Reflections on a Day in Burgundy
Living in France is wonderful if you want to pop down the autoroute to Burgundy or the Loire, to eat and of course to drink, but there are times when you want to shoot yourself, or at least commit serious crimes upon the locals. When a few highly paid oil refinery workers decided that they were not profiting enough from the sky-high oil price, they did what the French worker does best – think of himself first and go on strike, holding the country to ramson meanwhile.
The result was contagion and chaos. Soon there was literally no petrol, fights breaking out on gas station forecourts, and I queued up for an hour and twenty minutes, got 3 cars away from the blessed pump and then watched a poor woman walk out and tell the patient, happy would-be motorists that they had just run out. Sorry, go home.
All of which meant that a tasting trip with friends to Burgundy had to be cancelled. Bummer. But as I still had a lot of 2020’s to collect here and there, I figured I’d head down on my own as soon as I could find petrol for the car as I had to collect at least one box by the end of November or incur steep delivery costs.
I always get a kick when cresting the hill on the A6 and turning down towards Savigny-les-Beaune and getting that first glimpse of vineyards. Except that today I completely missed it and didn’t notice until I saw a sign saying ‘Beaune Centre’ whizzing towards me at 110km per hour. No, I was fully concentrated on the road and awake, but when I finally did realise that I was amidst the vines, all I could see was the first couple of rows. The slopes up to the hills of Savigny were lost in the murk, disappearing into the fog that drifted around like thick nebulous smoke. Bummer, again.
Even so, a few minutes later, I aimed the car up a small muddy street, trying to keep it on the tarmac. The offices of ‘the domaine’ were behind me, the most floral and elegant vines in Burgundy to my right (Romanee-St-Vivant) and in front of me, stark in the greyness, a tall grey stone cross with a couple of Spaniards appropriately genuflecting and taking selfies in front of the most expensive vinous real estate on planet earth. To the left, the relatively unknown sliver of La Grande Rue, then the bulk of La Tache, flamboyant playboy prince of Burgundy; in front, the father, the grandfather of all, the Prince de Conti itself and to the right the muscular richesse of Richebourg. Oh, heavenly bliss if only you could afford even a half glass full…
Anyway, enough of this lusting voyeurism, on to Beaune where I could perhaps just about afford to buy something. First stop not wine at all, but the Alain Hess cheese shop on Place Carnot and their full rounds of epoisses. No not the little ones in cedar boxes, but the full cheese itself. I’d been told to buy it here at Ma Cuisine, nearby restaurant to so many vignerons, and every time I do so it is at the perfect stage of ripeness, falling off the knife but with no sense of ammonia. Just delicious and cheap. A mandatory stop whenever in Beaune. Just remember the cool bag.
At a wine shop across the street, I noticed the rot was beginning to show. No not the cheese but the wine, or at least the market. The 2019 PYCM Meursault-Charmes that had been 140 euros a year ago was now 205 for the 2020. And next year would be worse, far worse, so everyone kept telling me.
Here it would be Saint Glace, ending the second week of May. Before that you are considered at risk in northern France. I know this well as more than once I have succumbed to over-eagerness and a warm end of April and have planted my tomato seedling outside only to see them frozen to death by the frost or massacred by hail.
A couple of decades ago and it didn’t matter so much, but now the seasons are 2 or 3 weeks earlier and the buds are out, unprotected, delicate harbingers of the year’s harvest. Whereas before they would have only popped their heads out around mid-May, now they come out of the igloo at the end of April and the weather can turn brutally unkind. Year after year we used to taste with Bernard Raveneau at the end of April and he was always stressed by the plummeting thermometer. Every time we came it seemed to have been -5C the night before. Death to infant vine buds.
And so it was in 2021. After the heatwave trio of 2018-19-20, it all went wrong in 2021. Half the potential harvest was frozen before it was even born, and then there was rain and cold and rot. I recall being in Beaune and opening the windows with some alarm as the air was tinged with smoke. Had one of the glorious wooden buildings from medieval times burnt down? No, but the Route des Grands Vins looked like a war zone, straw bales on fire beside the road and littering every vineyard. In Chablis the rich flew helicopters to blow away the freezing air, in the Cote they tried to heat it with candles and anything that would burn. All across France, Italy and southern UK, vineyards were enveloped in frost, especially the white grapevines that bud a little earlier. Whilst we were all locked inside due to the pandemic, the vignerons watched their harvest turn to ice.
