Value Through Time: Burgundy 1932-2016
BY NEAL MARTIN | AUGUST 03, 2021
The value of Burgundy has changed throughout history. Or perhaps more accurately, its currency has altered in accordance with socioeconomic changes.
The first evidence for viticulture in Burgundy – a gravestone in Corgoloin chiseled with a Celtic god brandishing a vine – dates back to 150 BC. At that time, wine was not only a beverage, but served a darker purpose as barter for slaves. For medieval Cistercian monks, it was symbolic of the blood of Christ. The monks were piously motivated toward quality and became dab hands at divining the choicest parcels in the Côte d’Or. Come the era of the Valois dukes such as Philippe the Bold, Burgundy had to be the best in Christendom, used to curry favor with royalty and the Pope as the dukes pursued dreams of an autonomous state. To this end, Philippe the Bold forbade the planting of Gamay and denounced it as “a very poor and disloyal vine.” (And this was before Beaujolais Nouveau!) The value of Burgundy later became medicinal. In 1680, to aid the convalescence of King Louis XIV, Dr. Fagon prescribed Burgundy over Champagne; Burgundy doubled in price, but at least everyone felt better.
Philippe II Le Hardi, one of the Valois dukes, known as “Philippe the Bold.” Known to get angry if served Beaujolais.
After the French Revolution, Burgundy began coalescing into the region recognizable today. Scholars such as André Jullien, Denis Morelot and Dr. Jules Lavalle dipped quill into inkwell and formulated hierarchies that laid the foundation for AOC laws. The Premier Crus were approved in 1942 and individual climats codified a year later. The value of a wine hinged upon vineyard renown. Since practically the entire production was raised, sold and distributed by merchants, it was pretty straightforward. When growers such as Charles Rousseau and Henri Gouges began to bottle their own wines from the 1920s, values began to be determined by the combination of vineyard and winemaker reputation, though by the early 1970s, remarkably only 15% of the Côte d’Or was domaine-bottled. Nevertheless, Burgundy still generally cost less than Bordeaux. Perhaps its value was as an alternative fine French wine for wine lovers who couldn’t afford Claret. Even the most famous names were freely available. I remember bottles of DRC, Rousseau and Roumier gracing private lunches and merchant tastings in the late 1990s: I once paid fifty quid for a tasting featuring Leroy’s 1996s. This accessibility nurtured the current generation of besotted Burgundy-lovers. But it did not last.
The lauded 2005 vintage was the catalyst for Burgundy’s explosion in popularity beyond the niche of wine geeks. Burgundy was elevated to a Mecca, a Holy Grail, the apotheosis of terroir underpinning wine and artisan winemaking over corporate ownership. The role of vineyard plus winemaker in determining price was magnified so that the value of blue-chip Burgundy inflated exponentially. There were no longer consumers of Burgundy but speculators. Consider that even in the 1980s, sometimes the latest release from DRC languished unsold, and now those same agents were being blitzed by competing requests for tiny allocations. Some merchants and restaurants exploited this unequal supply and demand, to varying degrees of pecuniary gain. Top wines became impervious to economic swings, to the point where insatiable demand feeds itself. Burgundy was the new Veblen good on the block, with no ceiling on what someone was willing to pay. Just the other day I saw a bottle of Musigny from Leroy selling for a cool €110,000 before tax. Irrational to some, pocket change to others. The value of Burgundy’s top wines is no longer measured solely in terms of pleasure in consumption and sharing, but also in pleasure of ownership.
How do you measure the value of mature Burgundy in 2021?
Prices on merchants’ lists?
The hammer price at auction after two oligarchs try to outbid each other?
Guarantee of provenance? (An increasingly important determinant, as innumerable bottles of Burgundy are faked. Kurniawan was jailed; one of how many?)
Sealed bids for ex-domaine releases?
Is Burgundy wine the new cryptocurrency?
Is value measured as opportunity cost? (The average starting salary of an NHS nurse is around two bottles of Romanée-Conti on the secondary market. How would you spend your money if you caught COVID-19?)
Does value derive from the fact that you own it or drink it while others look on with envy?
Does value derive from owning a pristine cellar with every Jayer Cros Parantoux or from the fact that you have drunk every Jayer Cros Parantoux?
Or is the value simply the banal joy of consuming a delicious Chardonnay or Pinot Noir?
Lined up and ready to go. One of the La Paulée celebrations in Beaune. Hopefully they will return soon.
