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Bargains Abound in Burgundy--If You Know Where to Look
By Michael Apstein
May 26, 2015
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With prices for top Burgundy wines in triple and sometimes quadruple digits, you could be forgiven for concluding that Burgundy is expensive. Well, most of it is. And, as I will explain below, there’s no reason to believe that prices will come down. But there’s plenty of Burgundy that is attractively priced, especially when compared to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay produced elsewhere. You just need to know where to look.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be looking at how to find bargains in Burgundy. This week the focus is on red wines. Next week, whites.

Despite the plentiful 2014 harvest in Burgundy, prices continue to rise, simply put, because of supply and demand. The prior four harvests were all below average in terms of quantity. As Alex Gambal (who runs a high quality eponymous estate and négociant business in Beaune) observed sadly, “The last four harvests produced about two and half normal years’ worth of wine.”

This surge in demand for Burgundy comes in the face of increasing competition from the New World. One taste of Chardonnay from Grgich Hill Estate, Patz & Hall or Talbott shows that Burgundy does not have a monopoly on high quality white wine. Similarly the Pinot Noirs from Alysian, Calera, Dutton Goldfield, or Merry Edwards, to name just a few, show how California excels with that varietal as well. Oregon and New Zealand have joined the world-class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producer club, with Oregon seeing a plethora of Burgundy producers establishing estates there. Despite these options, consumers are still hooked on the distinctiveness of Burgundy. Indeed, the U.S. has just become Burgundy’s leading market both in terms of volume and value, according to Cécile Mathiaud, spokesperson for the BIVB, the trade organization that represents Burgundy growers and producers.

Burgundy is Unique

Red and white Burgundies are unique wines. Although regulations require the exclusive use of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for the vast majority of the wines, they are not just another expression of those grapes. Indeed, Jacques Lardière, the legendary winemaker at Maison Louis Jadot, one of Burgundy’s leading houses, once told me, “If you taste Chardonnay in my wines, I’ve made a mistake.” He was, of course, referring to the concept of terroir: The grape is merely a vehicle for transmitting the essence of the vineyard to the wine. And indeed, there is no better example of terroir than in Burgundy where two wines made by the same winemaking team in the same year from the same grape grown literally yards apart will taste different. Dominique Lafon, whose wines are prized around the world, feels that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are merely the “tools” he uses to express the character of the vineyard.

Search for Lesser Known Areas

So faced with a shrinking--or at best, not an expanding--supply and a rising demand, what is the Burgundy-lover to do? One solution is to win the lottery and buy the famed examples from Grand Cru vineyards that start at hundreds of dollars a bottle. A better strategy is to search for lesser-known areas, both within and outside of the famed Côte d’Or, where talented producers deliver more than the prices suggests. In these appellations, such as Marsannay, Santenay and Mercurey to name just three, the quality of the wines is rising far faster than their prices. But if history is any judge, these undervalued, lesser-known appellations will not remain unrecognized forever. Just five years ago, the white wines from St. Aubin, a village in the Côte d’Or hidden in a valley behind Chassagne-Montrachet, were selling for about $20 a bottle. Now, as their quality has increased and consumers recognize them, it’s hard to find one selling for under $50.

Under-the-Radar Appellations for Red Wines:

Bourgogne Rouge: The regional appellation, Bourgogne Rouge, which like other red Burgundies, is made from Pinot Noir, is a good place to find affordable red Burgundy. The grapes can be grown throughout Burgundy--from as far north as Auxerre, to the Côte d’Or, the Côte Chalonnaise and to the Mâconnais in the south. The major négociants, such as Bichot, Bouchard, Chanson, Drouhin, Faiveley, Jadot, and Latour, all make one. The 2012 Bourgogne Rouge from these producers, all of which average less than $22 a bottle, according to wineseacher.com, are particularly attractive because the ripeness of the vintage added a little more oomph to the wines. Still, don’t expect the richness of New World Pinot Noir. These Bourgogne Rouge bottlings vary with the style of the producer--Jadot’s is a little bolder, Drouhin’s a bit more delicate--and focus on earthy and more restrained flavors common to Burgundy. These wines are ready to drink upon release, but indeed, can develop surprisingly well. (Latour’s 1985 Bourgogne Rouge consumed with dinner about six years ago was positively marvelous).

