dozen years later, the price per vine will have been of a completely different order. A recent small transaction involving a few rows of vines in grand cru Le Musigny is understood to have topped €2 million per ouvrée, or €50 million per hectare, pro rata.
It is no surprise that these immense prices have caused a majority of family shareholders to decide that now was the moment to sell their famous property, be it Bonneau du Martray or Clos de Tart. The current price of top vineyard land seems, yet again, to be totally unsustainable, but it may well be that only another global financial or political crisis of such a scale that fine wine becomes an irrelevance will reverse the trend.
These high land prices are thought to have two negative effects on the traditional Burgundian landscape. Locals can no longer afford to purchase any of the higher ranked vineyards, and inheritance taxes based on the theoretical value of the vines will lead to the break-up of established domaines that will have to sell vineyards to find the money. The first point seems largely valid, though Roumier, Mortet, Faiveley, de Montille, and Dujac have all been able to add exciting new vineyards to their portfolios, admittedly with the help of investors. Other purchasers have included powerful French-based vehicles such as LVMH or Artemis, while Chinese investment has caused headlines probably disproportionate to the frequency and size of the involvement.
So, perhaps we will see a concentration of the best vineyards in fewer hands, but with a bias toward the most competent protagonists. This should be a positive result as long as the vineyards do not become ever more morcellated in the process. A recent plot of 0.43ha (1 acre) of Echézeaux has been divided among three vignerons, none of whom could make more than half a barrel in the admittedly minuscule 2016 vintage.
Conclusion: fears and hopes
I find myself positioned somewhere between Dr Pangloss and Louis XIV. Not all is for the best in this best of all possible Burgundian worlds, yet the deluge has not fallen on the head of my wine-buying successor insofar as the necessarily expensive 2016 vintage has been well received despite coming after the glamour of 2015.
The market does not feel healthy—too much money chasing the tiny fraction of wine that forms the tip of the triangle, and too much difficulty in making ends meet among the lower echelons. The arrival of the plentiful 2017 vintage on the market may necessitate some recalibrations.
But there remain reasons to be cheerful, not least the continued excellence in myriad different styles of red-wine making, backed by something of an improvement in the reliability of the white wines. I see no reason not to continue my love affair with the wines of Burgundy, though my own purchases must necessarily be on a much humbler scale than they once were. Thank goodness there are so many delicious wines being made these days from the humbler appellations.