Of all the classic French wine regions, the one that has changed most fundamentally over the last 10 years is the one that looks the most set in medieval aspic, Burgundy.
The old cliché that merchants, négociants in French, are all baddies and growers are all goodies is now well and truly out of date. Among growers, despite a perceptible improvement in quality overall, far too many seem unwilling or unable to be good winemakers.
Among the well established merchants, on the other hand, there are increasing signs of intelligent life. A higher and higher proportion of the wine they produce is conscientiously made, as opposed to blended for profit and carelessly bottled. Much more of it nowadays is the produce of their own vineyards, blurring the distinction between the urban merchants and the horny-handed peasant farmers.
The big merchants, the likes of Louis Jadot, Drouhin, Faiveley and Bouchard Père et Fils have been making fine wines for years.
But in the last few years a new animal has been sighted in the complex but lucrative Burgundy marketplace: much smaller merchant businesses founded by young, quality-driven winemakers. Like the traditional merchants they buy in grapes, grape must and/or wine and then oversee everything until the wine is eventually bottled one or two years later. But they are every bit as passionate about squeezing terroir, or a sense of place, into a bottle as those who run the best small domaines. One could call them the new terroir merchants.
Two of the oldest of this new breed are Chartron et Trebuchet and Olivier Leflaive, both based in Puligny-Montrachet. Louis Trebuchet is president of the Burgundy growers association while Olivier is a member of the family which owns arguably the most famous white burgundy estate of all, Domaine Leflaive, so both are well entrenched on the grower rather than merchant side of the fence.
The most flamboyant of the lot is Jean-Marie Guffens, a 42-year-old Belgian hothead who is convinced he makes better white burgundy than anyone else and is right enough to be worth listening to. From a base 'in the wilderness viticulturally' 40 miles south of the Côte d'Or strip of Burgundy's most famous vineyards, he sells 30,000 cases of wine a year now under the Verget négociant label. His own nine-acre family domaine Guffens-Heynen in Pouilly-Fuissé is run quite separately.
'I'm one of the three best white winemakers in Burgundy. It's just a pity the other two are so far behind' is a typical example of his naughty schoolboy utterances, although he admits Dominique Lafon is the best 'grapemaker' and admires Jean-Francois Coche-Dury's cellar technique. Guffens' wines are particularly taut, intense and, like the finest Chablis (which he is also now making), the opposite of fat. They need time but have already earned him a reputation both inside and outside Burgundy.
For all his braggadocio and wheezy sniggers, he is rapidly becoming an establishment figure, buying one of the special casks offered at the famous Hospices de Beaune auction last year. 'I don't remember which, but who cares? Some red wine' was how he described it.
But he is not so careless about the wines he makes. 'I declassified 30 per cent of the Bâtard Montrachet grapes I bought last year because for me a Grand Cru has to be a whoooosh – like a rocket. I'm intelligent. Therefore I live viscerally.'
He prides himself on buying only grapes and on managing to have a much closer relationship with the growers he buys from than a larger merchant, dependent on brokers, possibly could. 'What I'm a little upset about is that the merchants are saying they're doing like Verget – but they don't care that much about quality. The merchants all have to change. Until 1990 they sold appellations. Now they have to sell wines.'
It is no coincidence that all of these three terroir merchants specialise in white burgundy. As another young hopeful, Jean- Yves Devevey who has just joined Francois d'Allaines in the latter's young négociant business explained, 'most growers are better at making red wines; it's in white wines that the technical faults show up. Besides, white wines are sold earlier so there's an earlier financial return.' Their 1996 cask samples, all white, were certainly promising when tasted last month.
One new terroir merchant famously specialises in red burgundy however. Dominique Laurent, an ex pâtissier with the gift of the gab who is much lauded in France. Rather ambiguously labelling all his wines 'Dom. Laurent', he buys wine and fashions it into something exceptional in his Nuits-St-Georges cellars. He has researched and revived many a technique from the last century and tailors his methods (which tend to minimum intervention and maximum new oak) to suit each combination of vintage and vineyard.
The result is extremely ambitious but often tough wines which certainly vary enormously from appellation to appellation. His Monthélie was, perhaps surprisingly, one of the most appealing of his 1994s. This was also the first vintage of a new, similar Rhône partnership, Tardieu-Laurent.
One relatively new, shining example of a hardworking young supernegociant is Nicolas Potel, son of the late owner of the Domaine de la Pousse d'Or in Volnay. His wines have the same integrity as his father's but arguably more intensity. They also range over the entire Côte d'Or and are made in unglamorous premises near the station in Nuits St Georges. In the UK they can be found chez Lay & Wheeler and Berry Bros & Rudd and even Marks & Spencer – but that surely can't last.
Of course in Burgundy nothing is straightforward. There are many shades of existence between growers and merchants, but the existence of these new terroir merchants can only accelerate improvements in the most exciting wine region of all.
In Britain Chartron and Trebuchet wines are available from Laytons of London NW1, Olivier Leflaive from John Armit of London W11, Verget from Farr Vintners of London SW1, Francois d'Allaines from Morris & Verdin of London SE1 and Laurent from La Vigneronne of London SW7 and Cave Cru Classé of London SE1.