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March 22, 2014updated 02 Nov 2022 12:06pm

Burgundy lows and highs: After four small harvests in a row, prices continue to rise

By Thierry Dessauve

Comte Jean-Charles le Bault de la Morinière, the owner of Domaine Bonneau du Martray in Pernand-Vergelesses, always chooses his words carefully and almost always finds them. But after his Corton- Charlemagne vines at the heart of the appellation were struck by hail for the second year in a row, on July 23, 2013, he was quite literally speechless, unable to utter, when a neighbor came to his door in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

Even before the unholy grêle, it had already been a difficult growing season. Bud-break was delayed by a cold and wet April, while May was one of the wettest on record in the Côte d’Or. The first half of June was better, but flowering took place late in the month, when the weather was again cool and wet, and when a diary entry by American émigré négociant Alex Gambal read “a November day.” As a result there was again, as in 2012, coulure and millerandage, so the crop was already much reduced. There was hotter, sunnier weather in July, but also four stormy spells, including the devastating hail and rain that hit large parts of the Côte de Beaune on July 23. Comparing the precipitation across several villages for July 23-24, Gambal notes in his vintage report that Volnay received six times as much rain as the neighboring village of Monthélie (57mm [2.25in] versus 9.4mm [0.35in]), highlighting “the capriciousness of these storms, their violent nature, and the sheer luck of who gets damaged and who is hardly touched.” For those hit hardest by the hail, the losses in the vineyard ranged from 50 to 100 percent.

In August and September, there were normal levels of sunshine, but the pressure from fungal diseases remained high, and it was necessary to treat for mildew and oidium. The second half of September was cool, and many growers harvested very late, into October-the first time this had happened on a wide scale since 1978.

Although the final figures were not available at the time of the press conference held before the annual Hospices de Beaune auction on Sunday, November 17, 2013, Jean- Michel Aubinel, president of the Confédération des Appellations et des Vignerons de Bourgogne, said then that from Chablis to the Mâconnais, the Chardonnay crop was around 30 percent lower than the norm, and the Pinot Noir harvest between 15 and 20 percent lower, but as much as 50 percent lower in some parts of the Côte de Beaune.

The landmark roof and spire of the Hospices de Beaune, where the 2013 auction of its wines hit record highs for several cuvées, as well as for the overall total

The landmark roof and spire of the Hospices de Beaune, where the 2013 auction of its wines hit record highs for several cuvées, as well as for the overall total; Photography by Jon Wyand

Noting that there were clear corridors for the hail and that some sectors were being hit regularly, Aubinel said, with some desperation, that some solution would need to be found. Insisting that producers were completely committed to sustainable production, and that any chemicals fired into clouds to encourage precipitation would have no adverse effect on the environment, he said that the worst-affected growers could not continue to suffer the kind of losses they had seen over the past two years.

At the same press conference, Pierre-Henry Gagey, president of the Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne (BIVB), revealed that it might introduce a system of individual reserves, as in Champagne, to even out annual fluctuations in the size of the harvest. This would apply only to regional, high-volume wines and would allow growers to harvest a higher-than-usual maximum yield in some years. Speaking elsewhere as president of Maison Louis Jadot, Gagey expressed anxiety about low stock levels and said that, for the first time in 30 years, his company might run out of an appellation such as Pouilly-Fuissé.

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Record Hospices de Beaune sale

Difficult vintages like 2012 and 2013 test not only the commitment but also the experience, expertise, and resources of growers. Roland Masse, the vineyard manager and winemaker for the Hospices de Beaune, explained before the sale that rigorous selection and careful vinification was required. He admitted that the general quality of the reds was inevitably even less regular than in previous vintages but held out the promise of “invigorating, healthy, tonic, and tannic wines.”

Anthony Hanson MW, a leading Burgundy specialist and senior consultant to Christie’s international wine department (which has helped organize the sale since 2005), wrote in the presale catalog that “no wines have finished fermenting, so it is too soon to comment on the style of the vintage.

But having watched so many fine bunches coming in, and seen how meticulously they were sorted and handled, I confidently believe there will be many beautiful wines, with intense, fresh fruitiness and silky textures.” Many of the wines were still fermenting at the presale tastings, so any assessment of their quality could indeed be only provisional.

At the auction itself, however, none of this prevented large increases on last year’s prices, which were themselves up sharply on the previous year. The Hospices offered 333 barrels of red wine (across 30 cuvées) and 110 barrels of white (across 13 cuvées). The reds were up 28% on the 2012s, the whites up 20%, and at ¤13,013 the average barrel price was up 26.6% on the previous vintage. The sale (including the President’s Barrel and spirits plus premiums) reached a grand total of ¤6,305,202 ($8,497,521/£5,277,917), a record result for any Hospices de Beaune sale and up 19% on the previous record of ¤5.9 million set only one year earlier.

The biggest increases were for the top grands crus, such as the Corton, Clos de la Roche, and Mazis-Chambertin cuvées, while among the whites the Corton- Vergennes Paul Chanson and Corton- Charlemagne Roi Soleil both reached all-time records. The President’s Barrel, auctioned for another charity or two each year, was a Meursault Premier Cru Genevrières Cuvée Philippe le Bon of 456-liter capacity, which fetched ¤131,000 ($175,540/£108,730) and, for the first time, was purchased by a Chinese buyer-businesswoman Yan Hong Cao.

The results were clearly a great success for the Hospices, for Christie’s, and for the two charities that shared the proceeds from the President’s Barrel: Petits Princes and Papillons Blancs. And as always there was a charitable dimension to the sale. But if other producers’ 2013 prices follow those of the Hospices upward next year, the combination of generally higher prices for (what is likely to be) generally lower quality will ring some alarm bells.

Upward pressure

The low quantity and often high quality of the 2012 Burgundies (see pp.148-71) would anyway have brought upward pressure on prices, but they were set after the nature of the 2013 harvest became clear, which only pushed them higher still. The 2012s have sold through well, despite the high prices, though this may also be due partly to the suspicion that the 2013s may be less tempting. At the BIVB-Hospices de Beaune press conference, Louis- Fabrice Latour, president of the Union des Maisons de Vins de Bourgogne, said that while négociants had been absorbing much of the price increases over the past few years by accepting lower margins, they might have to pass on more of the price rises soon, however much they wished to keep them stable. Will consumers be ready to pay more for less next year? Something will depend on the level of the wine. As Gagey said, “If it’s Corton- Charlemagne, okay, it would go from expensive to very expensive. But many of the rest would go from inexpensive to expensive.”

The latest BIVB export figures show continued growth, to a record high in terms of value in the first eight months of 2013. But among the three largest markets that together account for almost half of total exports, there were different trends. The USA, the largest export market by value, was up 11% by value and 12% by volume, while the UK was down 5.4% by value and 3.3% by volume, and Japan down 11.7% and 13.3% respectively.

Demand for the top producers and top wines continues to grow ever stronger, while available quantities have fallen, so prices at auction and on the secondary market have risen. There seems to be a larger speculative element here now, on the part of some consumers and on the part of some producers, too. Gagey expressed BIVB’s disapproval, saying it was “not good for Burgundy.” And it was certainly a subject on which Jean- Charles le Bault de la Morinière also found his voice: “I am very strongly against it. It’s stupid. It’s a bubble. And all bubbles burst.”

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