Winning by a neck

Burgundy has overcome its reputation for variable quality to acquire a growing global fanbase. John Stimpfig tracks the journey of a wine that is coming on in leaps and bounds.

December 06 2009
John Stimpfig

Like many burgundy aficionados, the Jermyn Street portrait dealer Mark Weiss can remember precisely when, where and which bottle first inflamed his vinous passion. “It was Christmas 1991 at home in London, when I opened a 1985 Leflaive Grand Cru Chevalier-Montrachet,” he recalls.

Until then, Weiss had bought and dabbled with Italian and New World wines as well as de rigueur red bordeaux. But none had rocked his boat quite like this thoroughbred white burgundy. It turned out to be a conversion of Damascene dimensions.

And this is not uncommon. The wine writer Simon Woods once wrote that great burgundy is like an orgasm. “If you’re not sure whether you’ve had one, you haven’t. If you have had one, you want another one as quickly as possible.” So did Weiss. The following month he had to go to New York on business, but spent most of his time contacting London merchants trying to Hoover up as much Leflaive as he could lay his hands on.

His voyage of discovery didn’t stop there. Instead, one tasting experience led to another and before long the likes of Lafon, Coche-Dury, Ramonet and Raveneau had all been acquired (and consumed). Then he branched out into red – big-time. So much so that it now accounts for the lion’s share of his 16,000-bottle collection.

Consequently, Weiss’s cellar book reads like a roll-call of burgundy’s greatest names – DRC, Dujac, Roumier, Roulot and Henri Jayer – they’re all there and often in multiple cases of truly great vintages. Heaven knows what it’s all worth, or how long it would take to put together such a collection from scratch. “I doubt if you could do it now,” he says. “Fortunately, when I started collecting, I could buy virtually whatever I wanted because nobody else did. And best of all, it was cheap as chips.”

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, because great burgundy has never exactly occupied the bargain basement. But two decades ago it was considerably less expensive than it is today – and much more readily available. In the US, Daniel Johnnes was able to create one of the country’s greatest ever burgundy collections at his famous Montrachet restaurant in New York. “Even into the mid 1990s, it was still possible to buy case quantities of Ponsot and Roulot. Now those days are long gone,” he says regretfully.

Of course, back then, these growers weren’t yet acknowledged as the superstars that they are today. But there were other reasons for the relative absence of demand. One was the focus on bordeaux, which became the El Dorado of more mainstream global collectors and investors during the past two decades. Moreover, bordeaux was everything that burgundy wasn’t. Whereas bordeaux’s château system is easy to understand and get to grips with, burgundy is the exact opposite. It’s fiddly, fragmented and confusing. As wine consultant at Christie’s, burgundy specialist and author Anthony Hanson MW points out, “The region is the most challenging and difficult to buy well because of its various booby-traps for the unwary. To get a handle on burgundy, you really have to wade in and grapple with it. That puts a lot of people off at the first hurdle.”

One obvious stumbling block is the Byzantine complexity of its vineyards and vignerons, particularly in its Cote d’Or heartland. Here, this narrow and ancient limestone escarpment has more than 400 soil types and 1,000 named, individual vineyards. As if this weren’t complicated enough, you then have to overlay all that with more than 3,000 growers, all producing wines from any number of different vineyards and/or appellations. The permutations are mind-boggling.

Then there’s the ludicrous lack of supply, which means that its most sought-after wines go beyond boutique. Perhaps the most extreme example is Christophe Roumier’s famed Grand Cru Musigny, which produces just a single barrel, the equivalent of 25 cases or 300 bottles, for a thirsty global market. In contrast, Lafite knocks out somewhere in the region of 20,000 cases.

But what deterred many risk-averse collectors from venturing into burgundy was its roulette-like reputation for producing wine of wildly variable quality, and which may or may not age. As the FT’s Andrew Jefford points out, great bordeaux ages “with all the timetabled regularity of the Geneva-Zürich Express. Burgundy, by contrast, travels towards old age like an inquisitive young dog sent to pick up a newspaper from a shop at the other end of town. There will be lots of detours along the way and it might not make it back at all.” Moreover, while the wines would vary from the sublime to the virtually undrinkable, there was often little difference in price. “When it comes to burgundy, mistakes are expensive, frustrating and frequent,” warns the US wine writer Mike Steinberger.

Curiously, though, none of this remotely deters the really serious hard-core collectors, who regard it as part of the territory (though perhaps not the terroir). “It can be annoying, but the ducking and diving is part of the appeal,” says Weiss. “For me, buying burgundy is almost an act of faith.” No wonder the region’s most influential critic and commentator Allen Meadows regards his fellow enthusiasts as “the most fanatical of all wine lovers”.

