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Burgundy, crossing the minefield

by Bill Nanson

Whether for red or white wine, Burgundy is often compared to a minefield. Perhaps the initially bewildering array of illustrious vineyard names on labels is part of the reason, but the real problem comes down to the stuff in the bottle, and the person who put there. Like it or not, not all winemakers are dedicated to producing absolutely the finest wine possible – rumour has it, that some are even in it for the money!

There are literally hundreds of producers in the Côte d'Or. Whilst there might be only be a few producers who have a share in a famous 'Grand Cru' vineyard and bottle the wine called, for example, Griotte-Chambertin, you will find literally dozens of seemingly similar bottles of Beaune or Gevrey-Chambertin bearing different producer's names. Beaune and Gevrey-Chambertin are actually Burgundy villages, not vineyards. Dozens of different vineyards are entitled to use that name, and you can expect a lot of different owners and bottlers. But even for a single vineyard like Griotte-Chambertin, just because only eight people own a piece of the vineyard, that does not mean you will only find eight examples on the shelves. Confusing? Let me try to explain:

You will, of course, find examples bottled by the vineyard owners. You might also find examples where a vineyard owner makes the wine, but then sells it on before bottling. The purchaser of the wine bottles it and sells it to you or me under their own label – this is our friend, the négociant. It is also possible that the vineyard owner prefers not to make the wine at all, but sells his crop of grapes to the négociant - true farmers if you like. A négociant who makes the wine from purchased grapes is usually referred to as a Négociant-Eleveur, as they 'bring-up' the wine.

The minefield referred to at the top of this page now becomes apparent. The differences between wines from the same vineyard and vintage might not be subtle, and that is not necessarily due to different standards of winemaking either (though this is certainly a possibility). Different élevage, or use of oak, or fining and filtering might be the culprits. Imagine if you can, the endless combination of variables within the Grand Cru Clos de Vougeot, which has over 80 different owners!

So is there a safe path through this minefield? Actually yes, or a short-cut at least; instead of reading every review, learning the names of the best producers from each region, and doing lots of tasting so you know what you like, you could simply choose to buy wine from a reliable négociant.

The Négociant
These are actually some of the oldest companies in the Côte d'Or, some tracing their origins back as far as the 1700s. The old established négociants are also owners of vineyards too, and some of the biggest at that. This enables them to augment their own vineyard production of, for instance, Beaune 1er Cru Grèves, with grapes and wine produced by others. In this way production might be boosted to a thousand cases rather than a hundred. For the larger retailers of wine - such as supermarkets and multiple chains - the négociant is their only realistic supply option.

The Bureau Interprofessional des Vins de Bourgogne (BIVB) lists over 200 organisations who buy wine or grapes for their trade, though only just over 100 have any significant size. Perhaps five major négociants (who also own their own vineyards) will be well known to you, as they are popular on UK wine shelves. These are also some of the oldest in Burgundy, and in alphabetical order they are: Bouchard Père et Fils, Joseph Drouhin, Joseph Faiveley, Louis Jadot and Louis Latour.

I recently visited the first pair on this list, to find out what the négociant's business is all about in the 21st Century, and to see how their wines compared with each other and smaller, estate producers. Hopefully, I will be visiting all the rest in due course too, but please see the reports on my visits below:

Visit to Bouchard Père et Fils
Visit to Joseph Drouhin



  Bill Nanson is a 40 year-old Yorkshire man, now based in Switzerland. He works in the chemical industry to fund his 'Burgundy Habit' - a habit that was formed in 1995 whilst visiting a customer close to Beaune. The following years were spent studying and reading articles by well-known wine critics who were on the spot in the Côte d'Or, secretly believing "I can do that!", and eventually he did. Bill now publishes his own Burgundy web site, and has already contributed to wine-pages round-up of the 2000 vintage.

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