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Buying Burgundy: The Problem, and a Solution
By Michael Franz
Aug 7, 2007
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My friend and WRO colleague Michael Apstein--who is a borderline psychotic in his love of Burgundy--often observes that getting excellent wines from this great but inconsistent region requires that one always "remember the producer."  Psychotic or not, he's right about this, since experience demonstrates that quality in Burgundy correlates more closely with particular domaines than with either vintages or vineyard sites.

To be sure, vineyard sites are vitally important in Burgundy, which is the land of terroir par excellence.  However, almost everybody who really knows Burgundy would agree to both of two propositions that seem to contradict one another:  that the qualitative distinctions between grand cru and supposedly lesser premier cru vineyards are very real and very important, and that you'd nevertheless be much smarter to buy premier cru wines from excellent producers than grand cru wines from mediocre ones.

Vintages really matter also, as was proved to me once again during a week that I spent tasting in Burgundy last month.  For example, the 2003 and 2004 vintage reds are so different in general that they seem not just from different years but from different planets.  The 2003s are generally so ripe that they seem downright cooked and raisiny, whereas the reds are often so under-ripe as to seem vegetal and weedy.  And yet, at the best domains, I was able to find some beautifully ripened 2004s and some fresh, pure 2003s.  Picking wines by producer in these vintages makes excellent sense.

Yet, there is a real limitation that attaches to Apstein's advice in practical terms.  (The buy-by-producer principle is advocated by many people other than Apstein, but it is much more fun to pick on him than to speak in generalities.)  The problem stems from the fact that Burgundy is produced by a few big houses but also by hundreds and hundreds of domaines, most of them quite tiny by Bordeaux or Napa standards.  And while a professional wine writer or member of the wine trade may be able to keep all of these domaine names and performance profiles straight, most consumers don't stand a chance.

Burgundy's producer roster is famously fragmented, largely due to the peculiarities of French inheritance laws requiring that estates be divided equally among the owners' offspring.  New domaines come into existence continually, and old ones regularly pass out of existence (often because a son or daughter isn't available to step into the breech after a retirement, or when siblings can't get along after trying to keep a domaine whole by running it together).  Moreover, domaines get notably better and worse due to generational turnover.  Sometimes a son or daughter is a block off the old chip, and the estate gets a lot better with a young vintner, but often the successor is a mere chip off the old block, and quality slips.

Since it is damned near impossible for consumers to keep track of who's who in Burgundy, many rely on negociants to find good bottles.  This is a promising strategy in many cases, since top negociant houses do an excellent job of pulling together consistent wines from year to year by combining their own grapes with fruit or wine that is purchased from others.  But even in instances where a negociant is working only with purchased grapes (not grape must or finished wine) and performing all vinification processes in its own facilities, the resulting wines are usually not among the most individuated or personality-filled examples of red or white Burgundy.  Being amalgamations in most cases, that is an almost inevitable result.

Jadot, Bouchard and Drouhin make excellent negociant wines (as well as domaine wines sourced entirely from their own vineyard holdings), and even the most savvy Burgundy lovers-- not just novices--are well advised to buy them.  However, the fact remains that if you want access to the most terroir-specific, character-filled wines being made in Burgundy, you've got to get down to the level of little grower/producers.  And since we've already seen that this poses daunting challenges for most consumers, we're still in need of a strategy.

And here it is:  It seems to me that the smart way for the average consumer to buy great Burgundy from small estates is to focus on the wines of exemplary importers or exporters.  The very best US importers (or exporters working from France) serve an important gate-keeping function as they select the best producers for their portfolios.  Some importers and exporters also have a role in making stylistic decisions about how grapes are grown and wines are made, though it is also true that some of the best ones maintain a hands-off policy.  I hope to profile the Burgundies of several of these top importers and exporters in coming months, but wish to start with an overview of the terrific wines of Jeanne-Marie de Champs.