But collecting burgundy can have serious side effects too. “It’s addictive to some people – almost to the point where your wine merchant becomes your drug dealer supplying your latest fix,” says Robert Joseph, editor of Meininger’s Wine Business International. “You have to have the wine, whatever the cost.” Meadows himself willingly gave up a successful career as an Insurance CEO to write about his grand passion. And in the US, a handful of ultra-wealthy aficionados have even clubbed together to buy vineyards, getting their favourite growers to create a hand-crafted burgundy specifically for them.

Great burgundy also touches on the innate nerdy side of collectors, not unlike the character Miles in the hit film Sideways. A typical example is the New York Metropolitan Opera’s hugely talented concertmaster David Chan. “Burgundy appeals to the inner geek in me that wants to get into the subtle differences, the way two sites in close proximity differ, such as Meursault Perrières and Genevrières from the same vintage and producer. There’s an uncontrollable attraction for me in the number of variables. All other regions became less interesting.”

Yet despite – or perhaps because of – all the obstacles, no one now doubts that burgundy has become the flavour of the month for a growing global fanbase. “In the last couple of years demand has increased exponentially,” says Adam Brett-Smith, managing director of London wine merchants Corney & Barrow, who are the UK agents for some of Burgundy’s most desirable and exclusive agencies, including DRC, de Vogüe, Leflaive and Bonneau du Martray. He believes that there are many contributory factors but highlights two in particular. “One is the increased volume and quality of information out there from key critics such as Allen Meadows, the FT’s Jancis Robinson and Steven Tanzer,” he explains. “This has eradicated a lot of the fear and trepidation that used to exist around burgundy. Now people are much more informed, opinionated and confident.”

According to Joseph, “The internet has been vital in the transformation. For instance, the level of online chat over topics such as premature oxidation problems with some white burgundies proves how sophisticated some people have become.” This is borne out by the growing subscription base to Meadows’ site, Burghound.com’s. For the past nine years, the number of subscribers has risen year on year by an average of 25 per cent, to the point where its international readership is close to reaching 10,000 paying customers.

The other big driver of demand has been the improvement in quality and consistency that is emerging from the region. “Its sheer dynamism is probably unmatched by any other fine wine region in the world,” asserts Brett-Smith.

“When I first started trading and writing about burgundy, its red wines in particular were fiercely criticised,” says Hanson, who traces the quality revolution back to the mid 1980s when a new generation of winemakers took over the reins. “Suddenly, names such as Dominique Lafon, Patrick Bize, Jean-Marc Roulot, Frédéric Lafarge, Christophe Roumier and Jean-Marie Raveneau came to the fore, and the wines improved by leaps and bounds. There’s no question that burgundy is going through a golden age.”

Encouragingly, it’s not just the growers who have upped their game. So too have the traditional, larger négociants such as Drouhin, Jadot, Bouchard, Bichot and Faiveley. “This is an area that has perhaps seen the biggest improvement of all in the past 15 years,” argues Meadows. What also bodes well for the future is that the latest crop of micro-négociants and new young growers are helping to raise the quality bar ever higher, and without continually hiking up their prices. For the former, look out for Domaine Dublère, Maison Pierre-Yves Colin, Maison Lucien Le Moine, Maison Benjamin Leroux and Maison Deux Montille. For the latter, Meadows picks out Domaine Comte Armand, Domaine Paul Pillot, Domaine Fourrier and Jean-Yves Bizot. “But I could just as easily list another 10,” he adds.

Next month sees the pre-release tastings of the 2008 vintage, when nearly all the key growers and négociants come to London to show their wares. And despite the vintage not being one of Burgundy’s best, merchants remain confident that the wines will be well received by loyal punters. “Providing the price is right – which it generally is with most burgundy – they’ll sell well,” says Bibendum’s director of fine wine, Alex Marton. “People like the opportunity to personally meet the growers and taste the wines. I think that the human scale and contact is part of the appeal that continually brings people back to burgundy. Our annual tasting in January has been standing-room only for at least the past seven years.”

Nowadays, almost any serious burgundy event will have people queuing around the block. “Tickets to our burgundy dinners invariably disappear faster than any others,” says Berry Bros and Rudd’s buying director Jasper Morris, who is currently writing a book on the region. Earlier this year, Goedhuis & Co brought over Allen Meadows to speak at a tasting and dinner in London. “At £250 per head, it was the biggest and most expensive event we have ever put on,” says marketing manager Philippa Wright. “Because of the recession, we weren’t at all sure how it would go. Then, within a week, we were having to turn people away.”

