Bargain Burgundies

Bargain Burgundies

Use the phrase "bargain Burgundies" in casual conversation with your wine-drinking buddies and you’re likely to see raised eyebrows and hear, "Is that anything like jumbo shrimp?" followed by chuckles and grins all around. Fact is, Burgundy does have a well-deserved reputation for being expensive. When some of the top wines are produced in quantities as small as one or two barrels (25 or 50 cases), worldwide demand will quickly send the per-bottle prices into the stratosphere. The latest release of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s Montrachet (the 2002) sells for $1,500 or more.

But most Burgundy doesn’t cost anywhere near that much. You can bet that none of the frustrated vignerons who stormed the offices of the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine) in Mâcon this September, ransacking offices and burning documents in the streets, were doing so to demand that consumers pay less for a bottle of their Burgundy. And so while few of the wines mentioned in this story meet this magazine’s traditional criteria as "Best Buys"—highly rated wines that cost less than $15—they do represent good value in relative terms.

While other parts of the world can grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and offer them at competitive prices, there is no substitute yet for Burgundy. Nowhere else does Chardonnay so readily achieve the intense minerality that it routinely captures on the limestone soils of this special part of France. And nowhere else—yet—does Pinot Noir reach the heights of complexity that it can attain on the Côte d’Or.

Because of the often fragmented and piecemeal distribution of better Burgundies across the country,  this article focuses on strategies you can use to get more value from the region, rather than specific recommendations. This will help you find overlooked appellations, underrated vintages, and producers who turn out reliable wines even at the low-cost end of the spectrum.

Burgundy covers an enormous swath of territory, from Chablis in the north, all the way down to the Mâconnais in the south. In between lies the fabled Côte d’Or and its famous communes: Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey St. Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Vougeot, Vosne-Romanée and Nuits-St.-Georges in the Côte de Nuits; and Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault, Volnay, Pommard, Beaune and Aloxe-Corton in the Côte de Beaune. The celebrity of these names virtually guarantees high pricing, which leads us to our first rule.

Rule 1
Head North
Chablis, isolated to the north and west from the rest of Burgundy, has lagged behind in the price escalation that has hit Burgundy’s other premier and grand cru whites. Although there are a couple of producers whose wines have soared in price, there is no other place in Burgundy where premier cru and grand cru wines are so readily available, at such reasonable prices.

Perhaps one reason prices have remained sane is that so many of the wines see little or no oak maturation—and those that do are often aged in previously used barrels. What the wines offer instead is freshness and minerality, with layers of honeyed richness creeping into the premier and grand crus. Expect to pay $50 or a little more for most grand cru Chablis, far less than you would pay for any Chevalier- or Bâtard-Montrachet, and as little as $35 for many premier crus. Straight Chablis, while often under $20, is less of a relative bargain.

The local co-op, La Chablisienne, has been somewhat inconsistent in the past few vintages, turning out gorgeous 2002s that are terrific values, while their few 2003s we’ve reviewed have been less exciting—and more expensive.
Recommended producers: Domaine Billaud-Simon, Jean-Marc Brocard, Domaine Jean-Paul & Benoît Droin, Joseph Drouhin, William Fevre, Michel Laroche, Domaine Louis Michel, Domaine Christian Moreau, Domaine Louis Moreau.

Rule 2
Turn South
At the other end of Burgundy, the white wines of the Mâconnais have never been better. A new generation of vignerons—not the rioting types—has realized that the way to get higher prices for their goods is by making top-quality wines, not by cropping at the maximum levels and selling to the local cooperative. And yet because of these wines’ relatively modest appellations, the prices are still reasonable by Burgundy standards.

Neither Here Nor There
In between the Côte d’Or and the Mâconnais lies the Côte Chalonnais. In effect the southern continuation of the limestone ridge that marks the Côte de Beaune, this area is also known as the Region de Mercurey for its most important wine-producing village. Both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are grown, with the village of Rully being split about 50-50. The towns of Givry and Mercurey are predominantly Pinot country, while the hamlet of Montagny is exclusively Chardonnay.

