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A Simple Strategy for Buying Burgundy
By Michael Apstein
Sep 21, 2011
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Burgundy produces some of the world’s most exciting wines.  Although many, such as those from Domaine Romanée Conti, Domaine Leroy, or Domaine Rousseau are priced in the stratosphere, affordable well-priced Burgundies do exist.  But finding them can be like walking through a minefield.

Potential for confusion abounds.  The Burgundians themselves nefariously created the largest hurdle the 19th century when they linked the name of a famous Grand Cru vineyard to the name of the village.  The town of Gevrey became Gevrey-Chambertin and Chassagne morphed into Chassagne-Montrachet.  The French hoped that unwary consumers would mistake all wines from the village of Chassagne-Montrachet as those from the Grand Cru vineyard, Le Montrachet.  And how would you know that Charmes-Chambertin was a Grand Cru, but Gevrey-Chambertin a lowly village wine?  I suspect more than one bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin has been purchased by someone thinking it was Grand Cru.  (I know one was, by me, years ago).

Napoleonic laws of inheritance have added to the confusion by forcing the fragmentation of vineyard ownership.  Several, if not scores of individuals, own pieces of a single vineyard and can make their own wine from that vineyard.  On retailers’ shelves the consumer can be bewildered by seeing multiple bottles of wine, all labeled Puligny-Montrachet Les Folatières, all of which taste different and reflect the individual grower’s talents or style.  Contrast this scenario with Bordeaux where all the bottles from a particular vineyard, such as Chateau Palmer or Chateau Latour, are identical.

And then there is the internecine squabbling that results in the dissolution of estates, marriages that create new ones and expiration of vineyard leases that enlarge existing estates while shrinking others.

One solution for the casual, and even experienced, consumer is to rely on the reputable négociants, such as Bouchard, Drouhin, Jadot, or Latour, all of whom make consistently fine wines.  Another approach for navigating Burgundy’s often murky waters is to let someone else, such as Jeanne-Marie de Champs, do it and follow her advice.  Her expertise won’t help you in a restaurant because her name is never on the wine’s front label or highlighted on a wine list.  But in a wine shop, turning the bottle to the fine print on the back label will reveal something like “Shipped by Jeanne-Marie de Champs” or a “Domaines et Saveurs Selection.”  Those words are the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. 

Michael Franz profiled Jeanne-Marie de Champs and reviewed many of her wines just over four years ago: [http://winereviewonline.com/Franz_on_Burgundy_&_de_Champs.cfm].  I spent parts of four days tasting her portfolio at this year’s Vinexpo in June, found that at lot has changed since Franz’s article and thought it time for an update.

Jeanne-Marie originally hails from France’s Loire Valley, but has been firmly ensconced in Burgundy since the 1980s and knows the terrain better than anyone.  She scours the countryside tasting hundreds of wines to find small producers or growers who consistently make high quality and unique wines.  Once identified, she persuades wholesalers and retailers in the US to distribute them.  Wines from her producers rarely disappoint.

Domaine Bart and Marsannay

Although Domaine Bart was founded only in 1988, their vineyards are part of the former famed Clair-Daü estate, perhaps the best producer in the obscure village of Marsannay.  In 1983, family fights resulted in the Clair-Daü estate being broken apart.  Maison Louis Jadot purchased one-third; one-third went to Bruno Clair and one third to Bruno’s sister.  She married Monsieur Bart who died two years later and the estate was taken over by their children.  Domaine Bart makes a stellar Bonnes Mares, but for value look for their wines from Marsannay, an under appreciated source of solid red Burgundy. 

Marsannay, a village practically in the suburbs of Dijon, was elevated to appellation status only about 20 years ago.  Prior to that the red wines were sold as Bourgogne Rouge or Côtes de Nuits Villages. It has no premier vineyards, but in Bart’s hands, many of the named vineyards (lieux-dits) taste like premier crus.  Even their straight village 2009 Marsannay ($26) is genuine Burgundy and a great value.  Also look for their 2009 Marsannay Finottes or Marsannay Les Grands Vignes ($28), both of which are perfumed and earthy and easy to recommend.
Domaine Gabriel Billard

Two sisters, Laurence Jobard and Mireille Desmonet, founded Domaine Gabriel Billard when they took over their parents’ small (roughly 11-acre) property.  Jobard was the longtime winemaker at Drouhin and was responsible for stellar wines while there.  She is making wonderful wines at her own estate now.   The 2009 Bourgogne Rouge ($25) delivers more than you’d expect from that lowly appellation and reminds us to search for wines that have less prestigious pedigrees in a year like 2009.  Their 2009 Beaune Les Épenots ($37) packs more punch with greater richness and depth while maintaining its lacy charm.

Domaine Rapet

Domaine Rapet does wonders with grapes from grand appellations, such as their Corton-Charlemagne, as well as fruit from less well-endowed plots, such as Pernand-Vergelesses and Savigny-lès-Beaune.  Their 2009 Pernand-Vergelesses Sous Frétille ($38), a premier cru white, is both creamy and stony with bracing acidity.  Their 2009 Savigny-lès-Beaune aux Fourneaux ($35) is floral and delicate with incredible persistence of red fruit flavors.  Rapet’s 2009 Beaune Clos du Roi ($45) is simply gorgeous, deep and rich with all the alluring charm that makes Burgundy so popular.  It is very well priced for a wine of this stature.

Domaine Méo-Camuzet

Jean Nicolas Méo-Camuzet is now running the eponymous domaine, one of Burgundy’s best, and has started a négociant firm.  Consumers need to scan the label carefully to know whether they are buying wines from the domaine, which are usually better (and more expensive) or the négociant since the labels are similar. 

Jean Nicolas is a great example of the new face of Burgundy as the younger generation takes control of established domaines.  Many of their prized vineyards, which have been in the family for decades, had been leased to others, including Henri Jayer.  In 1989 Méo-Camuzet decided not to renew the leases, the vineyards reverted to the family and Jean Nicolas took over.  He hosted a tasting a few years ago celebrating 20 years of the domaine and showed wines from each vintage.  The take-away message from that tasting was that great producers, like Méo-Camuzet, produce stellar wines in what are generally regarded as “off” vintages.  Their 1997 Nuits St. Georges aux Murgers, 1992 Vosne-Romanée Au Cros-Parantoux and 2000 Échézeaux, none of which hailed from universally acclaimed “great” years, were stunningly good.  My advice:  look for which ever of their wines you can afford. (Franz recommended their 2004 white from the Hautes Cotes de Nuits called Clos Saint Philibert).  The 2008, an equally successful year for whites in general, is currently available ($35).  Don’t miss it.
Domaine Tremblay

And if you like Chablis, look for Tremblay’s wines from 2008, a great year for white Burgundy, especially Chablis.  Their wines have richness often associated with use of oak, but they use only stainless steel.  They are unusually well priced, with their Premier Cru Chablis selling at less than $30.

My advice for buying Burgundy has always been, and still is, producer, producer, producer.  As an alternative, look for Jeanne-Marie de Champs on the back label.

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Questions or comments about buying Burgundy?  Email me at mapstein@winereviewonline.com