Burgundy Learns to Bottle Consistency
THE black clouds gathered last week over the Côte d’Or, the slender 30-mile-long swath that comprises the great vineyards of Burgundy. And for at least the fifth day in a row they burst forth, drenching the vineyards shortly before the critical period of flowering, when the grape bunches begin to form on the spindly vines.
Rain is the farmer’s blessing, when it comes at the right time and in the right amount. But when the ground is saturated and the air is warm, the resulting moisture and humidity is a curse that can threaten the grapes with mildew and rot.
In past decades such weather might have spelled doom for the year’s vintage. But nowadays it means something else entirely. “It means more work for us,” said Benjamin Leroux, 33, the manager of Comte Armand, one of the best producers in Pommard in the Côte de Beaune, the southern half of the Côte d’Or. “All the things we’re doing in the vineyard right now, we’re insuring the vintage.”
Twenty years ago nobody could have predicted that Burgundy could be trusted to produce reliably good wines in tricky vintages. As captivating as the great wines of Burgundy could be at their heights, too often they revealed their depths — diluted, overly acidic wines that seemed to vary not just vintage to vintage but almost bottle to bottle. The only thing consistent about the region was its inconsistency.
Just last month Robert M. Parker Jr., the wine critic, repeated the old saw when he wrote in his column in Business Week, “Red Burgundy is the ultimate minefield of the wine world — notoriously unreliable, often disappointing, and rarely living up to its illustrious reputation.”
In fact, the quality of Burgundy — red Burgundy in particular — has risen strikingly over the last two decades. From the smallest growers to the biggest houses, the standards of grape-growing and winemaking have surpassed anybody’s expectations. These days, Burgundy has very few bad vintages, and among good producers, surprisingly few bad wines.
The best producers, like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Armand Rousseau, always managed to achieve a high standard, but nowadays the bar has been raised for everybody. And it’s not just the Côte d’Or, the heart of Burgundy, that has shown such improvement. Surrounding areas like the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais, still part of Burgundy, are producing better wine than ever, at not unreasonable prices. Sure, you can still find bad Burgundy. But really, it’s not hard to find bad wines from any fine wine region.
“It’s not so much an improvement as a blooming,” said Becky Wasserman, an American wine broker who has lived in Burgundy since 1968. “It’s a realization of potential.”
I spent five days in Burgundy last week to get a first-hand look at the reasons for the surge in quality. In traveling the Côte d’Or from Marsannay in the north to Santenay in the south, visiting two dozen producers, tasting hundreds of wines and drinking not quite that many, it was easy to see that this leap upward has been 25 years in the making, an eternity in the Internet world but a split second at the rhythmic agricultural pace of viticulture.
Most striking of all was the number of young producers making superb wines, whether they have taken charge of their family domains or started out new. In Marsannay, perhaps the least-esteemed commune in the Côtes de Nuits, the northern half of the Côte d’Or, Sylvain Pataille, 33, is turning out excellent reds, whites and rosés. In the Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, once a backwater in the hills, David Duband, 37, is producing light, fresh regional wines from his ancestral vineyards, along with a series of more ambitious, elegant reds from grand cru vineyards like Échezeaux and Charmes-Chambertin. Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, 35, in Vosnes-Romanée has reclaimed some of the greatest vineyard property in the north, which his family had leased out for years, and is making wines of purity and depth.
Meanwhile, in Meursault in the south, Arnaud Ente, who took over his father-in-law’s vineyards in the 1990s, is turning out small amounts of whites of focus and clarity that show tremendous minerality. Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey, 36, left his father’s domain, Marc Colin et Fils, and set up shop in Chassagne-Montrachet, where he is making light yet intense, mouthwatering whites.
“Half the superstar domains today didn’t exist 20 years ago,” Clive Coates, author of “The Wines of Burgundy” (University of California Press, 2008), told me in a recent interview. Few could have envisioned such a level of quality back in the early 1980s, a time when Claude Bourguignon, a French soil scientist who, with his wife, Lydia, works with numerous wine estates, famously said that the soil of the Sahara had more life in it than the soil of Burgundy.
“It was a shocking wake-up call,” Ms. Wasserman said, and it was heard by the first wave in the vanguard of the new Burgundy, young vignerons like Dominique Lafon in Meursault, Christophe Roumier in Chambolle-Musigny and Étienne Grivot in Vosne-Romanée.
Their first order of business was to wean the soil off two decades worth of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. The postwar dependency on science and industry had dealt a severe blow to Burgundy, which more than most wine regions prided itself on its soil. The nuances of terroir, the semi-mystical French term that encompasses earth, atmosphere, climate and humanity, were said to be transmitted to the wines by the qualities of the differing soils throughout the Côte d’Or.
Over the next 20 years a great many producers turned to organic farming, and others adopted biodynamic viticulture, a particularly demanding system that takes a sort of homeopathic approach to farming. These days it’s the rare farmer who still uses chemical herbicides in the vineyard.
