The maverick winemaker making waves in Burgundy

An outsider with no background in winemaking is now among the most venerated names in Burgundy

Image: Chris Burke

It’s not often you hear of a new rising star in Burgundy, partly because it’s so dynastic – if you weren’t born there, or you didn’t inherit land, it’s almost impossible to get a look-in. Throw in some astronomical land prices – €5.5m per hectare, on average, for a grand cru vineyard – and you’ve got a region that’s pretty much a closed shop. 

So the story of Olivier Bernstein, a former corporate director who rose from making wine with rented vines in Roussillon to becoming one of the most hotly tipped names in Burgundy – all in just 15 years – is really rather extraordinary. 

When we meet in January, it’s during the frenzy of Burgundy en primeur week, when the great and the good have turned out for a hushed tasting of his 2016s at the offices of Berry Bros & Rudd. The fact that Bernstein can command his own private audience during en primeur, rather than cramming into a tasting hall like everybody else, speaks volumes about the quality of his wines. And possibly his ambition too. 

Even so, my first impression of Bernstein isn’t one of a ball-breaker: with his laughing eyes and curly hair, this boyish 51-year-old from the Loire actually comes across as rather cuddly. 

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“Unfortunately, 2016 is going to be a very good vintage, probably our best yet,” he says, when I compliment him on his wines. “I say ‘unfortunately’ because there is very little of it. Like everyone, we were hit by the spring frosts. And demand for Burgundy right now is just crazy.”

Bernstein was able to make just five barrels of his top wine, Chambertin Clos-de-Bèze, in 2016, because of frost – so little it had to be allocated in cases of three rather than the usual six, priced at £1,905 a case, in bond.  

Bernstein’s punchy prices have raised a few eyebrows in Burgundy, but then again, there aren’t many domaines that do meticulous things like commissioning tailormade barrels for each of their wines. Then there’s also the purchase of two Côte de Nuits vineyards to consider – the Grand Cru Mazis-Chambertin and the Premier Cru Gevrey-Chambertin Les Champeaux – two acquisitions that were a major coup. 

Such extravagance would all be for nought if the wines weren’t any good. But they are: poised, complex, attention-grabbing without being show-offy. I particularly loved the Mazis‑Chambertin, a haunting, coolly floral wine shot through with tannins like golden thread. 

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It’s now 10 years since Bernstein began making wine in Burgundy. I wonder if he still feels like an outsider. “You can’t compare what we do to what everyone else does, because they inherited what they have. They didn’t choose their vineyards – they had to do it,” he says. “Whereas I choose what I do at every step. And in that sense I am an outsider – absolutely.”

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