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The Mysteries of Burgundy

From Chablis to the Côte d'Or to Beaujolais, Finding the Best Wines of this Fabled Region is Always a Challenge
Matt Kramer
From the Print Edition:
Ron Perelman, Spring 95

(continued from page 3)

The problem, as always, is economics. The world clamors for any Burgundy with a famous name. The French government trots out all sorts of regulations trying to demonstrate how it is limiting yields. In fact, yields have legally reached absurd levels that result in painfully thin, bland wines that sell for high prices. Producers have no market incentive to lower the yields yet--and no governmental constraints to do so either.

This is why the producer is so critical. The best ones conscientiously keep their yields low, even though they don't always fetch a commensurate price for doing so. A few get a higher price thanks to buyers from abroad (especially Americans), but most keep their yields low out of integrity and personal honor. Regrettably, not all of these honorable growers are also first-rate winemakers. The trick is finding the ones who are both.

There's another factor to consider in the Burgundy equation: the shippers. Although the ownership of Burgundy's vineyards is divided among thousands of growers, the majority of all Burgundy wines are still sold through négociants or shippers. Prior to the Second World War, virtually all of Burgundy's wines were sold by shippers. The growers sold their months-old wines to the shippers, who aged the wines and bottled them under their own labels. The rise of estate-bottling--in which the grower makes and bottles his wine and sells it under his own label--effectively began in the 1950s and really took hold only in the '70s and '80s. It humbled to a degree the previously all-powerful shippers.

But the balkanization of Burgundy's vineyard ownerships means that shippers will always be needed, if only to consolidate small batches of wines into one commercially salable lot. The division of Burgundy's in-dividual vineyards is almost incomprehensibly fragmented. For example, the 14.5-acre Les Charmots vineyard in Pommard has 58 owners. Its largest single owner is clutching just 1.2 acres, which is too small a plot for all but the most zealous producer to estate bottle. Still, the power rests with those who own the vines; buyers must come directly to them to buy their estate-bottled wines.

Generally, it is true that the best Burgundies today are estate bottled, but it is also increasingly true that a few of the most ambitious shippers are issuing comparable fine wines. They do that either by buying vineyards when they can or, more often, paying growers a price they can't refuse for their grapes or young wines. Sometimes growers have more wine than they can sell easily. Or they need money quickly. Or a family doesn't have a new generation interested in working the vines, so it enters into a long-term contract with a shipper to tend the vines and sell the wine.

In a world that fervently pursues convenience and easy understanding, Burgundy is an anachronism. Nobody today would fashion a wine area with hundreds of named vineyards tilled by thousands of growers. It doesn't make marketing sense. But Burgundy achieves something that is literally irreproducible. Its wines, red and white, retain such a distinction of place that even Burgundians themselves can't fully explain how one neighbor manages to reap grand cru on a slice of land contiguous to property that overachieves at premier cru.

Skeptics submit that it's all a matter of winemaking. But honest tasting and the perspective of history tell us otherwise. The earth speaks to us in Burgundy as it does nowhere else. And that voice has never disappeared, even though wine-making technology over the centuries has changed dramatically. The same Burgundies that captivated wine lovers centuries ago still awe us today: Chambertin, La Tâche, Montrachet, Volnay, Meursault and many more. They do this not by technique, but by terroir. And that is immutable. Great Burgundy, like a great diamond, is forever.

Matt Kramer is a columnist for Wine Spectator and the author of Making Sense of Burgundy (1990), William Morrow, 528 pages, $24.95).

The Guide to Shippers

Two shippers today stand out: Leroy and Louis Jadot. Leroy has a collection of fabulous older Burgundies. The Leroy cellar is vast and its wines exceptional, and since 1988 director and co-owner Lalou Bize-Leroy has added attention and resources to a new, extraordinary estate called Domaine Leroy.

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