Stylistically, the Pinots often tend to exhibit a bit of rusticity, and tannins that can sometimes dominate the fruit. As Agnès Dewé de Launay of Domaine du Meix-Foulot in Mercurey says, "I’m trying to find softer tannins, without making the wine ‘easy’." For the same reason, Domaine Jean-Marc Joblot in Givry uses horizontal tanks outfitted with rotary paddles to help manage tannin extraction. The best examples, like those from Joblot in Givry and Faiveley and Meix-Foulot in Mercurey, achieve a balance between fruit and tannic strength. The 2003 premier crus from Joblot are especially impressive, able to rival grand crus from the Côte d’Or for under $50, while his 2002s are still available for less than $40. Chardonnays from Montagny (slightly fatter) and Rully (leaner) are stylistically somewhere between the upfront lusciousness of the wines from the Mâcon and the strongly mineral flavors of the Côte de Beaune. In recent years, négociants have turned to this area to fill the need for midpriced whites, and some of the wines are quite good. Try the various offerings from Vincent Girardin, Olivier Leflaive or Joseph Drouhin. None should be more than $20-25.

One look at the best vineyards of Pouilly-Fuissé reveals brilliant south-facing slopes loaded with limestone and its derived clays, conditions ideal for growing great Chardonnay. While the wines of Pouilly-Fuissé tend to be expensive compared to their Mâcon brethren, the top examples from such producers as Domaine Barraud, Château de Fuissé, Domaine Robert-Denogent, Château des Rontets, Domaine Saumaize-Michelin and the Bret Brothers’ La Soufrandière in neighboring Pouilly-Vinzelles can rival premier crus from the Côte d’Or, combining opulent fruit with great minerality. These are not inexpensive, with prices that can reach $50 or more in rare instances, but the wines still offer considerable value.

Even less expensive are the artisanal wines emerging from less renowned parts of the Mâconnais. Inspired by trailblazers Jean Thévenet and Olivier Merlin, and largely influenced by principles of biodynamic and organic viticulture, a new generation of vignerons is crafting wines that compare favorably with $20 or $30 Chardonnays from anywhere in the world. Not only are these wines approachable on release, some can age for 10 or more years. A 1996 Mâcon-Villages Quintaine from Thévenet’s Domaine de la Bongran was still lively and fresh in December 2004, as was a 1986 Mâcon-Villages Quintaine from Domaine Guillemot-Michel—magnificent at almost 20 years of age.

There are many other small producers too numerous to list below; try a few and you may make a new discovery. In addition, many of the large négociants have invested in the region or in neighboring Beaujolais and the quality of their offerings is slowly improving.

Recommended producers: Domaine Barraud, Domaine de la Bongran, Domaine Cordier Père et Fils, Domaine Ferret, Château de Fuissé, Domaine Guillemot-Michel, Domaine Les Heritiers du Comte Lafon, Domaine Olivier Merlin, Domaine de Roally, Domaine Robert-Denogent, Château des Rontets, Domaine Sainte-Barbe, Domaine Saumaize-Michelin, La Soufrandière (Bret Brothers), Domaine Valette.

Rule 3
Go West
At its essence, the Côte d’Or is a long, east-southeast facing slope (see map). To the east lies the N74 (or Route Nationale) and the plain that extends to the Saône River. Generally speaking, these flats are planted with vines only close to the highway and are of little interest to wine drinkers. Of greater importance are the higher-elevation nooks and crannies to the west, where less famous communes with less expensive wines can make mining for bargains pay off.

Starting at the south end of the Côte, the vineyards of Santenay are separated from Chassagne-Montrachet by a mere dip in the terrain, then bend around to the west so that many of the vineyards have a southerly exposure. La Comme, the best-known premier cru, is adjacent to the Chassagne’s premier cru of Les Embrazées. Clos des Tavennes, from which Vincent Girardin makes a rich, mouthcoating white, also butts up against Chassagne; for around $30, it is a great value compared to its illustrious neighbors.

The Center of it All
The city of Beaune is the heart of Burgundy, home to most of the large négociants and the region’s commercial hub. It’s also home to 40 premier cru vineyards, but no grand crus, a fact that has probably helped to keep prices reasonable. Many of the négociants have large holdings in the premier crus and offer multiple bottlings of single-vineyard wines as well as blends labeled as Beaune Premier Cru, without reference to specific sites. Most of these are red wines, although whites, such as Drouhin’s Clos des Mouches (also available in red), Louis Jadot’s Grèves (another available in red as well) and Bouchard Père’s Clos St. André can be excellent. At the risk of overgeneralizing, the reds tend to be on the soft, delicate side, not usually for long keeping, although 10 years of aging isn’t too much to expect. At between $30 and $45, many are attractively priced relative to what premier crus from Volnay or Chambolle fetch.