I had seen the consequences already, when offered some relatively sought after but abundant 2020 chardonnay where the price had already risen 50% in preparation for the fact that in 2021 there would basically be nothing to sell. Ominous.
As an aside, talking to David Croix (of Domaine des Croix) he pruned very late in spring 2021, which some see as stressing the vine, but delays growth and, therefore, bud set, so when others were watching their crop literally freeze and wither on the vine, his were still semi-dormant and not at risk. A possible solution for the future?
I left the lovely green, black and gold tiled rooves of Beaune and headed north, taking the slow road, stopping to take some pictures of the mighty hill of Corton and then winding my way past the flat vineyards of the Cotes until the slope picked up in the outskirts of Premeaux, the walled vineyard of Clos de la Marechale announcing the start of Nuits-St-Georges even if it belongs now to one of the superstars of Chambolle, byword for elegance. Mugnier’s NSG is not a normal NSG and nor does it cost it, and he has planted the upper corner with chardonnay which produces a wine with surprising extract, surely one of the best chardonnays in the Cote de Nuits? Back in his home village, his neighbour de Vogue produces now what is the only grand cru white of the Cote de Nuits (Musigny), but is surely the most over-priced chardonnay in Burgundy? For years the replanted vines were considered too young and were declassified and bottled as (expensive) Bourgogne and having drunk it a couple of times it frankly never impressed me. Now it has its full grand cru status, label and hyper-cost so I leave it to lovers of extreme rarity at any price.
But NSG is in many ways my favourite place in the whole Cote. Note because of its streets with their Christmas decorations, but because of its handicap. A shame for the locals, a boon for us consumers. Though it is called Nuits-Saint-Georges, unlike its upper class neighbours to the north (Vosne, Chambolle, Morey & Gevrey) the hyphenated addition (St Georges) refers to its most famous vineyard yes, but not to a grand cru.
It is also a long village that goes from Vosne to Nuits to Premeaux to the border of Comblanchien and its limestone quarries. And thus, hampered by its lack of grandeur, it laboured for decades under a label of ‘rusticity’. Odd really when you think that its northerly vineyard Les Boudots is spitting distance from Vosne’s 1e les Malconsorts and a stone’s lob from La Tache. Can terroir really tumble from the sublime to the rustic that quickly? From the road you cannot even see the difference.
You could also argue that the heartland of NSG, the Les Saint Georges, Vaucrains and Les Cailles 1e crus have absolutely nothing of the rustic about them and much that is grand. We recently drank a 1998 Les Perrieres from Chevillon which was one of the best pinots we’ve had this year. Perhaps there are no megastar domaines to ‘carry’ the village reputation, though with Chevillon and Gouges there is not a lack of star quality. Anyway, there are super, high quality age worthy (red) wines here at half the price of equivalent wines further north. And in decent quantity. No wonder then that my cellar stock of Burgundy is becoming more and more NSG dominated. They just need to be left a goodly while to reach their apogee.
Please stay unfashionable!
As an historical aside I think Gouges was one of the earlier domaines to start domaine bottling and Henri was Mayor when they decided not to apply for any grand cru status. Odd in that he had a large chunk of the most obvious candidate, though some owners preferred not to be classified so as to retain lower land taxes. These days I guess they’d regret that given the GC pricing premium. Gouges also has the unique pinot Gouges which mutated from red to white naturally. Thus, you have at least two interesting whites (plus another good one from Domaine de l’Arlot, so it’s not quite a monochromatic village).
My main reason for being here was to collect five cases of wine from my favourite merchant, the Cavon de Bacchus. Though reversing the car down the ever narrowing one-way street in front of the shop is a nightmare, it’s always good to have an informed chat with people in the know and to load down the car’s suspension. I remarked that the cases were now cardboard six packs, no longer the dozen of before, no doubt because no one can afford the full twelve anymore, nor lift it.
Sadly, there is still a growing affection, or is it affectation, for the new heavy fat bottles and some form of wax seal. The bottles make no difference to the wine but are environmentally bad to produce, bad to transport, a bother to store on wine racks made for normally dimensioned bottles and a pain to lug up and down the cellar steps. Why? What is even worse, a lot of these heavweights come from the up-and-coming new generation of younger winemaking stars to be, people who know all about the threats of global warming and spend half their lives trying to counter it and doubtless waffling on about sustainability. Yes, it looks ‘nice’ and perhaps convinces people to pay a bit more as the big bottle must surely be serious, but really?
