Burgundy, historically the land of the world’s greatest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, is in a tough spot.
Seven consecutive years with small crops, some disastrously so, have taken their toll. Hail, frost, mildew and too many old vines producing low yields have left Burgundy lovers with stratospheric prices and no stock.
Many small wine traders, known as négociants, who entered the market during the 2000s, must now rapidly revise their business models.
These négociants took advantage of the years of plenty. Many produced small quantities of wine from carefully chosen parcels in the Côte d’Or heartland. Rarely making more than 100,000 bottles a year, they were no challenge to the big houses. They carved a niche, filling it with top-quality wines that they variously made, bought, blended and bottled under their own labels.
Things have changed from those halcyon days, though. Once there were large, well-established négociants and this more recent, smaller group. But now, both are scrabbling for the same grapes, which has forced up prices. No longer just buyers, négociants are now growers. And they are buying every acre they can find.
These new négociants have risen to the challenge, spread their bets and combined both sides of Burgundy to bring domaine and trader together.
One of the great domaines of Burgundy, Dujac is now in its second generation. Father and founder Jacques Seysses is still involved, but his two sons, Alec and Jérémy, are in charge.
I meet Jérémy, 41, at the family home above the shop (or cellar) in an elegantly furnished salon amid the sounds of the third generation playing outside.
Dujac Fils et Père, the négociant business established in 2000, is Jérémy’s brainchild.
“I realized that we had great wines from great parcels in famous locations,” he says. “But we didn’t have any entry-level wines. And I saw that Burgundy drinkers were getting older, and we needed to attract the millennials with affordable wine. So I persuaded my father that we should set up a business on the side to buy the fruit to make these wines.
“The problem is what was true when we started isn’t true any more. Grape prices went up by 50 percent in 2012. So we are now selling our négociant wines at cost.”
Dujac has three red and two white négociant wines: Pinot Noirs from Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny and Morey-Saint-Denis; and Chardonnays from Mersault and Puligny-Montrachet. They’re not cheap, but they represent good value.
In the cellar, they have village wines from Gevrey-Chambertin and Chambolle-Musigny in two vintages.
The family has vines in both villages for their estate wines, so this is home turf to them. And, they possess the local knowledge of where to find quality grapes for these wines. They’re made with the same attention to detail as the domaine wines: perfumed, elegant and able to age many years.
Though domaine wines can sell for hundreds of dollars, Jerémy says the négociant business won’t stop.
“I think it is important to keep Burgundy democratic,” he says. “That’s why we started, and that hasn’t changed, even if the wine is harder to find.”
Importer: The Sorting Table
Maison Alex Gambal
In 1993, Alex Gambal left his family’s real estate business in Washington, D.C., for a sabbatical in Burgundy with his wife and kids. They stayed.
“It was the luck of the draw,” the 59-year-old says. “Burgundy chose me.”
He started his négociant business in 1997. It was a good time to set up shop, as his co-director Alexandre Brault, 35, tells it. “It was so easy to find grapes and wine.”
“Buying land seemed to be a hard way to get started,” says Gambal. “Buying wine was more plausible.”
His wines are models of restrained Burgundy. They assert themselves through subtlety, from the basic Bourgogne Rouge to his top wines like the Grand Cru Charmes-Chambertin, which are seriously structured and very ageworthy.
Today, his strategy has changed. Gambal says that the old négociant model is broken.
“Being a négociant was always being part winemaker for oneself, and part banker to the small domaines,” he says. “Now it is simply being the banker. It is a factoring service.”
Not that he wants out. Since 2005, like others, he adopted a mixed model, négociant and domaine. In 2015, Gambal expanded the domaine side in a deal for vines in Saint-Romain.
Now, two-thirds of his production comes from Gambal’s 35 organic and biodynamic parcels, 29 acres spread over approximately 21 miles. His négociant hat comes on when buying grapes for his top wines. Total production varies, but averages about 60,000 bottles.
Gambal reflects the new Burgundy. Having his own grapes means a measure of control when supply is short. It’s a bet on the price and the weather, the latter not having been a friendly partner lately in Burgundy. One of Gambal’s parcels in Volnay has been hit with hail or frost for the last three years.
“With small crops, and therefore problems of the growers, the successful négociants have the chance to buy land in distress sales,” says Gambal. It’s a business response to a dramatic situation.
Gambal brought his business sense to Burgundy. And Burgundy rewarded his passion.
Importer: Ruby Wines Inc.
Maison Roche de Bellene
Nicolas Potel calls himself one of Burgundy’s “haute couture” négociants.
“We make small quantities of the finest wines.” Some years, he says ruefully, “the quantities have been almost miniscule.”
Potel’s office, just outside the 16th-century city walls of Beaune, sits in a former Cistercian refectory. It’s a spacious courtyard with doors that lead to the cellar beneath. This is a Burgundian scene.
At 47, he could be called the bounceback kid. Potel trained as a viticulturist to work at his family’s Domaine de la Pousse d’Or in Volnay, but his father died and the family property was sold.
He started his own négociant business and later sold it, name and all. But he also gained a reputation for buying the best grapes and making small quantities of serious wines.
With his friendly face, winemaking talent and sales skills, he reentered the négociant realm. In 2005, he created Maison Roche de Bellene and attached it to his domaine, which he calls Domaine de Bellene, the ancient name of Beaune.
At the beginning, the négociant side dominated. Now, like so many of his contemporaries, Potel is increasing his own wine portfolio. He makes wine from 22 parcels that encompass 66 acres scattered in Burgundy’s golden hills. The vines are older than him.
His wines cover the gamut of the Côte d’Or, but with an emphasis on Hautes Côtes de Nuits and his favorite, Nuits-Saint-Georges.