This is precisely what underpins this article, which, admittedly, has undergone what you might call an extended élevage – a couple of winters, to be exact, delayed for various reasons, so that some notes pre-date the pandemic. They come from a variety of sources: dinners in restaurants from Mayfair to Kowloon Bay, from Chablis to Fuissé via an impromptu pizza night in Beaune; bottles drunk on my own and at La Paulées (remember them? The days when we crammed into rooms and shared bottles and glasses and sang meaningless songs at the top of our voices…).
As I assembled this diaspora, I momentarily considered their accumulated monetary value (not that you can even buy those on the cusp of extinction). Personally, their value to me is not pecuniary. Their real worth rests in cherished memories of places and, most importantly, people.
This esoterica covers oddball vintages, some bottles in the flush of youth and others lying on mortuary slabs. Intentionally, famous names sit cheek by jowl with obscure ones, hip new growers next to defunct négociants. The purview extends beyond the Côte d’Or, so you will find wines from Beaujolais and Mâcon. There are several mature bottles of Chablis tasted during my visits to the likes of Dauvissat, Servin, Laroche and Droin, and even a 13-year-old Bourgogne Tonnerre courtesy of Servin winemaker Marc Cameron. Why not? Let’s dispel the notion that longevity is the preserve of elite growers and climats. Immense pleasure can be found in mature Morgon or Pouilly-Fuissé, conveying the magic of mature Burgundy in their own unique ways.
At this point, allow me to refer back to my “cats and dogs” comparison. You know the one. Bordeaux is like a dog in terms of predictability; throw a stick, and the dog will go fetch. Burgundy is more like a cat; you never quite know what it is thinking or doing. Many of these bottles upheld that analogy. Some performed as expected, but on many occasions, the ritual went something like this: examine label, set expectations according to producer and vintage, tweak according to bottle condition, pour, nose, taste and then have expectations smashed to smithereens. Smile.
Tackling the wines chronologically, we begin with the 1932 Chambertin Clos-de-Bèze from Domaine Joseph Drouhin. Don’t worry, I checked: it’s the first 1932 red Burgundy on Vinous and probably the last. I don’t know if you remember 1932, but it was a wet and overcast season rescued by warmth from mid-August. This octogenarian should have been fatigued and fading, but no – the bouquet was bursting with red fruit, the palate beautifully balanced with a touch of viscosity on the finish.
Step forward the 1949 Chambertin from Domaine Tortochot, which is still going strong today. I doubt that this Gevrey-based producer is among many connoisseurs’ top dozen producers, yet I found this elixir as moving as any DRC or Roumier. Whoever bottled this for Maxim’s in Paris knew exactly what they were doing. Exquisite. Next, there’s the 1960 Corton-Charlemagne from Louis Latour. I have relished marvelous bottlings from the 1960s and 1970s, but 1960 is a deplorable vintage for white Burgundy… isn’t it? Despite a touch of mothballs on the nose, the palate was beautifully balanced, slightly honeyed and spicy, displaying more freshness than some examples of 2018 and 2019 that I tasted in recent months. Of course, not everything yielded superlatives; the 1953 Chambolle-Musigny Village from Morin prompted the word “yuk,” though given that the color was as clear as mud, I should have known that it would taste like mud too.
What I love about Burgundy are the anomalies. You probably have all the cuvées produced by Domaine Armand Rousseau tattooed down your arm, which I write in jest (though on second thought, I bet some fanatic has done that). I’ve already revealed the existence of Rousseau’s uncommercialized Bourgogne Blanc, but a multi-vineyard blend? I wonder if Charles Rousseau considered that someone would still be drinking his 1966 Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru half a century later, and before you ask, no, I do not know the vineyard composition or raison d’être given that it was a decent growing season. Or how about a cheeky 53-year-old Aligoté? From Ramonet? Sure, the 1966 Bourgogne Aligoté was not the greatest mature white that I have tasted, far from it, but it was certainly drinkable and interesting.
One of the most startling wines was the 1964 Charmes-Chambertin from Domaine Joseph Roty, which would have been made by Charles Roty, his son Joseph having taken over later, in 1968. Ancient vintages of Roty are fabled but rarer than hens’ teeth. A friend handed me a glass blind and I was instantly awestruck by its structure, density and vibrance. Like many red Côtes de Nuits this vintage, it was not lacking in fruit, but also developed panache and sensuality on the finish. Readers will also find a note for the 1990, a highlight of Steven Tanzer’s aforementioned tasting that is worth re-reading.