The wax seal also looks pretty and is presumably environmentally neutral, but it’s hand labour and I wonder what effect it has? Corks when they are good allow a wine to age gracefully over decades, though of course when they are bad and leak in too much oxygen, they transform your treasured wine into rapidly aged sherry vinegar. But then absolute closures such as screw caps are accused of not ageing wines and excess reduction. I can’t imagine much air getting through a solid wax coating and cork? I wonder what is the objective, other than an aspect of luxury, or whether anyone has actually measured the real benefits?
The engine groaned a little more with the excess weight in the back, but the already feeble light was dimming, and I had to get to my final stop, so without letting a sip of red wine past my lips I hit the autoroute again, this time just about seeing the vineyards curving uphill through the late autumnal gloom. The last of the light caught the burnished yellows and bronze of the forests as I turned off at junction 21 for Chablis.
I am pleased to say that William Fevre still uses rather boring labels, old school ‘light’ bottles and no wax. After a day of abstinence, I was happy when Alain asked if I’d like to try the 2020s as apart from the fact that I’d already ordered them, I was interested to see what yet another sunny summer gave. Certainly down south in the Cote de Beaune some of the 18/19’s are immediately pleasing but can be heavy and fat by the second glass. Too much sunshine, wines in need of a diet.
The domaine village wine was indeed remarkably friendly, which is unusual in something so young. It was so easily balanced and enjoyable that I had to remember the car and spit. One of the reasons I so enjoy tasting here is that I know where the vineyards are, the grape is the same and the winemaking pretty much the same too, so the difference really is the terroir, micro climate, whatever you like to call it. Place.
And you wont find much more of a flagrant difference than between the best two premier crus in Chablis, bookends to the grand cru slope: Montee de Tonnerre sitting to the east, a suntrap southwest facing hollow next to Blanchots GC and Fourchaume-Vaulorent to the west and neighbouring Les Preuses GC. The 2020 MdT had a core of ripe apricoty fruit that hailed more from the Cote de Beaune than Chablis, but restrained by a sufficiency of acid-minerality to keep it in check. Immediately impressive. The Vaulorent, Chablis’ ‘baby grand cru’ was the polar opposite, muscular, tight and very Chablis, a wine that will demand a good decade to soften out. I can’t wait to try them side by side when mature.
The big boys I always find harder to taste as they are bigger and tighter, so the variations are mere nuances, a shade here or there. Les Clos always seems the least giving if the most famous, but I have a penchant for what is usually the poor cousin amongst the GCs, Bougros. It sits at the southwest extremity of the GCs and down by the road, and is usually the cheapest, a bit more burly, downslope, and heavier soil.
But I am not referring to just any Bougros and again, if you want a lesson in terroir, taste the Fevre straight Bougros against the Bougros Cote Bougerots, a tiny part of the vineyard where it drops very sharply down to the road, pure Kimmeridgian limestone and so steep that they need to winch a plough up and down. I was put onto this at Fevre years ago and have bought it ever since. In fact one of the best Chablis I’ve ever drunk was the ’98 (the year Fevre sold to Bouchard) when it was around 15 years old. Yes, lots of southwest facing fruit, but minerality on oyster-shell steroids. Love it.
Sadly, so do others and the 2020 costs twice the 2015. After completing a tasting with presumably someone important, the winemaker Didier Seguier kindly strolled over for a chat, and apart from talking vintages we reverted to the two elephants in every Burgundy tasting room – the disastrous low yields of 2021 and the escalating lunacy of prices. He maintained that Chablis still offered value, and though it rather contradicts my leitmotif, I have to agree that even if the Bougros CB has now sneaked over 100 euros a bottle, it is still ‘value’ compared to the Cote de Beaune where you pay that for a village Puligny from Leflaive, or a simple Bourgogne from Roulot in Meursault let alone Coche-Dury. Indeed, there’s not much decent 1e cru available today at that price, a shocking reality.
As for the 2021, I tasted the village Chablis which was a reset back to normal, much more austere and needing time to relax, but cropped at 18 hectolitres per hectare. That’s sort of Domaine Leroy yields, but the great lady does not sell much wine at 23 euros. Add two zeroes…
And that is not the only worry. Prices will climb for 2021 (whites) as there is so little to sell, and as said some have already factored this into their 2020 pricing. Of course, once up, prices defy gravity and never seem to drop in a (2022) normal or high yield vintage. And at Fevre the worry is exacerbated by the recent corporate take-over of Bouchard/Henriot (their owners) by Artemis/Francois Pinault.
