Hail, Burgundy!

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 53, Winter 2017

Page 53

The harvest finally turned in Burgundy's favor this year. Good news for the vintners, says Roy Richards, but not necessarily for drinkers

There is a smile back on the face of the Burgundian vigneron. After five years of harvests deficient in volume, Nature has finally been generous in 2017. Other parts of viticultural France, hit by frost damage, are complaining bitterly of shortages and its economic impact, but the Côte d'Or has respectable yields of Chardonnay and prolific amounts of Pinot Noir – the largest, according to Vosne-Romanée grower Étienne Grivot, since 1999.

The last vintage akin to 'normal' was 2011. Since then: 2012 (damaged by hail), 2013 (hail), 2014 (hail again), 2015 (vines so exhausted that they concentrated on survival rather than fruit production) and 2016 (frost). Of course, hail rarely falls on the entire surface of a vineyard, and between 2012 and 2014 the Côte de Nuits was largely spared at the expense of the Côte de Beaune, with the communes of Beaune, Pommard, Volnay and Meursault being singled out for particularly severe punishment. Frédéric Lafarge, one of the top Volnay producers, told me that over these five years, his estate had made rather less than the equivalent of two conventional vintages. Not surprisingly, this catastrophic state of affairs has brought economic hardship, a shortage of supply and inflated prices, although not necessarily where one might expect.

A celebrated wit said some years ago that when it hails in Volnay, prices rise in Vosne-Romanée – the remark is all the more trenchant for being true. Apart from the top wines of a handful of estates, prices have remained remarkably stable in the Côte de Beaune, as growers have understood that there is a limit to what consumers will pay for a bottle of Pommard or Beaune, and they have sought, above all else, to retain the fidelity of their customer base. It is, however, quite a different story in the Côte de Nuits, where prices seem to rise inexorably for the wines of the most famous domaines, especially in the more sexy villages of Vosne-Romanée, Chambolle-Musigny and, to a lesser extent, Gevrey-Chambertin.

How does one explain what appears to be an illogical phenomenon? However much one might protest to the contrary, it is buyers who create demand and price inflation, and the buyers in Burgundy have changed. Twenty-five years ago, the wines were bought by continental Europeans, reluctant and insular Europeans (the British!), and knowledgeable Japanese and Americans. Now every advanced economy is scrabbling around to get allocations, none more so than the Asian tigers. Once their love affair with Bordeaux ended after the 2009 and 2010 vintages failed to generate the expected added value, these countries turned to Burgundy, looking for the same kind of brand recognition and speculative growth that Bordeaux had hitherto provided. The vineyards of Burgundy, however, are relatively tiny and often fragmented between many owners. Thus label- and grower-recognition became the driving market force: DRC, Henri Jayer and so on. There are 30 or so estates that are relentlessly pursued, with the result that their value shows growth on the secondary, broking market. So why should the vignerons not increase price at source?

In a nutshell, everyone is after the same wines, and there is no elasticity of supply to assuage the speculative thirst – although the 2017 crop may help on that front. Richard Harvey MW, Bonhams' Fine Wine Director, has never known a period of such intense demand for Burgundy at auction, and this despite the well-reported problems of premature oxidation in the whites.

Faced with all this, what does the lover of Burgundy do to continue drinking it? Do not despair: there is plenty of good wine out there.

Even better, there is no trickle-down from the pricing of the speculated estates to lesser names and indeed lesser-known appellations. The communes of Saint-Aubin, Auxey-Duresses and Pernand-Vergelesses in white, and those of Marsannay, Fixin and Monthélie in red, when carefully chosen, can offer superb wines.
In Burgundy, sensory curiosity pays dividends.

Roy Richards is a retired wine importer who lives in Beaune.

Sale: Fine & Rare Wines
Thursday 23 November at 10.30am
Enquiries: Richard Harvey MW
+44 (0) 20 7468 5811


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