Jeanne-Marie is based in Beaune, and during the past decade she has risen from obscurity to stardom among Burgundy aficionados.  Before 1980, she had no relation to the wine trade and no particular interest in wine aside from the fact--not uncommon in France--that her family owned a small parcel of vines in Sancerre.  She lived in Paris and worked successfully in marketing, and was drawn into wine only as a consequence of marriage to Henry Newman in 1978.  When Newman (who deals in large parcels of wine sold predominantly to Germany) had to move his business to Beaune, Jeanne-Marie "did the very French, very Catholic thing" and joined him in the heart of Burgundy.

Although she continued to work part-time in Paris for several years, she saw that wine would figure prominently in her future.  In order to "avoid being ignorant," she took a few wine classes in Paris and, when in Beaune, spent her days picking the brains of several retired growers whom she met through her husband's business.  Her knowledge grew quickly and, blessed with a discerning palate and seemingly boundless enthusiasm, she soon established a little business within her husband's company.

On the strength of Jeanne-Marie's taste for quality and sharp eye for growers on the rise, her little department soon became a major enterprise, and in 1994 she established it as an independent company apart from her husband's business.  Her position is defined under French law as a "negociant en chambre," meaning that, unlike brokers, she buys wines from her producers and, unlike ordinary negociants, she buys finished wines rather than lots to blend herself. 

I first met Jeanne-Marie in 2000, and have watched her wines as closely as possible since then.  We met again on July 26, 2007, when she presented a remarkable tasting of 50 wines from her Burgundy portfolio (I should note that she also exports wines from other parts of France). 

Tasting with Jeanne-Marie is a great experience, and not just because she has assembled a collection of great wines.  Her manner is very light, breezy and funny, with no apparent intention to impress.  She seems effortless as she goes about her business, pouring wine after wine in a relaxed, affable way.  But ask her a question about one of the wines, and WHAM: she answers comprehensively and in intricate detail, demonstrating a powerful mind that has sought out and mastered every little nuance about the domaine and the wine and the vintage and the growing site.  Again, she shows no apparent intention to impress, but nevertheless, tasting and talking with her is a very impressive experience.

A narrow majority of the wines in the July tasting were bottlings from the vintage currently available in the USA, with all of the remaining wines being older vintages of the same wine.  Jeanne-Marie went to her growers to get the older vintages so that she could show how the wines develop with time, which was wonderfully revealing.  Thanks to this approach and all of the preparation that made it possible, this was probably the single most instructive tasting that I've ever conducted with an importer/exporter.  And yet, true to form, Jeanne-Marie acted as if it were no big deal.

Here are full reviews of a select number of current release wines (with approximate retail prices), followed by a list of other wines that are highly recommended, as well as a list of the best of the older wines shown in the tasting.  All wines appear within categories in the order in which Jeanne-Marie elected to show them.

White Wine Reviews:

Domaine Meo Camuzet, Bourgogne Hautes Cotes de Nuits (Burgundy, France) Clos Saint Philibert 2004 ($30):  Showing aristocratic character despite an origin in a plebian appellation, this lovely wine shows a very classy, restrained and subtle fruit profile with excellent balance between ripeness and acidity.  Oak influence is but modest, and a very pleasant minerality lends real complexity to the finish.  90

Domaine Rapet, Pernand Vergelesses 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) En Caradeux 2004 ($37):  This is a very serious, impressively intricate wine.  It shows lots of detailed nuances on a solid foundation of fruit recalling peaches and ripe pears.  Substantial in feel but delicate in character, this is enduringly interesting.  89

Domaine Michelot, Meursault 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Genevrières 2005 ($75):  A generous, rich wine in keeping with Meursault's reputation, this is nevertheless quite complex as well, with lovely accent notes of minerals, vanilla and toast.  Already delicious, this will only get better for a period lasting at least five years.  91

Domaine Paul Pernot, Bienvenues Batart Montrachet Grand Cru (Burgundy, France) 2004 ($115):  An undeniably great wine, this shows the quantum leap in quality that can justify the leap in price from premier to grand cru white Burgundy.  Rich and concentrated but also lithe and lively, it blends power with intricacy in the form of spice, toast, vanilla and mineral notes along with a nutty character, and somehow manages to present all of this sensory information in a package that seems integrated, symmetrical and harmonious.  94

