Australians in Burgundy

Simon Reilly, a wine writer based in London (see his Wineloon blog), reports that there's a new wave of Australian winemakers selecting specific parcels of fruit from passionate wine growers in Burgundy and making exciting and pure wines which reflect these unique sites. 

Andrew Nielsen, Mark Haisma and Jane Eyre (pictured right at the Liberty Wines tasting) are all ‘micro-négociants’, or even ‘nano-négociants’, as Andrew calls himself. They do not own any vineyards. Rather, they buy small parcels of fruit from trusted winegrowers. Andrew and Mark are both based in the UK; Andrew in south-east London and Mark in the south west. They travel to Burgundy regularly through the year to keep an eye on the vines, harvest the grapes and make their wines. Jane is more ensconced, having lived in Burgundy since 2004.

Although they are all good mates, they have completely separate, standalone businesses. Andrew Nielsen sells his wines through his Le Grappin label and Mark Haisma and Jane Eyre both have their own self-titled range of wines.

Innovators

All three have built up successful wine businesses in a new and innovative way for Burgundy. It is traditionally quite a closed wine region. Most winemakers in Burgundy are born into it, either hailing from Burgundy wine families who have owned land for generations or linked to large négociant businesses. This makes it difficult for outsiders to break into the scene. In order to overcome these barriers to entry, they have had to be innovative and approach things a bit differently.

The first innovation is the route to market. Both Mark and Andrew sell their wines directly to customers through en primeur offerings to their private mailing lists each December/January. As Mark says, ‘My whole model has been to open up the wine game and bring a direct-sale method to consumers which is open and transparent. People who sign up to my mailing list get the highs, the lows and the booze’. The remainder is then sold through selected stockists, restaurants and importers. Mark can’t believe more Burgundy producers don’t use a direct-sales approach, ‘They’d sell out easily’.

Andrew likens selling his wine to that of a good butcher, ‘People want to know the provenance. Just like people want to know which field their steak came from, they like to hear how I make the wine.’ He’s very happy to tell them. In the run up to Christmas last year, Andrew and his wife and business partner Emma did 40 farmers’ markets in 30 days selling wine across London.

Another innovation is packaging. Andrew has a second line called Du Grappin, sourced from ‘lesser’ areas such as Beaujolais and the Mâcon. He sells this in refillable bottles, straight from the tank, at farmers’ markets across London alongside his ‘bagnums’, which are double-bottle sized resealable pouches. This is revolutionising the way Burgundy is being consumed and is opening fine wine to new markets, from posh picnickers to glam Glastonbury-goers.

Andrew Nielsen showing his 2014 burgundies at Vinoteca with his wife, and business partner, Emma.

Everybody needs good neighbours

Despite the traditionally closed wine community in the region, this new wave of small winemakers in Burgundy has created a really supportive community. When Jane told her boss that she was going to make her own wine in 2011, he didn’t take the hump. ‘He actually bought me my first barrel’. She also found premises to make her first wine through another winemaker friend, Benjamin Leroux. That connection came about because they shared a nanny. She believes there’s a real community spirit in the region, especially with the younger winemakers. ‘If someone needs something, people rally round to help’.

Mark found one of his biggest challenges in sourcing the right fruit and finding growers he could trust. ‘I was offered plenty of crap, but that wasn’t interesting for me. I wanted the guys I could work with. The guys who did great work but were still prepared to sell me the fruit.’ He was able to leverage his contacts to get started. ‘I was lucky that I had a mate who was able to let me make my wine at his cellar in Gevrey-Chambertin. He also got me many contacts for the initial fruit purchases.’

As for Andrew, he got lucky at the bar in the local tabac in Beaune, shortly after sourcing his first parcel of fruit in 2011. After a few too many glasses of pastis, and on hearing his plight, his newly found drinking buddy invited him round the corner to his house and showed him his unused garage. Andrew made his first vintage right there in the garage.

All about the money

When I asked about the current issues facing them in Burgundy, the consistent message is the pressure on prices. There is a real shortage of fruit. The last three vintages have been small due to hail damage and bad weather. At the same time there has been a big rise in négociants making wine and looking for fruit. It’s simple economics. Supply drops, demand increases and the prices go through the roof.

Jane has seen many domaines swapping fruit because it is so scarce. But if, like her, you don’t have any in the first place you can’t get into the market. She worries about the future if prices continue to rise, ‘How many bottles of €500 Burgundy can you sell?’

Andrew has similar concerns. ‘I want to make wines people I know are drinking, not some faceless rich guy.’ This has encouraged him to focus more on Beaujolais, where the fruit is cheaper. He sees great potential for single-site Beaujolais and he has been able to source some great parcels. He thinks the newly released 2015 vintage is going to make a big impact on the wine world this year, such is its quality.

Mark echoes these thoughts, ‘I see some regular customers drop out of the game because they just don't see the value in Burgundy any more.’