I’ve seen Mr Pinault’s billionaire rival Mr. Arnault at LVMH and his effect on wine. Cheval Blanc (LVMH) has withdrawn from the St Emilion classification altogether this year just as Latour (Mr. Pinault) removed itself from the Place de Bordeaux market so that it could hold back its wine and release later, with obvious effects on scarcity and price. I used to buy Chateau Grillet in Condrieu but since the (Pinault) take over the price has risen by multiples. LVMH entered Burgundy with Clos des Lambrays which went from around 80 euros in my cellar to the 2020 which I see at 500. Did the quality rise fivefold or just the luxury brand marketing? I have had some lovely 2010, 2012 Meursault 1e from Bouchard plus all that Fevre Chablis, but when I read in the press of corporate ‘revalorisation’ I know what it means.
More empty space in my cellar.
It is awful, but Burgundy is pricing itself into irrelevance. It may be the mega domaines (and their secondary market) that lead the charge into the stratosphere, but the negative effect trickles down. Even most village Vosne or Chambolle now is priced too highly, and in the hands of the miraculous Mrs Bize-Leroy we are talking into four figures. For a village wine at the base of the quality hierarchy. Suddenly anything with Chambolle or Vosne on the label sells at a premium pretty much regardless of quality. And flies off the shelves.
Recently I suggested that I’d take a bottle of Raveneau’s wonderful Montee de Tonnerre Chablis 1e 2009 to some great friends for dinner and then realised it was ‘worth’ 450 euros retail. I paid 20. Yes twenty. Wow, that’s 2,000% inflation in a decade. What a shame that the Raveneau family sees almost none of it. I hope it’s not corked.
Down in the Cote de Nuits/Beaune, many domaines have long ceased answering emails or agreeing to tastings (unless you are part of the trade). Allocations are getting cut and long-term faithful customers dropped without a word. I have bought for well over a decade from a high class negociant in Beaune but recently I have had to ask each year for their list and this time I have asked 3 times, been promised three times, and received nothing. I am not going to beg. And this is not a famous name.
Going back to the hill of Corton, at Bonneau du Martray I have been a client for 15 years. Since the buyout by an American billionaire, the price went from 95 euros in 2011 to 300 in 2019. I can’t tell you the 2020 price because as yet nobody has sent me an offer, not that it is of any relevance to me at that price. What I do receive is a glossy Christmas card with nice picture and a brochure full of marketing that I neither need nor want. Certainly not worth chopping down trees for. Yet more ‘luxury placement’.
Unfortunately, the domaine was a poster child for premature oxidation, and I recall one dreadful period when I tipped 5 bottles down the sink, or into the risotto. But back then all I needed to do was take a picture of a glass of the wine with a browny sherry-like glassful next to the bottle, send it to the domaine and they very correctly replaced it. No questions asked, no need to send bottles or corks. Classy and honest service.
After the purchase, I opened two more that were dead. I did my usual, but this time was told that exceptionally they would send me one. 50 cents on the dollar? Our Norwegian friends just opened a 2008 last weekend. Also in the graveyard. Should have been almost reaching its peak about now.
Interestingly part of their famed Corton-Charlamegne holding has now been leased to DRC and 2019 was the first, hugely awaited, release. It would be fascinating to taste the DRC version against the Bonneau, but I believe that the new wine was not offered to the hallowed list of private customers. (so where did it go, you see it online at eye-watering prices, perhaps that’s the point?).
But let me finish on a more upbeat note. After all that star gazing in Vosne, I needed to wet the palate on getting home after 8 hours on the road. Bottles and boxes safely delivered into the garage, I headed figuratively a bit upslope from Richebourg and Echezeaux, to Beaux Monts. The altitude drops you from grand cru to premier, but these days that’s still very grand. I had a 2008 from Bruno Clavelier, not a star domaine and not a well rated vintage, though thus far I have found 2008s to be great in white and pretty good in red.
Vosne-Romanee at last. The colour was quite deep, the texture a little thick, the fruit dark and rich (old vines), lots of spicey cedar and licorice, orangey acidity and that sour creamy texture. Another of those wines where the bottle finishes way too quickly and now, alas, beyond my means to replace. Delicious. It cost me 49 euros and is now 200+ for a 2019/20.
So, my humble advice is that if you see 2020 burgundies especially white, (or red NSG), at a semi-reasonable price, don’t skimp. You will only regret it later if you do…