A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
The group of new-wave California producers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay known as In Pursuit of Balance made their first trip to London recently – all of them inspired but not constrained by the wines of Burgundy, made from the same grapes but grown in very different settings (see our tasting notes on 114 of them).
At the well-attended walk-round tasting I bumped into a one-woman specialist burgundy merchant bemoaning the fact that she found her customers unwilling to buy the most basic burgundies, those labelled simply Bourgogne. 'And why should they', she cried, waving enthusiastically at the tasting tables, 'when they can buy these lovely wines at more or less the same price?'
As someone just back from Australia, and increasingly impressed by the quality of New Zealand Pinot Noir too, I have sympathy with that view. Some Burgundians make charming red and white Bourgogne that delivers pleasure, but I feel too many apply the same winemaking recipe as they do to fruit from their grander vineyards that can take extended macerations, so that the result can be a sullen Bourgogne you have to wait for many a long year for, with very tightly crossed fingers. The producers of the New World's finer Pinots and Chardonnays, on the other, hand are much keener to deliver wines that are user-friendly in youth. And an increasing proportion of them nowadays can age well too.
Musing on this, I wondered how the traditional UK merchants who make extensive en primeur burgundy offers every January are coping with the problems caused by spiralling burgundy prices, fuelled by substantially increased international demand. Many Asian wine collectors, for instance, have switched their allegiance from bordeaux to burgundy – with the result that prices for grands crus from sought-after domaines have much more than doubled in the last 10 years.
Some burgundies have always been more desirable than others but the segmentation of demand is becoming increasingly acute. Many merchants are finding it more and more difficult to sell wines from domaines other than the magic top 30 or so fashionable ones. And, as Charles Lea of Lea & Sandeman puts it, referring to those wines an importer has to take to ensure they get their hands on the most desirable ones, 'there has been a tendency to ramp up the prices of the top wines and then dump the collateral damage, no doubt because of the "disrupters": brokers who sell wine on a no-stock basis'.
One thing became abundantly clear: burgundy exerts a unique appeal. According to Mike Laing of Armit, 'It's not uncommon to find burgundy drinkers who also appreciate Pinots and Chardonnays from US, NZ, etc, but I think informed ones do so in the knowledge that they are choosing different wines for different reasons.' Chris Davey of the burgundy-centric OW Loeb states robustly, 'Competition from other parts of the world is not a factor for us - at all.'
But all of the major burgundy merchants I quizzed agreed that there is a dramatic difference between selling the top slice and the rest. They have no difficulty whatsoever in selling wines from the most famous domaines to private buyers and, as Mike Laing observes, 'Merchants certainly do make differing margins at differing levels of the hierarchy - some more blatantly than others - leading to disparity in en primeur offers'.
Slower-moving wines may have to sit on merchants' lists for many a year before finally being sold. Henri Gouges wines, for example, are still throwing off an outdated reputation for surliness, so UK importers OW Loeb can offer multiple vintages of Clos des Porrets St-Georges, Greg Gouges' (pictured above at an OW Loeb tasting in London) biggest vineyard, at relatively keen prices. (I recommend the 2007 at £37.60 + VAT for current drinking.)
In the internet age, most producers now monitor the prices asked for their wines all over the globe, which can make for some tense discussions. Like their importers, they would like the most sought-after wines to be drunk by the private individuals who buy them, but study of brokers' lists suggests that an increasing proportion of them are flipped after a few years sitting in specialist storage such as Octavian's.
Burgundy enthusiast Thomas De Waen, who recently moved from London back to his native Belgium, draws a clear distinction between how burgundy is sold in the UK ('in six-packs and your ability to access the most desirable wines is directly linked to your total spend with that merchant') and his favourite Belgian merchant, who, he claims, is motivated by sheer passion, allocates special wines by the single bottle, 'and if he catches anyone flipping the wines then you're off his list'.
The general trend in burgundy prices has been steeply upwards and, as Sebastian Thomas of Howard Ripley observed, so steep in cases such as Grivot and Clos de Tart that 'they have priced themselves out of the market'. For those domaines on the way up in terms of reputation, communication is so speedy nowadays that popular new stars such as Cécile Tremblay and Georges Noëllat are able to ramp up their prices almost as soon as they become fashionable.
But there are still some producers such as Coche-Dury and Raveneau who price moderately, and are available only to those who have been on allocation lists for years. 'So what ends up happening', De Waen points out, 'is that merchants and "flipping" allocataires end up making more money on the wines than the winemakers themselves, which is obviously very silly.'
But as burgundy veteran, and Burgundy resident, Roy Richards observes, even the lesser wines from the most desirable growers are an easier sell than premiers crus from less popular producers or wines from unfashionable appellations such as Nuits. And as for the Côte de Beaune, after three vintages of hail and one (2015) very short crop, it seems to have passed out of the wine-drinking public's consciousness bar a handful of sought-after domaines. Once we return to conventional yields, I really worry where these wines will sell.'
The challenge for all these burgundy specialists is to make enough money on the sought-after wines to allow them to finance stocks of the less desirable ones until they are mature enough to sell on - to restaurants, for instance. This means, for consumers, that the real value in Burgundy is in the best lesser-known names, young or old.
You may ask why the UK merchants, who are clearly making a very decent margin on the top burgundies, don't simply discount the less popular ones. Mike Laing again: 'most growers, not just the superstars but anybody who believes that they are striving for quality across their range, will be offended (some considerably) by disrespect for their wines by dumping them'. And Roy Richards, who has been selling fine burgundy to UK merchants for decades, adds, 'discounting at the time of primeur did not work; it was not a price issue, rather that merchants simply did not want to buy stock that was going to sit in their inventory'.
Charles Lea makes a clear distinction between red and white burgundy. The premature oxidation problem has made selling young whites difficult anyway. As for reds, juggling supply and demand has become increasingly complex, particularly since, 'over the last generation importers have taken on more stock as a result of the shift from buying from négociants to buying from growers, and sometimes when you take up your importer's allocation, a few producers today are requesting payment of 50% in the June after the harvest.' Buying burgundy was never easy.
UNDER-THE-RADAR BURGUNDY DOMAINES
These are producers whose current performance is greater than their price level.
Simon Bize, Savigny-lès-Beaune
Jean-Louis Chavy, Puligny-Montrachet
Henri Gouges, Nuits-St-Georges
Robert Groffier, Morey-St-Denis
Paul et Marie Jacqueson, Rully
Hubert Lamy, St-Aubin
Château de Marsannay
Château de Meursault
Jean-Marc Millot, Nuits-St-Georges
Bernard Moreau, Chassagne-Montrachet
Marc Morey, Chassagne-Montrachet
Jean-Baptiste Ponsot, Rully
Chantal Remy, Morey-St-Denis
Marc Roy, Gevrey-Chambertin
Aurélien Verdet, Arcenant