Is Bordeaux “the new Burgundy”?
By Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com
31 March 2018
What in the heck prompted this title? Believe it or not, a dear friend who has been on allocation lists for the last 15 years or so of some of the top Burgundy producers.
When I went to Burgundy earlier this month for a tasting of Clos de Vougeot wines (notes coming soon), I also visited domaines with decent price/quality ratios to get some Burgundy wine. Producers like Sylvain Pataille or Domaine Bart come to mind as Marsannay is a great choice for getting more bang for your Burgundy Pinot Noir buck in this day and age of ever higher (some would say “crazy”) pricing for Burgundy wines.
I also went to Domaine de Varoilles for a few bottles of Gevrey-Chambertin. The producer is solid, and I liked some of the 2015s. I actually wanted to purchase the 2016s, as they seemed better, when tasted at the Grands Jours de Bourgogne, also earlier this month, but they had not yet been bottled. Of course prices have gone up, as the appellation is more famous to consumers than Marsannay: it includes premiers and grands crus, as well. A premier cru purchased at this domain costs about $60 today but not too long ago, it was less. Price differences here however are not like they have been at, say, Clos des Lambrays, especially since it was purchased by LVMH. I can no longer afford it. That goes for many other domains in this great wine region.
Domaine de Varoilles – and others – have been more “fair minded” in pricing, considering (a) recent below average harvests, with less wine and (2) increasing worldwide demand for Burgundy. Domaine de Varoilles actually lowered prices for their 2016 offerings over 2015: “Because we made more wine,” said a friend of the domain, who was lending the owners a hand, when I purchased a few bottles.
But the image of Burgundy is changing.
Which brings us back to my friend, the long time Burgundy buyer. “In Bordeaux, the image has been of very well dressed people buying expensive wine, but not knowing so much about it; in Burgundy, people are less well dressed, but more in tune to terroir and wine,” he quipped.
Of course this description is a simplification that does not reflect the many serious wine fans of Bordeaux, who also may not bother to dress all that well. And, as it turns out, Burgundy is seeing an increasing number of nouveau riche (well heeled, well dressed and full of cash) buying grands crus from Burgundy as a status symbol or “luxury product” (Indeed, that last term has been so overused to justify ridiculous pricing for top tier Bordeaux, that has become a de facto synonym for such Bordeaux). But this has been happening in Burgundy more recently, my friend pointed out. My friend recalled a recent visit to a famous domain where one buyer asked if the red wine had any Pinot Noir in it. “I never saw that before,” he said.
Some domains resist selling their wines to such nouveau riche types. Not because they do not like the people, but because they respect drinkers with more knowledge. But it is hard to resist being able to increase prices and to sell to the highest bidder, regardless the motivation.
Selling to the highest bidder
Money talks and bullshit walks. My long-time Burgundy wine buyer pal and I discussed ever increasing pricing in Burgundy, fueled in part by high profile buyouts of wine producing domains by luxury product companies. Prices have been going up for wines throughout Burgundy: from humble village level AOCs, all the way to the grand crus. He stressed that some wines he had purchased 10 years ago now cost twice if not three times the price.
Beaune is changing, too, he said, with more wealthy foreign tourists filling restaurants like Ma Cuisine, which used to have at least some locals with more humble pocket books. Not that he has anything against non-French wine buyers, but what he is seeing is too many label whores. Sound familiar for Bordeaux followers? ?
Indeed, while I was in Burgundy this month, the technical director of a well-known estate spoke of Maserati owners buying up his entire stock in the store of the village where his domain is. He replaced it, but another person just bought up the entire replacement stock. Obviously demand drives pricing: tis the law of the market.
But Bordeaux is getting more interesting for serious Burgundy fans like my friend.
We spoke about over-performing cru bourgeois level wines in Bordeaux, as I am in the midst of finishing an article on the crus bourgeois to appear in Decanter later this year.
Even though my friend has far less passion for Cabernet Sauvignon (he prefers the immediate finesse of the Pinot Noir), he stresses that Bordeaux has serious, quality minded estates with more competitive pricing, often from lesser known producers in Bordeaux.
For years I have been enjoying wines from such producers, crafting wines with excellent price-quality ratios: from Paveil de Luze in Margaux for about €23 a bottle, to wines like Potensac and Pibran from the Médoc. Of course one can find excellent Merlot-driven wines that hardly dent your pocket book, either, particularly from Fronsac and Lalande de Pomerol.
And get this: the sommelier of a well known establishment in Burgundy told me that he thinks mid-level Bordeaux these days can be more attractive to consumers than mid-level Burgundy; prices of the latter have gone up so high that Bordeaux looks like a better deal, he added.
But he hastened to add that he loves high-end Burgundy more than high-end Bordeaux …
Furthermore, Bordeaux the city has become a kind of food mecca in recent years. Until recently the city’s restaurant scene had been rather boring when compared with other French cities. But young chefs attracted by the city’s allure and improving image have led a new food culture, widely praised in the media, from these recent Guardian and Telegraph reviews, to bloggers like this one.
But is Burgundy losing its terroir-driven soul?
Let’s not go that far, methinks. Bordeaux can never replace Burgundy. Burgundy remains a place of smaller domains, with far fewer wines produced than in Bordeaux, and the wines are intrinsically different in the sense that they are not blends of varieties but single grape wines that reflect more a smaller plot of land and climate: there is no corrective blend ability (you cannot add a bit more Merlot to soften things, for example).
Furthermore, the convivial nature of the La-la-la-la-la chant at lunch at Clos Vougeot on 26 March – video below, just an example – was enthusiastically made by many fascinating wine lovers from all walks of life. There were few nouveau riche types here. And even if there were, it was a joyful festive kind of setting in one of the few veritable “châteaux” in Burgundy. The Médoc is full of them!
And indeed, as mentioned above, you can find (still today) great values in Burgundy from some appellations and producers.
So is Bordeaux the new Burgundy?
As I get ready to taste the 2017 from barrel over the next 12 days, I do not look forward to the long drives from Sauternes to Graves, by way of Saint Emilion and Fronsac and then to the northern reaches of the Médoc. Sure, one sees more sartorial focus and less wine knowledge from an increasing number of Burgundy buyers these days, but you cannot beat the short distances and more homey ambiances at most Burgundian domains.
I have heard similar stories about Piedmont. But the good news is that one can find fine Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot and Nebbiolo at less well known Chateaux, Domains, Cantinas also. If you get satisfaction from famous labels only you are in trouble. If you get satisfaction from fine wine you are in a good position.