“These are fine, never hard, just firm, dense and savage in character when young,” he says. There are at least 50 wines; tasting through the range, even he loses count of them.
The domaine and négociant wines are treated the same way. They utilize only light oaking for the reds with an emphasis on fruit, all from organic vineyards. The top wines (Potel produces many grand cru selections) have intensity, tension and the structure to age many years.
Though in and out of the American market over 20 years, he’s back in with wines that carry his Potel blending signature in the taste. This time, his name is simply Bellene.
Importer: Loosen Bros USA
Maison Camille Giroud
Founded in 1865, Camille Giroud is hardly a part of the new generation of micro-négociants. Over the decades, its heavy, tannic wines were held back until ready to drink, often a very long time. Finally, in 2002, the Giroud family decided to sell.
Giroud was reborn in the hands of Ann Colgin, of the eponoymous Colgin Cellars in Napa Valley, banker Joe Wender and other investors.
In David Croix, the domaine’s manager and winemaker, the new owners found someone who combined Burgundy knowledge (he started as an intern with Becky Wasserman of Le Serbet) with the search for quality that was just emerging from the “old” years of Burgundy.
Croix, 38, guided the venture for 16 years. He left in December for his own Domaine des Croix. His Belgian successor, Carel Voorhuis, 43, arrived for the 2016 vintage after 14 years at biodynamic Domaine d’Ardhuy, north of Beaune.
With only 2.7 acres of its own vines, this is a true négociant. It bottles its wines almost by hand and produces small quantities—often just a few barrels—of its own offerings. Since Colgin took over, the firm has shrunk its overall production to 75,000 bottles a year, dependent on the harvest.
For Croix, the boutique approach is the only one for a small négociant.
“We are very small, so we need to aim for perfection,” he says.
Camille Giroud has come a long way since 2002. Gone are the heavy wines, replaced by ones coming from ripe grapes and low yields and offering personality, vibrant fruit and soft, approachable tannins. They are to savor young and drink for many years—the epitome of the new Burgundian style.
Voorhuis says unlike so many other small négociants, the future for Camille Giroud is not going to include a domaine.
“We are happy to be small,” he says. He then stops and adds, “But if the right vineyard partner came along…”
Importer: Le Serbet
Domaine David Duband
To Burgundy visitors who are used to touring the glamorous names of the Côte d’Or vineyards, a trip into the western hills is a step into another world.
The tiny village of Chevannes in the Hautes Côtes de Nuits is an ancient collection of stone houses set amid steep streets. Slapped right into the center is the modern winery of David Duband.
“I was born here, so I wanted my winery here,” Duband says.
His father, Pierre, grew grapes and sold them to the local cooperative. When David, 42, took over in 1995, he expanded the estate vineyards. In 2002, he took the négociant step and started buying grapes, simply “to have more wine.”
Duband developed an unusual model of Burgundy farming: Blending the domaine and négociant grapes.
“I don’t distinguish between grapes (as almost all others do),” he says. “I make a blend of each appellation and just sell one wine from that appellation.” And, he adds, half seriously, “Often, the origin of the grapes I buy is better than the grapes I own.”
Duband makes 22 wines from the grapes he buys and those his 42 acres produce. The grapes, all organic, are from his Hautes Côtes vineyards and from most of the famed villages of the Côtes de Nuits five miles down on the slopes of the Côte d’Or.
His wines are as friendly as his personality, packed with red fruit, perfumed, rich and complex. Many are ready to drink young: Only the grand crus, which score in the mid 90s, remaining stubbornly closed up for at least a decade.
The winery is quite a spectacle not just for the Hautes Côtes, but also for Burgundy in general. Duband’s building, constructed in 2007, features a glass-walled tasting room on a rooftop overlooking the tree-covered hills that lead to hiking trails in the Morvan forest.
Where there isn’t glass, there are black-and-white photos of local winemakers, some immediately recognizable.
“I thought it would be fun to get professional portraits of my friends,” he says. “Then they can watch me and keep me on my toes.”
Importer: Skurnik Wines
Maison Benjamin Leroux
Progressing from child prodigy to one of the region’s most admired winemakers has taken Benjamin Leroux 30 years—not long in the life of a grand cru Burgundy.
Going to the wine school in Beaune at age 13 was a start. After the essential world tour (in this case, Oregon, Bordeaux and New Zealand), Leroux, then 26, landed a plum job as manager of Domaine Comte Armand, a legendary estate in Pommard. It was an honor for such a young man.
While he continues to consult with Comte Armand, Leroux is now his own boss. A négociant since 2007, he’s now the owner of a nine-acre domaine. Leroux works out of a modern cellar in Beaune that he shares with Nicolas Rossignol, another highly regarded producer.
He’s built a portfolio of 50 wines that amount to a miniscule 10,000 cases. That’s an average of 200 cases per wine—the Burgundian way.
Leroux believes small is beautiful, with attention to detail, knowing every inch of land, almost every vine. He treats his négociant business just like an estate.
“I love Burgundy, I love the wines. And when you can make those wines, then there’s so much pleasure,” he says.
Wines from the biodynamic vineyard show beautiful velvet textures with fragrance, purity, richness and longevity all in one seductive package. That’s as true of his simple Bourgogne Rouge as of a powerfully structured wine like Volnay Premier Cru Clos de la Cave des Ducs.
Like all in this niche world, he sees négociant and domaine is the future.
“It’s a balance and an insurance policy,” he says.
So why did he decide to go it alone? His answer could be the answer of any young entrepreneur. “I wanted to work for myself, and I wanted to put my name on my label.”
Importer: Becky Wasserman Selections