Mark Haisma (left) realises he has run out of another of his popular 2014 burgundies at his Vinoteca tasting

It all feels a bit like how consumers felt about Bordeaux after the excesses of the 2009 and 2010 vintages. The world of wine is so wide and has so much to offer that people will just go exploring and drink great wine for less from somewhere else. High-end Burgundy is becoming like caviar or first-growth Bordeaux, something you know rich people like but you’re never going to taste … depressing, eh?

Where next?

Rather than get depressed, these three winemakers have just spread their wings, moved on and made wine somewhere else. All three were excited about new projects making wine outside of Burgundy.

Jane has expanded her label to include Australian Pinot Noir. She makes two wines in the Mornington Peninsula, just down the coast from Melbourne, where she operates a similar model to her Burgundy set up. She makes one wine using fruit from Mornington Peninsula itself and the second using fruit brought in from Gippsland. She also has dreams of making more wine in France, ‘I’d love to make a Savagnin in the Jura’. Jura lies just short of the Swiss border in Alpine country and is probably the most fashionable wine region in the world at the moment. If you haven’t tried one yet, you should seek it out.

Mark has just launched a new project (Dagan Clan) making three wines in Romania, and is busy sourcing Viognier, Shiraz and Grenache fruit from the Rhône Valley. He has to call it a Vin de France because the law dictates that if it is not made in the Rhône, it can’t be called Rhône wine. But he doesn’t care, he just wants to make great wine, ‘I pride myself in making interesting booze and getting it delivered to people for as fair a price as I can’. Who can argue with that?

Andrew continues to bang the drum for Beaujolais and has recently secured fruit from the Côtes du Rhône. Once again he is following his wine philosophy of identifying under-appreciated plots. He has sourced this latest parcel from the Nyons AOC. ‘It’s more famous for growing olives than wine.’ But he has found the only grower in the region who doesn’t sell his fruit to the co-operatives. He is excited about the prospect of this wine and I look forward to trying it when he releases it later this year.

The times they are a changin'

So there you have it. They all came to Burgundy wearing their hearts on their sleeve with a dream of making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in its spiritual home. They have all lived this dream and made great wine.

But Burgundy has changed. ‘Between 2011 and 2015 the price of fruit has doubled’, says Andrew. If they were starting there now they probably couldn’t afford to do what they have done. That in itself is depressing for Burgundy. It means we are less likely to see another generation of winemakers like this ones starting up there.

But these three winemakers are not scared to move on. Their passion for making wine for the people is clear. If they can’t do that in Burgundy, they’ll look somewhere else where they can. And the consumer is all the better for it. As Michael Browne, winemaker at Kosta Browne in Sonoma Coast, California, told Andrew Nielsen when he was starting out, ‘Your first duty as a winemaker is to make a delicious beverage.’ Cheers to that!

SIX WINES TO TRY

Jane Eyre, Vergelesses Premier Cru 2014 Savigny-les-Beaune
Jane has sourced the fruit for this wine from the same grower since the 2011 vintage. Her philosophy is about creating aromatic wines with minimal extraction. This comes through on the nose here. A really fresh and aromatic wine.

Jane Eyre, Grand Cru 2013 Corton-Les Renardes
Unfortunately there was no 2014 made as she couldn't get the fruit, but this 2013 is amazing. Aged in 1one-third new oak, this has a really aromatic nose of dark cherries. A really pretty wine which finishes with beautiful sweetness and length. A wine to ponder on.

Mark Haisma, La Combe Bazin 2014 St-Romain
Mark does two parcels of St-Romain, this and Le Jarron. While Le Jarron is more at the Chablis end with a tart limey finsh, the Combe Bazin is a rollercoaster of a wine. A sweet apple nose followed by a little fizz on the tongue really makes your eyes pop out. It then finishes with fine acidity to balance things out. A really exciting wine.

Mark Haisma 2014 Volnay
Red fruits on the nose and then crystal-clear blackcurrant flavour on the finish. This tastes serious, with smooth but distinct tannins supporting the fruit. Brilliant.

Le Grappin 2014 Savigny-lès Beaune Blanc
This is the ultimate ’I could drink a lot of this’ wine. So juicy and full of fruit flavour but light and refreshing at the same time. I want sun, seafood and lots of this wine now!

Le Grappin, En l'Épaubin 2014 St-Aubin
This is a new parcel for Andrew Nielsen and wow does it work. Almost Meursault-like on the nose. Flavours of almonds and lemon. The finish is really long and complex. Really good stuff.

Where to buy them

Mark Haisma’s wines are available direct from www.markhaisma.com
Andrew Nielsen’s wines are available direct from www.legrappin.com or look out for him at your local farmers’ market!
Jane Eyre’s wines are imported by Liberty Wines www.libertywines.co.uk

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