The timing of Burgundy's latest scandal could not be worse for the many British wine merchants currently making their offers of 1999 burgundies.
At least three minor bottlers in Burgundy have been caught at the oldest trick in the book, labelling ordinary wine as something infinitely superior. The difference this time round is that the Burgundian authorities seem keen to publicise and rout the miscreants rather than try to hush it all up. To outside observers though, Burgundy's reputation has, once again, been tarnished.
This is particularly ironic since the region is making more seriously fine wine than it ever has done. There are more gloriously ambitious producers than ever before. And, best of all, the 1999 vintage currently on offer is the most exciting I can ever remember tasting. (1990 reds were also very good but wine-growing and -making skills were patchier.)
Flowering in fine weather left a generous charge of grapes on the vines. Late June and early July were worryingly cool and wet but everything changed in mid July when almost two months of hot and mainly dry weather ripened the grapes beautifully and healthily. Serious growers thinned their crops. There was rain (and some hail) on September 12, a little on the 19th and prolonged rainfall in the last week of the month so judicious choice of picking date was needed not to dilute the quality of an already generous crop.
The presentation of samples of the current vintage to the British trade, press and important private customers is a January ritual, and one that can be very hard work. The 1998 reds could be very dry and hard. The 1997s seemed unjustifiably expensive for such relatively simple wines. The 1996s of both colours were painfully high in acidity when young (though are maturing nicely). The 1999s are, by and large, a joy to taste.
The reds have lovely deep crimson colours and wonderfully ripe fruit - very occasionally overripe, but not simply facile and flattering (except for those growers who have clearly allowed the vines to over-produce). They have tannins to help them age gracefully (in fact according to official analyses, the 1999s are in general more tannic than the obdurate 1998s), but these tend to be gentle, fully ripe and are generally well-masked by all that subtle fruit. At this stage the wines are far from massive. This may turn out to be a great vintage, or simply a delightful very good one.
I would argue that at this stage the jump from premier cru to grand cru status signalled on the price list is generally less obvious to the palate. But the wines may well gain weight - after all, a good half of the nearly 300 burgundies I tasted last week were samples drawn from cask and will not be bottled for many months.
The whites are just as charming, even if they tend to show the size of the crop more transparently in a slight lack of concentration and grip. The top wines may not be candidates for long term cellaring but lower down the ranks they should provide some lovely drinking over the next two or three years - particularly those from the swelling band of superb winemakers in the Mâconnais making all sorts of variants on Mâcon-This and Pouilly-That.
And as though all this good news were not enough, there is the added bonus that, thanks to the quantities of wine produced, prices are remarkably stable. Jasper Morris of burgundy specialists Morris & Verdin has analysed prices of wines he also offered in the 1998 vintage and reports that 38 are less expensive in 1999, 49 are offered at the same price and only 5, usually from waxing reputations, are more expensive.
The most sought-after grand cru wines can certainly be very expensive (I have to admit that of Sauzet's range the Bâtard Montrachet was by far the best wine, but I would not pay Justerini & Brooks £1,114 for a case of it). But village and premier cru wines look extremely good value next to some red bordeaux. It is worth remembering that many of these wines are produced in quantities just as limited as those of the heavily-hyped microchâteaux of Bordeaux, whose prices can escalate into four digits all too fast.
Indeed the best wines at the bottom end of the range seem delicious bargains compared with prices charged for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the New World's most lauded specialists in these burgundian grapes. And they tend to be available in greater quantities than grander burgundy too. The problem with making specific recommendations of fine burgundy is that each combination of producer and vineyard is made in such tiny quantity, and each merchant's allocation is of course tinier still.
The following are domaines whose range particularly impressed me in 1999: Guy Amiot (lightish style), Lucien Boillot, Michel Bouzereau, Chandon de Briailles, Gérard Chavy, Robert Chevillon, Bruno Clair, Didier Fornerol (a couple of giveaways from M & V), Benoit Ente (good value), Fourrier (good value for an Henri Jayer alumnus), Jean-Noel Gagnard, Géantet- Pansiot, Génot-Boulanger (inexpensive), Henri Goyard, Anne-Françoise Gros (the only Gros I have tasted), des Lambrays (particularly sumptuous reds), Marquis d'Angerville, Marc Morey, Michel Prunier, Remi Rollin, Rossignol-Trapet, Emmanuel Rouget, Georges Roumier, Armand Rousseau, Talmard (snazzy Mâcon), Tollot Beaut (good value, as ever) and de la Vougeraie (to watch). There are hundreds more I have not tasted.
These producers disappointed me overall, but in some cases because I have particularly enjoyed their previous vintages: Bertrand Ambroise, Château Fuissé, Jean-Philippe Fichet, Follin-Arbelet, Albert Grivault, Château de Maltroye, Gérard Thomas.
Merchants making specific and worthwhile 1999 burgundy offers include John Armit of London W11, Bibendum of London NW1, Goedhuis & Co of London SW8, Haynes Hanson & Clark of London SW1, Justerini & Brooks of London SW1, O W Loeb of London SW1, Montrachet of London SE1, Morris & Verdin of London SE1, Howard Ripley of London SW18, Seckford Wines of Melton in Suffolk and Tanners of Shrewsbury. But many more of the traditionally-styled merchants will be making offers over the coming months. Do take advantage of them. The quality of 2000 burgundy is much less certain.