It’s no different in the US either. For the past nine years, Johnnes has been organising the Paulée de New York, which has become an unmissable event for the country’s big-time collectors, and has now added a sister event in San Francisco. Modelled on the traditional fête held at the end of the grape harvest, Les Trois Glorieuses’ Paulée de Meursault, it has become an epic celebration of Burgundy’s gastronomy and greatest wines. “For three days the best of the Côte d’Or decamps to the US for a series of seminars, events, dinners and tastings,” says its creator Daniel Johnnes, who even imports a troupe of Burgundian singers, Les Cadets de Bourgogne, to add a bit of local colour. The grand finale is the exclusive “Bring Your Own Bottle” Gala Dinner for 350 paying customers.

What is truly remarkable about this event is the extraordinary levels of “hang the expense” hedonism, generosity and joie de vivre that takes place – it’s not unusual for some collectors to be seen parading and pouring double magnums of La Tâche or Romanée-Conti. Steinberger once described it as the “greatest Bacchanalian on the face of the earth”.

If you haven’t already booked for the 2010 event in San Francisco, you’re probably too late. However, not everybody is entirely happy about burgundy’s burgeoning popularity. In particular, some traditional collectors are resentful about the unwelcome competition that has muscled in on the market. “The biggest headache now is getting the wines I want in the sort of quantities I would like,” says one disgruntled buyer. “Even though I have been faithfully buying them for years, allocations have been cut. Savagely so.”

Then there’s the cost whammy. Most notably, prices for the top tier of Burgundy wines have risen sharply, but nowhere more so than on the secondary market. “When I first bought Roumier’s Musigny in 2001, it was £91 a bottle,” says Weiss. “Now it’s more like £1,000.” The same goes for the most recherché wines of de Vogüe, Leflaive, Leroy, Ponsot and, above all, the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti stable, widely regarded by many as the greatest, most expensive and sought-after wines on the planet.

The jewel in the crown is its Romanée-Conti Monopole, producing a mere 450 to 580 cases each vintage. The formula of fabulous quality, tiny volumes and massive demand usually translates into stratospheric prices. Certainly, Romanée-Conti is no exception. Release prices have moved up to and sometimes beyond £2,000 per bottle, consistently making it one of, if not the most expensive wine in the world. But even at these levels, demand hasn’t been remotely dampened. Instead, Corney’s continues to find its annual DRC offer massively over-subscribed, at times by a factor of eight, leaving many bitterly disappointed.

“Our job is to spread these wines as widely and as thinly as possible,” says Brett-Smith. “But the headache gets worse every year. A track record of support is important. Equally, we’re looking for people who are drinkers rather than investors. The best customers have never sold a bottle.”

But some have sold for profit, which is another bone of contention. “Historically, burgundy wasn’t seen as an area for investors,” adds Brett-Smith. “But that has changed a lot. Without a shadow of a doubt, it’s now attracting a lot more speculative interest.”

As a result, DRC vintages are being surreptitiously flipped to make a quick buck, despite the fact that this doesn’t go down well with the domaine or its distributors. But when you consider the potential profits, you can see why some have given in to temptation. Had you bought the 2005 Romanée-Conti for just over £1,300 a bottle in 2007, you could have sold it for a tidy £5,000 just six months later. Not a bad return on investment, which you could either keep or spend on a nice case or two of Clos des Lambrays or Bonneau du Martray.

However, it’s at auction, usually in the US or Hong Kong, where burgundy’s greatest red and white wines are seeing the most incredible prices. Here, the Côte d’Or’s greatest trophy wines have “the potential to trade like one-of-a-kind paintings, especially when older”, says the New York fine wine merchant David Sokolin. His advice to those looking to make money is, “Don’t be afraid to buy and hold at what seems like insane prices. If you have the money, time and fortitude to resist the urge to pop the cork, you stand to make egregious profits.”

Consequently, it is of little surprise that Romanée-Conti routinely dominates the list of bestselling auction lots. At Sotheby’s recent Hong Kong sale on October 4, eight out of the top 12 lots were Romanée-Conti vintages. A case in point was a dozen of the 1995, which fetched HK$726,000 (about £56,400), well above its high estimate of HK$480,000 (about £37,275). Significantly, all eight lots went to Asian collectors, some of whom are just beginning their maiden voyages into stockpiling and drinking Burgundy’s greatest domaines. No doubt a few of them will go on to compile serious strength, in-depth cellars for both pleasure and profit. However, they, and the rest of us, should prepare ourselves for the fact that doing so will be extremely difficult, and increasingly expensive.

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