“The soils are alive again,” Mr. Bourguignon said by telephone last week. “They’ve really changed, and it’s one of the reasons the wine has changed.”
Burgundy vignerons take pains, however, to make clear that they are not doing anything new. As Mr. Leroux pointed out, organic viticulture is simply a return to the pre-World War II methods.
“We can now understand what our grandparents were doing,” said Jean-Marie Fourrier of Domaine Fourrier in Gevrey-Chambertin. “We’re rediscovering the logic of the past.”
Domaine Fourrier was moribund, with no market for its wine, when Mr. Fourrier took over from his father, Jean-Claude. Fourteen years later he exports wine to 27 countries and has just finished construction on a new fermentation room. His wines are pure and light-bodied, embodying the grace and finesse for which Burgundy’s best wines were always known.
Prosperity is evident all over Burgundy, and every domain seems to be adding on, building a new cellar or a new winery, buying a tractor, or hiring workers. It’s a far cry from 20 years ago when domains were going out of business and sales of Burgundy in the United States were plummeting.
Now, despite the plunge of the dollar, American thirst for Burgundy has never been higher, and the opening in the last few years of new markets like eastern Europe and Asia, along with demand for the widely acclaimed 2005 vintage, has sent prices for Burgundy soaring higher than ever. Much of the profit seems to be going back into the wine.
“It’s a virtuous cycle,” said Jeremy Seysses, who has joined his father, Jacques Seysses, at the helm of Domaine Dujac in Morey-St.-Denis, one of the best producers in the Côte de Nuits. “Our wines have never sold so well or for so much money, which is bad for the consumer, I guess, but we can now afford to invest in the extra worker, the new equipment, in taking the time necessary to make great wine.”
A decade ago you might still find cellars in Burgundy without the equipment to control the temperature in vats of fermenting wine, by then standard in the rest of the winemaking world. Nowadays that’s unthinkable. With increased knowledge has come a premium on hygiene in the cellar and precision in the vineyard. Where once farmers who sold their grapes to négociants were paid by quantity, winemakers who bottle their own production today know that they are judged and paid on quality.
“Everybody is aware that Burgundy has a lot of competition and people don’t buy it because it says on the label, ‘Bourgogne,’ ” said Véronique Drouhin, who, with her three brothers, has taken over from their father leadership of Joseph Drouhin, one of the biggest and best producers in Burgundy.
Profits and the willingness to put them back into the business have helped to save vintages like 2007, which was marked by rain and hail. Twenty years ago, said Mr. Leroux of Comte Armand, the domain would have played it safe in a vintage like 2007. It would have picked the grapes quickly over the course of a week even though ripening was uneven, both to protect itself against further bad weather and so that the part-time pickers would not have to be paid for so long. “This year it took us 21 days,” Mr. Leroux said. “We stopped for seven days and I had to pay the pickers to do nothing, but the payoff in quality was great.”
Back in the ’80s, a year like 2007 could have been a disaster along the lines of the notoriously poor 1984 and 1975 vintages. Instead, tasted from the barrel, where the ’07s are currently aging, the Comte Armand reds were fresh and minerally, the various crus in Pommard and Auxey-Duresses differing markedly in density and nuance according to where the grapes were grown, yet all lithe and agile. When they are released next year, the ’07s may not be judged among Burgundy’s best, but they certainly will be enjoyable, at least.
Mr. Leroux is typical of younger vignerons in Burgundy today. Unlike previous generations, who often began working in the fields as teenagers and never got far from their homes, they were trained in viticulture and enology. They’ve traveled the world, working in places like California, New Zealand, South Africa and even Bordeaux. Perhaps most importantly, they are not afraid to share knowledge.
“They all know how to taste,” said Dominique Lafon, the Meursault superstar whose domain, Comtes Lafon, is one of Burgundy’s leading estates. “The older generation was only tasting their own wines and were not sharing as much as now.”
As consistently good as red Burgundy has become, white Burgundy still has a thorny issue to solve. The wines, when young, can be delicious and show every indication of being capable of ripe old age. But beginning with the 1996 vintage, some of the best white Burgundies began oxidizing in the bottle after seven or nine years.
Responding first with denial, then consternation, all of Burgundy now concedes the problem, which seems to have waned since the 1999 vintage. Its source has been elusive, although most people seem to blame corks treated with peroxide. Some vignerons are taking the time to hand-wax the tops of their bottles to keep oxygen out.
Regardless of the stability that Burgundy is able to achieve, absolute consistency will never be possible. It’s antithetical to the nature of the pinot noir grape, which is proverbially fickle and troublesome to grow, and to the nature of artisanal winemaking, which takes as a matter of romantic faith that greatness only comes with risks.
“Burgundy is and will always remain the anti-product,” Ms. Wasserman said. “Burgundies react differently according to their age, according to the weather, according to the ambiance. It’s nice to have natural things that react.”