Bargains in Burgundy? The négociants have stepped up quality, and the result is an increased number of well-made, affordable wines.
Burgundy and good value: the two seem like a contradiction in terms. With its patchwork vineyards producing tiny quantities of rare and expensive wines, surely France’s top region for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can hardly be expected to come up with wines that fit into one’s everyday budget.
It’s certainly not easy to find good Burgundies that sell for under $20—or even under $25—per bottle. Any wine lover knows that buying Burgundy is like walking through a minefield. But it is possible to make the trip, and enjoy it too. The secret is to seek out the right combination of strong appellations and reputable producers.
After all, just the name of a wine is no guarantee. With as many as 80 producers able to produce wines with the same name from the same land—the famed Clos Vougeot is the best-known example—the quality of the winemaking becomes as important as the land itself. The profile of Burgundy’s producers ranges from large-scale, modern négociants to small farmers with as little as ten acres of vines, scattered over a number of different vineyards. Inevitably, standards vary, and vary enormously.
The heart of Burgundy, the classic villages of the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune, actually accounts for only a small proportion of the total Burgundian vineyards (about 17 percent). Away from this central area known as the Côte d’Or, there are lesser-known villages and areas that can yield wines of good value and good quality.
Outlying regions, such as the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais, have benefited from the success of the top Côte d’Or wines. Investment and know-how have arrived in what were once rustic, out-of-the-way appellations. And while prices have gone up, they have certainly remained relatively modest compared with the big names along the Côte d’Or.
Beyond these areas, there are vineyards that produce good value wines that come under the simple generic appellations of Bourgogne rouge and Bourgogne blanc—red and white Burgundy.
The problem in these outer appellations—indeed in all of Burgundy—is the variation in quality. While there is a recognizable style of wine that comes from each of the different appellations, it is how that style is interpreted that becomes vital. There are plenty of producers, including some famous names, who still make wines with traditional barnyard flavors and aromas. Anthony Hanson, a British expert on Burgundy, once famously likened the smell of the region’s red wines to rotting leaves or manure, and it is a smell that, once registered, is never forgotten. It comes from dirty winemaking, but for many years it was thought to be the true taste of Burgundy, and there is still some sentimentality attached to it. The whites, too, were once flavored more with sulfur than with fruit.
Today, whatever their size, hygienic winemaking operations produce the best wines, with a focus on fruit. The character of Burgundy, at whatever price point, should emphasize the juiciness of the fruit and the natural acidity of the grapes. The best examples interweave earthy or mineral notes expressive of the regions from which they originate. Because of their financial resources, many of the large négociants have been able to clean up their acts and now produce impressive arrays of inexpensive wines. Certainly, at this price level, theirs are the wines most widely available in the United States.
Négociants in Burgundy purchase grapes, must, and bulk wine from a wide range of growers and vignerons, but many also own vineyards. Increasingly, age-old verbal agreements with private growers are being replaced by long-term leases that give the négociants greater control over vineyard management and harvest timing. With increased attention to cellar hygiene and greater control over the entire winemaking process, négociant red Burgundies have gone from the farmyardy, overchaptalized wines of the early 1980s to essentially clean, fresh, perfumed wines in the second half of the 1990s.
Some négociants have made this transition better than others. I’m thinking of Louis Jadot, Joseph Drouhin, Bouchard Père et Fils, Jaffelin and, above all, Faiveley, whose wines at all levels are among the very best in Burgundy today. Some have been there for a longer time: Georges Duboeuf (who has expanded upon his specialty of Beaujolais to include whites from southern Burgundy) and Chartron et Trébuchet (also specialists in white wines). Others, equally famous, seem to have fallen behind at one end of the spectrum while still making stellar wines at the high end. Louis Latour is the most prominent of these.
For less than $25 per bottle, these Burgundies compare favorably with many Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from California and Oregon, though they taste quite different. Burgundy’s reds are more structured and tannic than the New World offerings, but underlying those tannins are the same silky, velvety fruit flavors that make Pinot Noir such a seductive wine. The whites, especially those that are fermented and aged in wood, are closer in style to the New World, although they never have the overwhelming butteriness and fatness, nor the high alcohol levels, of some California Chardonnays.
Here’s a rundown on the wines and their styles from some of the top value appellations of Burgundy, including a few producers—négociants and domaines—in each appellation whose wines are worth considering, even if some of the domaine wines are a little more expensive. These are wines for consumers who love the taste of fine Burgundy, but can’t always afford the price tags.
Fruity, sometimes elegant, reds and biscuity whites that develop quickly are the hallmarks of this village just south and west of Volnay in the Côte de Beaune.
Good producers: Domaine Robert Ampeau, Domaine Comte Armand, Domaine Leroy, Louis Jadot (Domaine du Duc de Magenta).
As an alternative to the village appellations listed here, consider simple Bourgogne rouge and Bourgogne blanc. At this level, with their ability to select grapes and wine from all over Burgundy for blending, the négociants are producing some attractive wines at even better prices.
Good Bourgogne rouge producers: Bouchard Père et Fils, Joseph Drouhin, Faiveley, Jaffelin, Louis Jadot, Domaine Leroy.
Good Bourgogne blanc producers: Bouchard Père et Fils, Jean-Marc Brocard, Joseph Drouhin, Faiveley, Louis Jadot, Domaine Leroy.
Lightweight wines coming from sandy soil on the plain east of Savigny-lès-Beaune. A few producers make some attractive wines.