Drinking these bottles, I maintain some kind of sober judgment in order to strive toward objectivity, in the knowledge that the next specimen could differ or might seem irrational. Why did the 1975 Echézeaux from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti surpass the 1975 Romanée-Conti encountered a couple of weeks earlier? The former was served blind and so I was dumbfounded when I saw that it came from one of the most disparaged Burgundy vintages of that era. What’s the adage? No great vintages, only great bottles?
This bottle of 1958 La Tâche cannot claim to have been born in a propitious vintage. But it came from a great cellar, and with age, provenance so often overrides the shortcomings of a challenging season.
Old vintages of Domaine de Montille are hardly ever seen and the 1978 Volnay Taillepieds 1er Cru explained why. Such was its quality that I would have probably drunk it years ago. Today’s Burgundy is silk ’n’ sheen; Hubert de Montille’s Volnay was built out of breeze blocks, then abraded by time into its present exquisite form. This vintage can be a bit hit-or-miss, since back then, only a small band of winemakers focused on quality. One was Domaine Clair-Daü, founded by Bruno Clair’s grandfather, Joseph Clair, when he married Marguerite Daü after World War I and combined their holdings. The 1978 Bonnes-Mares Grand Cru is sensational, with truffle-laced black fruit and a crystalline finish that defies the passing years.
The 1980s is the decade when Burgundy began to modernize, albeit slowly, grower by grower, inspired by a new breed of quality-conscious winemakers such as Christophe Roumier and Dominique Lafon. Although they, and their contemporaries, began to introduce new practices both in the vineyard and in the winery, it is unwise to dismiss the previous generation. The 1980 Ruchottes-Chambertin Grand Cru from Domaine Georges Roumier predates Roumier’s arrival by a couple of years. It was exquisite, a testament to one of the undervalued vintages that can bewitch in the right hands. There is one 1983 that was intriguing, a half-bottle of Juliénas from the cellars of Jean Loron that I picked out when invited to choose. I chose well. It was quite delicious and showed the aging potential of Gamay, just like other examples that you will find in this report from Château Thivin, Jean-Marc Burgaud and Richard Rottiers, all opened at the respective wineries. There are a cluster of bottles from the famous 1985 vintage. Among the most interesting are a 1985 Auxey-Duresses Village from Coche-Dury, a Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses from Domaine Moine-Hudelot from the plot that was subsequently acquired by Domaine Pousse d’Or, and a Romanée-Saint-Vivant from Charles Noëllat that was bought by Lalou Bize-Leroy in 1988.
A wine that redefined my perspective toward white Burgundy is the 1988 Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet from Domaine Ramonet. I first drank this bottle at a friend’s 40th birthday in Brighton and was dazzled by the tension and mineralité bound up in its every atom. I had to wait around 10 years for another chance to taste this brilliant wine, but it was worth the wait – so flinty on the nose, with HD precision on the palate. Staying with renowned producers, my eyes nearly popped out of my head when I attended a fabulous dinner for a friend celebrating a significant milestone. A small group of us gathered at Otto's on the eve of the first lockdown. Looking back, this blowout was almost as if fate knew we would be deprived of stellar wines for the next few months. Libation commenced with a 1995 Clos d’Ambonnay from Krug and went up from there. Among the whites there was a 1992 Montrachet Grand Cru from Domaine Ramonet that delivered on its promise, redefining mineralité on the nose, and penetrating, almost unforgiving, on a palate that intimated a touch of botrytized fruit. Persistent and saline on the finish, it was an utterly profound experience and compensated for a strangely underperforming 1992 Meursault Les Chevalières 1er Cru from Domaine Coche-Dury. There are always bottles that fail to engage; it happens. The bottle of 1995 Chevalier-Montrachet from Domaine d’Auvenay should have been off the charts but simply elicited a “meh.” Given the king’s ransom that you have to shell out for a bottle, I would want more than “meh.”
This was the maiden Chablis Les Blanchots La Réserve de l’Obédience from Domaine Laroche.