Recommended producers: Bouchard Aîné, Bouchard Père et Fils, Chanson Père et Fils, Joseph Drouhin, Louis Jadot, Domaine Moillard, Domaine Albert Morot, Domaine Jacques Prieur.

Just north of Chassagne, tucked into a side valley between it and Puligny, is the village of St. Aubin. Several of its vineyards border the premiers crus of Chassagne and Puligny. In fact, from a jeep bouncing through the vineyards, there is no visible difference between parts of St. Aubin Les Murgers des Dents de Chien and Puligny-Montrachet Champ Gain, both premier crus. The difference shows up at the cash register; expect to pay $40-45 for the St. Aubin, $60-70 for the Puligny. Other premier crus of St. Aubin will set you back $30-40.

Auxey-Duresses and Monthélie squeeze into the next side valley to the north, adjacent to the towns of Meursault and Volnay. As you might expect, both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are grown, and both can be reasonably long-lived. Domaine d’Auvenay, the private domaine of Lalou Bize-Leroy, is the best known and most expensive producer of Auxey-Duresses, but while her wines from the village, which can cost up to $200 or more, make a strong statement regarding the potential of the region, they are by no means representative. Most producers’ wines sell for around $30. In Monthélie, the large,
Beaune-based firm of Bouchard Père et Fils owns several acres; its 2003 is a lush, richly opulent Pinot that should last 5-10 years.

The next side valley north of Beaune (see sidebar above), is a bit wider, encompassing the appellations of Savigny-les-Beaune and Pernand-Vergelesses. Savigny has several well-exposed premier crus that can produce excellent reds; villages-level Savigny typically comes from flat, valley-floor parcels. Although straight Savigny-les-Beaune wines may be less expensive, they are rarely good value. Stick to the premier crus, which are riper and possess a sense of elegance.

The Côte de Nuits begins north of Aloxe-Corton at Prémeaux-Prissey. In contrast to the Côte de Beaune, the slope here is more contiguous, with no side valleys in which to hide good-value appellations. Higher up on the slope, or further west from the ridge, the vineyards qualify for the appellation Hautes Côtes de Nuits (see sidebar). But by and large, it’s not until you reach the far northern end of the Côtes de Nuits that you can expect to again find bargain Burgundies.

Here, in the villages of Fixin and Marsannay, is the northernmost outpost of Pinot Noir. The wines tend to have a sinewy strength to them, and can sometimes lack for fruit in lesser vintages, but have plenty of savory character. Fixin has a few premier cru vineyards that display character similar to those from nearby Gevrey-Chambertin’s premier crus, usually at a fraction of the price. Blended wines from this region are bottled under the appellation Côtes de Nuits Villages.
Recommended producers: Bouchard Père et Fils (Monthélie), Chanson Père et Fils (Savigny-les-Beaune), Bruno Clair (Marsannay), Domaine Marc Colin (St. Aubin), Domaine Maurice Ecard (Savigny-les-Beaune), Alex Gambal (Fixin, St. Aubin), Vincent Girardin (Santenay), Louis Jadot (Côte de Nuits Villages, Fixin, Savigny-les-Beaune), Domaine Hubert Lamy (St. Aubin), Méo-Camuzet (Fixin, Marsannay), Domaine Albert Morot (Savigny-les-Beaune).

Rule 4
Know Your Vintages
One reason many of the appellations mentioned above are less expensive than the major grand and premier crus is that they lack the consistency of those famous sites. Grand cru and premier cru vineyards acquired their exalted reputations and price tags by performing reliably well over centuries, but under any given year’s weather patterns, some appellations will fare better than others.

Outside of Chablis’ grand and premier crus, the bargain appellations generally perform best in the warmest vintages. Because most of the sites lack the ideal exposures of the top vineyards, sunshine becomes vitally important. At this northern latitude, every ray of warmth helps ripen the grapes more fully.

The Backwoods
Far to the west—if you can call a few kilometers "far"—lie the appellations of Hautes Côtes de Beaune and Hautes Côtes de Nuits. These are the vineyards that are planted on the top of the Côte d’Or, where the land flattens out again, and in numerous little sheltered pockets atop the plateau. Négociant bottlings are common and often highly variable in quality, but there are also a number of outstanding domaines whose holdings in some of the grand and premier crus on the Golden Slope extend up onto the land above. Less well exposed to the sun, these are wines to search out in warmer vintages, although the producers mentioned below are pretty consistent. Expect to pay up to $35 or so for domaine wines, half that for négociant bottlings.