Good producers: Château de Chorey-lès-Beaune, Joseph Drouhin, Domaine Tollot-Beaut et Fils.
Right at the northern end of the Côte de Nuits. The reds (almost all the production is red) are somewhat tannic when young and can
Good producers: Domaine Bruno Clair, Louis Jadot, Domaine Mongeard-Mugneret, Domaine de la Perrière.
Fragrant, soft reds and smaller quantities of rich, nutty whites from the village whose wines were once known as the favorites of France’s Henri IV.
Good producers: Antonin Rodet (Domaine de la Ferté), Domaine Joblot, Domaine Gérard et Laurent Parize.
The southern extension of the Hautes-Côtes-de-Nuits, producing wines in a similar light and fruity style, but at good prices.
Good producers: Domaine du Château de Mandelot, Domaine Michel Serveau.
Red and white wines come from the hills and secluded valleys to the west of the Côte de Nuits. Soft and fruity, these wines mature earlier than their more famous counterparts.
Good producers: Domaine Bertagna, Domaine Guy Dufouleur, Domaine Michel Gros, Dominique Guyon.
Powerful reds come from the biggest appellation in the Côte Chalonnaise (which actually used to be known as the Région de Mercurey). The best producers are able to tame the power; the worst just let it become clumsy.
Good producers: Antonin Rodet (Château de Chamirey), Bouchard Père et Fils, Chartron et Trébuchet (Clos Marcilly), Faiveley, Louis Max, Michel Juillot.
An entirely white-wine appellation, producing some of the best-priced blancs of Burgundy. Fat and rich in style, they mature quickly.
Good producers: Bouchard Père et Fils, Cave des Vignerons de Buxy, Faiveley.
A close neighbor of Volnay, producing almost entirely red wines, with something of the same fragrance and perfume, but a shorter lifespan. When mature, they are smooth and velvety.
Good producers: Bouchard Père et Fils, Jaffelin, Olivier Leflaive.
The poor man’s Pouilly-Fuissé, with some of the fruit and fat of the more famous wine, but without the price tag.
Good producers: Cave des Vignerons de Buxy, Georges Duboeuf.
The northernmost village of the Côte Chalonnaise. Mainly white wines, floral and spicy in character, with soft fruit. The reds are pure, juicy Pinot.
Good producers: Chartron et Trébuchet, Joseph Drouhin, Jaffelin, Olivier Leflaive, Vincent Girardin, Antonin Rodet (Château de Rully).
Fresh, strawberry-flavored reds and delicately balanced whites come from this small village west of Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault. The wines have something of the character of each of these more famous villages.
Good producers: Domaine Jean-Claude Bachelet, Domaine Roux Père et Fils, Louis Jadot, Jaffelin.
This is southernmost appellation in Burgundy, and its reds are classified as Beaujolais and made from Gamay. The whites are soft, fresh and fruity, and mature quickly.
Good producers: Georges Duboeuf, Domaine des Lalande, Mommessin, Domaine Saumaize-Michelin, J. J. Vincent et Fils (Domaine des Morats).
Some of the best values in the Côte de Beaune. Wines that can be firm and tannic when young, but which develop a foursquare, solid character as they mature. Mainly red, but small quantities of nutty whites are also made.
Good producers: Joseph Drouhin, Vincent Girardin, Louis Jadot, Olivier Leflaive, Prosper Maufoux.
Savigny is the village with the greatest area of Pinot Noir in the Côte d’Or after Beaune and Santenay. The perfumed wines are full of raspberries and other red fruits, with a fresh lightness of touch. These wines can epitomize the seductiveness of Pinot Noir.
Good producers: Domaine Simon Bize, Bouchard Père et Fils, Domaine Bruno Clair, Joseph Drouhin, Patriarche Père et Fils.
A brand-new appellation, combining two villages formerly under the umbrella of Mâcon-Villages and previously sold as Mâcon-Viré and Mâcon-Clessé. The wines are smoky, musky and generally quite fresh and lightweight.
Good producers: Prosper Maufoux, Mommessin, Domaine Rijckaert l’Epinet.
WHAT TO BUY, WHAT TO DRINK, WHAT TO HOLD
1999 It is rare for both whites and reds from Burgundy to achieve high quality in the same vintage, but 1999 was such a year. Many whites from the Côte d’Or are rich and opulent. Later-picked whites from Chablis are cooler and fresher. The ripe Pinots weren’t spoiled by September rains, and are seen as better than 1998 or 1997, and more like the long-term wines from 1996. The ’99s will be worth buying when they are released next year.
1998 A success story for Chardonnay, especially in Chablis, where the acids are the same as 1997, but the wines have greater weight. Some voluptuous whites were made on the Côte d’Or, but the wines are on the whole less successful in the Mâconnais. Among the reds, rains made this a difficult harvest, but the wines are already showing more structure and tannin than the 1997s. These should be wines for keeping.
1997 An uneven vintage, with Pinot Noir sometimes ripening before Chardonnay. On the Côte d’Or, those producers who waited made the best wines. The small production of reds means prices are high, despite mixed results. For the whites, ’97 is a fine year, especially in Chablis, where producers made rich, full-flavored wines with good acidity. Keep these wines over the next decade. The wines from the Mâconnais are lighter and should be drunk now.
1996 A vintage rescued by a warm September. Excellent color and promising fruit flavors make this a vintage of long-term aging potential among the reds, with some that won’t peak until 2005 or beyond. The whites have turned out somewhat lean, but should show better in a year or two.