Red Wine Reviews:

Domaine Lafouge, Auxey Duresses 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) La Chapelle 2005 ($30):  Given the high prices commanded by 2005 vintage Burgundies, it is a pleasure to be able to recommend a reasonably-priced wine that offers strong quality.  Pure and admirably deep in flavor, this shows a lot of breeding for the money.  87

Domaine Rapet, Aloxe Corton (Burgundy, France) 2005 ($60):  A marvelously expressive wine with a remarkable scent of fresh red raspberries, this is perhaps the most vivid Aloxe Corton I've ever tasted.  It will need time to pick up aromatic complexities, but the fruit component is so pure and sweet and intense that it is already delicious.  89

Domaine Philippe Naddef, Fixin (Burgundy, France) 2005 ($35):  Naddef makes excellent wines from Gevrey, but his Fixin can also be excellent.  This shows impressive intensity and power, with serious density to the dark fruit notes and lots of fine-grained tannin.  88

Domaine Bouvier, Gevrey Chambertin (Burgundy, France) "Les Jeunes Rois" 2005 ($50):  This gorgeous wine has a winning combination of soft, fresh, open fruit aromas and exotic, earthy elements.  The fruit is sweet and expressive, and the earthy note is clean rather than gamy or bretty, and wood notes are appropriately subtle.  90

Domaine Rene Leclerc, Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Combes aux Moines 2005 ($65):  I usually associate this vineyard in Gevrey with masculine wines based on black fruit notes, but this is a pretty, feminine wine based on charming notes of red raspberries and bing cherries.  Delicate flavors are supported by fittingly soft, fine-grained tannins.  90

Domaine Lamarche, Echezeaux Grand Cru (Burgundy, France) 2005 ($110):  Although the first sniff and taste of this wine are dominated by notes drawn from new oak barrels, a second look shows lots of concentrated fruit.  Although the density of the wine and the slightly dry, smoky character of the wood conceal the fruit at first blush, continued scrutiny reveals an impressive tenderness and delicacy that will surely produce a terrific balance once the wine has aged for several years.  Echezeaux is one of the least expensive grands crus, largely because it is one of the least consistent (after Clos Vougeot), but this is definitely one to buy.  92

Also Recommended Whites:

--Domaine De Chazelles, Viré (Mâcon) Clessé Vieilles Vignes 2004 (86)
--Château Genot Boulanger, Beaune Lulune 2005 (87)
--Domaine Michel Bouzereau, Meursault Charmes 2005 (90)

Also Recommended Reds:

--Château de Pommard, Pommard "Grand Vin" 2005 (89)
--Domaine Gallois, Gevrey Chambertin Combes aux Moines 2005 (90)

Older Wines Well Worth a Search:

Whites:

--R. Lassarat, Saint Veran "Prestige" 1999 (89)
--Château Genot Boulanger, Beaune Lulune Blanc 2000 (89)
--Domaine Michelot, Meursault 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Genevrières 2000 (92)
--Domaine Michel Bouzereau, Meursault Charmes 1998 (91)
--Domaine Paul Pernot, Bienvenues Batart Montrachet Grand Cru 1999 (96)

Reds:

--Domaine M. Bouzereau, Beaune 1er Cru Vignes Franches 1999 (90)
--Domaine Philippe Naddef, Fixin (Burgundy, France) (89)
--Domaine Rene Leclerc, Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Combes aux Moines 1997 (89)
--Domaine Lamarche, Echezeaux Grand Cru (Burgundy, France) 1999 (93)
--Domaine Meo Camuzet, Clos Vougeot Grand Cru 2001 (91)
--Domaine Lamarche, La Grand Rue Grand Cru 2001 (92)
--Domaine Meo Camuzet, Richebourg Grand Cru 2000 (96)