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In Defense of the Burgundy N├ęgociant
By Michael Apstein
Sep 21, 2010
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I am always surprised how many experienced Burgundy aficionados, be they sommeliers or just plain passionate consumers, overlook or denigrate Burgundy’s négociants while heaping praise on the growers’ wines.   Sommeliers may shun them because of commercial reasons.  Négociants’ wines are more widely available and many sommeliers prefer to list wines from small growers whose wines are difficult for diners to find in retail stores.  But other Burgundy lovers have no excuse and are missing the boat.

Thirty years ago avoiding wines from some négociants may have been justified because many of their wines lacked energy and distinctiveness.  But that’s no longer the case.  The top négociants are in fine form, producing their best wines ever. 

The Lines Are Blurring

Traditionally, négociants, who themselves often own substantial amounts of vineyards, purchase grapes or newly pressed wine from growers, complete the fermentation and aging, and then bottle and sell the finished wine under their names.  They make little or no distinction on the label between the wines that come from the vineyards they own and those made from purchased grapes.  Growers, by contrast, bottle and sell wine made from their own grapes, though many also opt to sell all or part of their grapes or their newly pressed wine to the négociants. 

Over the last several decades, the lines between these two competing groups--négociants and growers--has become increasingly blurred as growers have expanded into small négociant firms (e.g., Pierre Morey, grower; Morey-Blanc, négociant; Domaine Dujac, grower; Dujac Père et Fils, négociant) and the traditional large négociants have acquired more vineyards. 

The leading négociants have always owned great vineyards--among them, Bouchard Père et Fils’ Beaune Grèves Vigne de L’Enfant Jésus, Chanson’s Beaune Clos des Fèves, Drouhin’s Beaune Clos des Mouches, Jadot’s Beaune Clos des Ursules, and Latour’s Beaune Vignes Franches--because the firms had the opportunity and foresight to purchase the sites over a hundred years ago.  But in the last 25 years they’ve gobbled up more vineyards whenever the price was right.  Maison Louis Jadot enlarged its holdings in the Côte d’Or in the 1980s with the purchase of vineyards from Domaine Clair Daü and Maison Champy.  Within the last 15 years, Maison Louis Latour and Bouchard Père et Fils expanded their domaines with the purchase of Simonnet-Febvre and William Fèvre, respectively, in Chablis. 

Drouhin Excels in Chablis

Speaking of Chablis, it’s the most under appreciated (and under priced) area of Burgundy, but that’s the subject for another column.   There are many growers making excellent wines there, but none make better Chablis than the Beaune-based négociant firm of Joseph Drouhin.  Indeed, Drouhin is one of the area’s largest vineyard owners with almost half of their total estate located there.  Drouhin’s 2008 Chablis are sensational across the board, from its village Chablis up to its glorious grands crus.  Each expresses its site beautifully and shows the beguiling diversity of appellation.  Laurent Drouhin attributes their success to their biodynamic farming and ideal weather.  Drouhin has, in recent years, been reducing the amount of oak influence on its Chablis, and since the 2004 vintage has used no new oak barrels for fermentation or aging.  Nor are Drouhin’s talents limited to Chablis.  Its Beaune Clos des Mouches (both red and white) are the classiest wines from that appellation.

Grower vs Négociant

William Fèvre, today controlled by Bouchard Père et Fils, is the largest owner of grands crus vineyards in Chablis and one of appellation’s leading négociants.  Fèvre had the good sense to buy vineyards in the 1950s when land prices had plummeted following a devastating frost.  Still, its vineyards supply only about one-third of its total production, with the remainder coming from the négociant side of the business.  Since the house often buy grapes from growers whose vines are in the same vineyard where it owns land, Fèvre frequently has two bottlings with the same vineyard designation, but labeled slightly differently. One carries Domaine William Fèvre (made from their own grapes) while the other is labeled simply William Fèvre.  A few years ago, Alain Marcuello, Fèvre’s commercial director, set up a tasting for me in Chablis to compare the two.  Depending on the wine, the difference between the two bottlings varied from barely noticeable to dramatic, with the Domaine bottling always conveying more purity and concentration.  Marcuello attributed the differences purely to plot location within the vineyard since the winemaking was the same. 

Reflecting Their Origins

Maison Louis Latour has always made sensational white wines, enlivened with riveting acidity, which accounts for their incredible balance and amplifies their flavors.  Despite owning no vineyards in Bâtard- Montrachet, Bienvenues-Bâtard- Montrachet, Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet, or Le Montrachet, Latour’s wines from these grands crus always delineate the difference among the sites and excel even in mediocre vintages.  Their premier cru and village whites also adhere to Latour’s philosophy that the wines should reflect the place where the grapes grow.