There are a couple of outstanding examples from the 1999 vintage included here. The sublime 1999 Charmes-Chambertin from Domaine Denis Bachelet ticked every box, delivering lace-like tannins in a vintage that is more about sheer horsepower. Also, the 1999 Puligny-Montrachet Les Ensegnières dazzled at a La Paulée. Often overshadowed by Coche-Dury’s raft of Meursaults, this took my breath away. And a big thumbs-up to the 1999 Latricières-Chambertin Grand Cru from Domaine J-L Trapet, my donation to the aforementioned birthday dinner at Otto’s. Up against tough company, it held its own, fresh as a daisy after more than 20 years. Perhaps crowning all of these was a showstopping 1999 Chambertin Grand Cru from (who else?) Domaine Armand Rousseau that was poured blind in Hong Kong. It was beguiling from head to toe; words could not convey its complexity and ethereal balance, or the manner in which it fanned out toward the finish. I would go out and buy a six-pack, but since I won’t get much change from £20,000 without tax, I’ll save that for after my lottery win.
One producer that has come from nowhere to attain cult status is Domaine Truchot-Martin. I remember tasting these wines regularly at the turn of the millennium, when nobody paid them much attention. Since the valedictory 2005 vintage after Jacky Truchot’s retirement, the wines have become highly coveted. A 2004 Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru thankfully displayed none of the vegetal traits that besmirch this vintage and surpassed a ho-hum bottle of 2004 Chambertin from Armand Rousseau that did. It was a pertinent reminder that even the “holiest” wines can be afflicted with that distasteful trait. Another exceptionally rare bottle, a 2006 Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru from Domaine d’Auvenay, formed part of a significant birthday celebration at Maison de Colombier in Beaune in November 2019, a long lunch that stumbled into dinner as this Hospices de Beaune was in progress. Unlike the aforementioned 1995, the 2006 was an absolute diamond.
Jean-Marie Guffens’ wines have a propensity to age with style. He pulled out this 20-year-old Pouilly-Fuissé on my visit to his winery, plus a run of 2015s, because he told me that he prefers hard vintages and is bored by easy ones.
Even better, not that it was conceivable at the time, was the otherworldly 2010 Corton-Charlemagne from Domaine Coche-Dury. I’d had it a few months earlier in Paris, but this bottle flirted with perfection. Funnily enough, it was not supposed to be opened. Our generous host had instructed the sommelier to open his 1993 Corton-Charlemagne and place the 2010 into his private bin. Alas, the sommelier must have got a bit excited and cracked open the 2010. Having discovered the error, there was only one thing to do: open the 1993 to compare. I also include the recently released 2014 Corton Charlemagne, which – and I must apologize for playing the same old record – flirts with perfection. That was a great year for white Burgundy, but one you will rarely see is the 2014 Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti that Bertrand de Villaine opened during a visit. Funnily enough, I thought it was quite Corton-Charlemagne-like in style. More recent vintages include several opened by Chablis winemaker Patrick Piuze at a dinner prior to lockdown, and a spellbinding 2015 Vosne-Romanée Cros Parantoux from Emmanuel Rouget and juicy and delicious 2016 Bourgogne Rouge from Coche-Dury, drunk on my own at Maufoux restaurant in Chablis, quietly celebrating England’s victory over the German football team. It was so delicious that if someone had offered to exchange my bottle for one of their Meursault Premier Crus, I would have refused. Probably.
That completes my roundup of mature Burgundy. Hopefully, this gallimaufry has provided an update on a bottle you might own, or offered some vicarious enjoyment. I hanker for the days when people like myself, just starting out in our career with barely two pennies to rub together, had access to a majority of Burgundy. Those days will never return, and an entire generation of potential Burgundy-lovers will be priced out of their passion. That sits uncomfortably with many growers who gawp at auction-hammer prices and feel dismay when they see their wines sold at multiples of ex-domaine prices in local restaurants. Despite price escalation, allocations continue to be fought over, and demand for some names and cuvées is insatiable. Thankfully, there are still plenty of alternatives both within and outside the region.
Perhaps, to the chagrin of Philippe the Bold, we will see more respect given to aged Beaujolais, or the introduction of Premier Cru Pouilly-Fuissé will bring about a long-overdue re-evaluation of its wines. Chablis and the Côte Chalonnaise are both gestating their own rosters of young winemakers and future stars. Excellence within Burgundy is far more widespread than even a decade ago, and the emerging wines can be just as worth cellaring. I have no qualms about cracking open a young Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, Gamay or Aligoté. But few wines surpass the sensory and intellectual thrill of Burgundy sculpted and elevated by the passing of time. The value of Burgundy has changed through history, but that change has always been the one constant.
Thank you to all those who shared bottles featured in this article over the last few months. You know who you are.
© 2021, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.
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