New brooms in Burgundy


This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

See our 1,360 tasting notes on 2007 burgundies here.

One of the things I found most exciting about my extensive tastings of 2007 burgundies was how many of the best ranges of wines were made by new or recently revamped producers. The typical stereotype of Burgundy's best producers is a grower/vigneron, someone who owns all the vines responsible for their wines, but several of the most impressive ranges of 2007s I tasted had been made by small-scale négociants, people who buy in their grapes.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, négociant was a dirty word in Burgundy. Beaune was full of big merchant companies bottling indifferent wines made up of ingredients bought on the bulk market and assembled any old how. The most important thing was being able to attach a famous name to them. Nuits-St-Georges and Pommard were particularly easy to sell. But since the 1990s most of the large négociants have been inspired more and more by genuine wine quality. Traditional négociants such as Boisset, Bichot, Champy, Chanson and Corton André (now called Pierre André), to consider merely the first three letters of the alphabet, have all undergone a determined move upmarket. But perhaps most inspiringly, we have seen the emergence of a new school of small-scale négociants who use the produce of friendly, thoroughly reliable growers to produce a range of wines under their own label.

Nicolas Potel, the son of the old owners of Domaine de la Pousse d'Or in Volnay, was a pioneer of this admirable new phenomenon in the Côte d'Or. He over-extended his cellars in Nuits-St-Georges and in 2003 had to be rescued by one of the larger old-style négociants, Labouré Roi, but Nicolas Potel is still a thoroughly reliable source of a wide range of sensitively vinified separate little appellations, thanks to his family's deep Burgundian roots and personal connections. (Money alone does not open many doors in the backstreets of Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne-Romanée and the like.)

With the 2007 vintage he launched his own personal grower's business, Domaine Potel, wines made in an ecologically restored 16th-century cellar in Beaune from organic vineyards around Beaune that he has been acquiring over the last four years. With the considerable team of workers available for the négociant business Nicolas Potel, he was able to stagger the picking of his own Domaine Potel reds and whites over an entire month up to 28 Sep. I found the St-Romain Blanc (£132 a dozen in bond, Berry Bros) particularly energetic, pure and limpid.

Meanwhile an increasing number of winemakers at highly regarded individual domaines have been setting up small négociant businesses under their own names. Pascal Lachaux, who is also in charge of Domaine Robert Arnoux in Vosne-Romanée, has been producing almost equally fine wines under his own name for some vintages now. I found all four of the Pascal Lachaux 2007 reds offered by Bibendum Wine (£235 to £580 for six bottles in bond) to be sumptuously attractive, with the Chambertin-Clos de Bèze being particularly gorgeous in bitter cherry idiom, even if possibly best drunk within three to eight years, much earlier than most vintages and certainly much earlier than, say, the 2005.

Arguably the headline act in the 2007 new small négociant show is the first set of wines under the name of the much-admired young winemaker at Domaine Comte Armand in Pommard. Benjamin Leroux had big shoes to fill. He took over the Pommard estate from the highly regarded French Canadian Pascal Marchand (whose new Western Australian answers to red and white burgundy are being sold by Bibendum Wine as Marchand & Burch). But he has certainly fulfilled expectations and, like so many members of what might be called the Lafon gang, a loose grouping of younger Burgundy producers schooled by Dominique Lafon of Meursault, is fully committed to organic viticulture.

Leroux has been set up on his own by a British investor in a winery behind Bichot in Beaune, where he may be one of the very few Burgundy producers to have made more wine in 2008 than in 2007 – 150 rather than 120 casks – thanks to the expanding roster of growers from whom he buys. His aim, like most of these quality-conscious small négociants, is to exert maximum control on the growers, converting them to organic practices if necessary. He is an inveterate traveller, with good contacts in the southern hemisphere, which may well be a factor in his decision, unusual in Burgundy, to bottle some of his wines under screwcap. The dozen Benjamin Leroux 2007 reds and whites that I tasted constituted one of the most convincing ranges of the vintage. As he has shown at Domaine Comte Armand, Leroux is as accomplished a maker of white wines as red. The two Volnays (£294 and £300 a dozen in bond, Berry Bros) were especially impressive.

Benjamin Leroux is part of the Burgundy establishment. Olivier Bernstein is a new name but one that is unlikely to be overlooked for long. This self-styled 'micro négociant' doesn't bother with wines as lowly as those labelled Bourgogne or with a simple village name. He produces only six premiers crus (two of them white) and four grands crus, helped substantially by Richard Seguin of Gevrey-Chambertin, who, as part of the same family as own Domaine Dugat-Py, has access to some superb vineyards, many of them with 70-year-old vines. Born in Touraine into a family of music publishers, Bernstein studied viticulture and oenology in Beaune and claims particular inspiration while working briefly with the late Henri Jayer in 2002. This initially led him to acquire and renovate Mas de la Dévèze in Roussillon, where he is based (to judge from his car licence plate), but he now spends much of his time on the six-hour journey between Tautavel and the modest cellar rented from Seguin in a Gevrey backstreet.

He claims to have rejected 14 of the 46 barrels he filled with 2007 wines, and certainly his prices are pretty ambitious for a debut vintage. But the wines are undoubtedly very good, with both depth and transparency. The Bonnes Mares (represented by Wasserman in the US) showed particularly well on the November day I visited. He has no UK importer yet but can be contacted via (sic).

Later that same day I had the chance to taste the first two vintages, 2006 and 2007, at another new producer, an incomer to Burgundy, currently based in rented premises. In this case. Domaine Eugénie is named after the grandmother of the owner, one François Pinault. While rumours swirl about the future of his Bordeaux first growth Château Latour, he and his team are building a brand new cellar just below the famous La Tâche vineyard in the village of Vosne-Romanée in which to vinify the produce of the 7.5 hectares of vines, acquired at a record price, that once belonged to Philippe Engel of Domaine René Engel, who died so unexpectedly in 2005. These are particularly rich wines – perhaps richer than the domaine's proprietor.

See here for a guide to our 1,360 tasting notes on 2007 burgundy.