Recommended producers: Bertrand Ambroise (Hautes Côtes de Nuits), Domaine Bertagna (Hautes Côtes de Nuits), Domaine Anne Gros (Hautes Côtes de Nuits), Domaine Robert Jayer-Gilles, Domaine Méo-Camuzet (Hautes Côtes de Nuits).

Another thing to keep in mind is that many of these value-oriented appellations’ soils are more water retentive than the limestone slopes of the Côte d’Or, so rain just prior to or during harvest will have a greater impact on the quality of the crop. At the same time, many of these sites withstood the drought conditions of 2003 better than some nominally "better" vineyards.

The Wine Enthusiast vintage chart attempts to encapsulate much of this information into a user-friendly format, breaking down Burgundy into several lines to reflect the region’s variability, but doesn’t fully reflect the complexity of the subject. Hail may have hit one commune but spared the next; ditto that fast-moving, late-summer thunderstorm. Low yields may be caused by frost (bad) or poor weather during flowering (sometimes good).

When trying to stay within a certain budget, a complicating factor is the volatility of exchange rates. Right now, older vintages of Burgundy tend to be less expensive than the current releases, in part because of the fall of the dollar against the euro. Assuming good provenance, the vintages from 1995-1999 look particularly attractive. In 2003, prices took a big jump because of tiny yields, but also because the dollar was trading at historic lows when importers paid for the wines.

Rule 5
Ignore the Vintage Chart
In a similar vein to the old real estate maxim, the mantra in Burgundy has been "Producer, producer, producer…." How true that is. If you find a producer whose wines you like, odds are you will like its wines almost regardless of the vintage. Of course, it still pays to try before you buy just in case, but barring a sudden change in winemaker or ownership, winemaking style in Burgundy tends to remain fairly consistent. At the domaines, this is because so much of the knowledge is passed down through the generations; at the big négociants, it’s because each house strives to retain a certain house style. So once you’re done memorizing the vintage chart and dozens of picayune weather details, throw it all out and just buy from the producers you like.

Another strategy is to actively program against the vintage chart. Rather than seeking out undervalued appellations, seek out undervalued vintages. Some pundits, for example, have dismissed the 1998 vintage, which means there are grand cru wines still in the market for less than current release villages wines. Depending on the producer, some of these may be worth the gamble. Some recent opportunities include Frédéric Magnien Charmes-Chambertin Reserve for $60 and Vincent Girardin Corton-Perrières for $50.

Rule 6
Think Big
It has become fashionable in some circles to deride the efforts of large companies, and for years the Burgundy négociants deserved much of the abuse that was heaped upon them. Some of them still do. But an increasing number of them are making better and better wines, whether from their own vineyards (see Roger Voss’s "Domaine is the Name of the Game," in our September 2005 issue), from purchased fruit or must, or even from purchased wine.

The financial resources of the négociants allow them to combine various small lots of wine into commercial quantities, or to successfully market wines from growers who lack winemaking expertise or marketing acumen. Add in economies of scale, and it is easy to see why négociant bottlings are almost always priced lower than domaine bottlings. However, lower price doesn’t equal better value, unless the quality is in the bottle. The large négociants listed below generally offer a high level of quality across the range; others, while offering outstanding individual bottlings, may be less consistent overall.

Several of the region’s large cooperatives have their own export labels. The one in Lugny is perhaps the best known, turning out hundreds of thousands of cases of Mâcon-Lugny "Les Charmes" every vintage. As at La Chablisienne, quality seems to vary quite a bit depending on the vintage.

Recommended producers: J.C. Boisset, Bouchard Père et Fils, Georges Duboeuf (Mâconnais), Joseph Drouhin, Joseph Faiveley, Louis Jadot, Louis Latour, Antonin Rodet.

Rule 7
Think Small
Under Rules 1 and 2, this article pointed out a number of artisanal producers in Chablis and the Mâconnais, but in recent years several small négociant businesses have also blossomed. Whether formed by outsiders with no prior roots in the region, like American Alex Gambal, or younger generations of established domaines, like Frédéric Magnien, these young turks are crafting some delicious Burgundies from value-oriented appellations (they may also produce tiny quantities of premier or grand cru wines). Girardin has actually grown rather large, but as he is not one of the big Beaune-based companies, he’s included here.

Recommended producers: Alex Gambal, Vincent Girardin, Frederic Magnien, Nicolas Potel.

Published on November 15, 2005

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