Since the 1999 vintage, Latour has embarked on a subtle change in winemaking to achieve a style of reds that show more power and concentration without sacrificing delicacy and transparency of origin.  Their flagship red, the grand cru Corton, is sold under the proprietary label of Château Corton Grancey and is a blend of the best barrels from their own parcels located in five of the Corton grands cru vineyards, Les Bressandes, Les Chaumes, Les Grèves, Les Perrières and Les Pougets. It consistently delivers a beautiful expression of sweet Corton fruit and complexity at an excellent price. (The 1999 is still available on the retail market). A charming recent addition to their line, Volnay En Chevret, transmits the perfume and suppleness of the appellation.

Latour’s simple Bourgogne Rouge and Bourgogne Blanc (sold as Cuvée Latour) are remarkable for their price/quality ratio.  As with the entire Latour line, these wines develop beautifully with age; the 1985 Bourgogne Rouge served blind two years ago to an experienced group of Burgundy aficionados wowed the group with its mind-boggling complexity.

Misguided Sommeliers

Sommeliers often have told me they don’t list Jadot’s wines because the firm is perceived as a Beaujolais producer.  That’s misguided, to put it mildly.  While their Beaujolais--from their consistently value-packed Beaujolais-Villages to their extraordinary wines of Château des Jacques in Moulin-a-Vent--are superb, Jadot’s wines from the Côte d’Or always rank among the best from that region.  Jadot, along with Latour, is regularly the finest producer of Corton-Charlemagne and, again with Latour, is among the best three or four producers of Chevalier-Montrachet with their “Les Demoiselles” bottling.

Among the reds, Jadot is only one of the five owners of the prized Clos St Jacques vineyard in Gevrey-Chambertin from which it makes a consistently stunning wine.  Jadot’s Échézeaux, from its own vineyards, is a relative bargain among Grand Crus.  Tasted side-by side with its Grands Échézeaux, made from purchased grapes, I always find it more refined and polished--and half the price.  As good as its wines from the Cote de Nuits are, I think Jadot achieves greater heights with its array of wines from the various premier cru plots in the context of the less prestigious Beaune appellation, from Clos des Ursules to Les Avaux to Theurons.

One of the hallmarks of Jadot’s wines--both reds and whites and not just the premiers and grands crus--is their marvelous development with time.  I have many marvelous examples of beautifully proportioned 20-year old village wines from Jadot.  Although they do not trumpet it, Maison Jadot, like some of the most prominent small growers, farm many of their vineyards biodynamically.

Instant Turnaround

The former head of Champagne Veuve Clicquot, Joseph Henriot is a very savvy businessman.  He jumped at the opportunity to buy the venerable négociant firm, Bouchard Père et Fils, in the mid 1990s.  He knew it owned key vineyards throughout the Côte d’Or and had great potential but was under-performing.  And he was correct.  Virtually overnight Bouchard’s wines went from mediocre to outstanding.

Bouchard rapidly expanded with purchases of additional vineyards, including those of Domaine Ropiteau Mignon in Meursault.  In the hands of the gifted winemaker, Philippe Prost, Bouchard’s Meursaults are splendid examples of the diversity that exists within that village.  Each is precise and distinctive from the spicy Genevrières to the stony Perrières to the richer Charmes to the lacy Les Clous.  Its Volnay Caillerets Ancienne Cuvée Carnot, a parcel Bouchard first purchased in the 18th century, consistently ranks with the best from the appellation.

Maison Faiveley, under Erwan Faiveley’s leadership, has also changed direction.  To that end, he hired Bernard Hervé, who helped turn Bouchard Père et Fils around following the Henriot purchase.   Changes in winemaking here have made Faiveley’s reds much more lush and approachable when young without losing their quintessential Burgundian delicacy.  Always known primarily for its reds, Faiveley has expanded its portfolio of whites in 2008 by acquiring Domaine Monnot, whose holdings included portions of Bâtard-Montrachet and Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet. 

Chanson Père et Fils, founded in 1750, was acquired in 1999 by the owners of Champagne Bollinger.  Gilles de Courcel, whose family owns and runs Domaine de Courcel in Pommard, was brought on in 2002 to manage and invigorate the firm and return it to its former glory.  He is succeeding admirably.  While Chanson’s two flagship wines, the premier cru red, Beaune Clos des Fèves and the grand cru white, Corton-Vergennes, have always been among the best in their appellations, the wines from its other holdings are vastly improved under de Courcel’s leadership.   

The Bottom Line:  Producer, Producer, Producer

There are still plenty of négociants, such as La Reine Pedauque, Patriarche Père et Fils and Jaboulet-Vercherre that are still under-performing and give the whole category a bad reputation.  But, to be fair, there are also many Burgundy growers still making rustic wine.

Pierre-Henry Gagey, President of Maison Louis Jadot, doesn’t put much stock in whether the grapes are from Jadot’s vineyards or someone else’s.  “Some of the best wines I’ve tasted have come from purchased grapes,” he says.  Gagey’s experience reminds us that the important thing is who selected the grapes for purchase and made the wine.  Which of course reinforces the essential Burgundy mantra--know the producer.  It matters less whether it’s a négociant or a grower.

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Questions or comments?  E-mail me at mapastein@winereviewonline.com