Many small top quality growers, such as Ghislaine Barthod, one of the very top producers in Chambolle-Musigny, also bottle a Bourgogne Rouge. While pricier than those from the major négociants, consumers have the advantage of knowing more precisely the origin of the grapes because the growers usually own land in a fairly closely defined area near their home. In Barthod’s case, her Bourgogne Rouge ($43 for the 2012), labeled “Les Bons Batons,” is entirely from the prestigious Côte de Nuits, since it comes from her vineyards lying just outside of the Chambolle Musigny appellation. One taste gives you an insight into the magic of the Côte de Nuits at less than half the price of her wine from Chambolle-Musigny. Gambal’s Bourgogne Rouge, Cuvée des Deux Papis ($29 for the 2012), which comes exclusively from the Côte de Beaune, is an exceptional buy. Château de Maltroye, a leading estate in Chassagne-Montrachet, made a stunning 2012 Bourgogne Rouge that captures the savory essence of Burgundy ($29)

Bourgogne Hautes Côtes: Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune and Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits are area in the hills just behind (to the west) of the more prestigious Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits. Wines from the Hautes Côtes de Nuits tend to be more powerful and earthy, but wines from both areas have a charming rusticity and go well with uncomplicated fare, such as a roast chicken with a sauce of sautéed mushrooms. Domaine Dominique Guyon’s 2012 Hautes Côtes de Nuits, “Les Dames de Vergy” ($35), delivers a Nuits St. Georges-like “wildness” that makes it perfectly suited for a hanger steak. Another easy-to-recommend 2012 Hautes Côtes de Nuits is from Domaine Bertagna, an outstanding estate in Vougeot, that they label Les Dames des Huguettes ($29). It has power and surprising grace for a wine from this appellation.

Marsannay: Marsannay, virtually a suburb of Dijon at the northern-most extent of the Côte de Nuits, will soon be a blip on everybody’s radar, similar to St. Aubin. But for now, I still categorize it as a lesser-known appellation despite some of the wines from Domaine Bruno Clair topping the $50 a bottle mark (He is such a talented producer, the wines are worth the premium). Marsannay gained its own appellation only in 1987. Prior to that the wines were sold under the regional designation of Bourgogne. Currently, Marsannay is applying to the authorities to have some of its vineyards classified as Premier Cru. Once that happens, prices, even for the village wines, will escalate rapidly. Maison Louis Latour, a top Beaune-based négociant, makes a marvelous Marsannay. The 2012 ($22) reveals itself slowly with a Burgundian sensibility of flavor without weight. There are a slew of excellent growers based in Marsannay, such as Martin Bart, Régis Bouvier, René Bouvier, Fougeray de Beauclair, and Sylvain Pataille to name my favorites. I am especially enamored of the wines of Bart and Fougeray de Beauclair, but frankly I would buy any of the 2012s from these producers.

Santenay: Practically at the other end of the Côte d’Or is the village of Santenay. It does claim several premium cru vineyards, but the real value lies in the village wines from specific, non-classified, vineyards. Maison Louis Jadot, another top négociant, bottles two estate wines (that is, from their vineyards): Clos de Malte ($35) and Clos des Gatsulards ($35). Both offer great value with a polished fruity-savory combination buttressed by an engaging firmness and energy. Jadot’s wines often need a few years of bottle age to express themselves, so if you find the 2009 or 2010 of either of these, don’t hesitate. Jadot, like so many others, was particularly successful with their 2102 reds. Among the Santenay-based estates, Domaine Jessiaume, now being resurrected under new management, is poised to produce some superb wines.

Part Two of this two-column series will explain why there’s been a leap in quality in these lesser-known appellations, will recommend more reds…and will also explore the white wines.

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E-mail me your thoughts about lesser-known appellation in Burgundy at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

May 27, 2015