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Saving Face

Outside investors have worked hard to restore Burgundy’s reputation for top-flight wines, but perhaps today’s challenge should be to get the basics right in Bourgogne Rouge and Blanc, says Giles Fallowfield

FORTUNES HAVE fluctuated for Burgundy’s négociants over the past couple of decades. During the 1980s, with worldwide demand for their top wines comfortably exceeding demand, they sat back and it seems little effort was put into improving, even maintaining, quality.

Given that the grand cru vineyards of the Côte d’Or and Chablis account for only around 1% of total Burgundian wine production and premier crus add only another 11%, simple rarity value meant that high prices could be and were demanded.

However, by the end of the 1980s and into the early 1990s the négociants had allowed more than a suspicion of complacency to develop. 

Consumers, not just wine journalists, started to notice that wines unworthy of their superstar status were being sold on past reputation, rather than current quality in the bottle.

Joseph Henriot captured the flavour of disenchantment when, on purchasing the house of Bouchard Père & Fils in early 1996, he made the extravagant gesture of declassifying some high-ranking wines that he inherited in the Bouchard cellars.

These were not mere village wines, but a small percentage of the company’s stocks from the 1980s, including illustrious names like le Montrachet, Chevalier- Montrachet, la Romanée, Corton- Charlemagne and Corton.

At the time he said, "They were acceptable wines, but certainly not at the level of their prestigious appellations.  It would have been wrong to sell them as such, whether under the Bouchard Père & Fils name or not, because it would have damaged the reputations of these famous wines. Montrachet is very expensive and the consumer can reasonably demand an extremely good wine at that price."

Henriot knew exactly what he was doing in making these pronouncements.  As the man who was responsible for buying Cloudy Bay and Cape Mentelle for the Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) group back in 1990 and the person who built the team which established Veuve Clicquot as the most desirable mainstream Champagne brand in his eight years as Clicquot’s president, he is clearly no fool.

In fact, of the substantial stocks that were included in the purchase price of Bouchard, Henriot said that 90% were excellent, 9% were not good enough to be sold under the Bouchard name and only about 1% were wines from the highest appellations that he felt to be unworthy of their lofty reputations.

Nevertheless, Henriot recognised that one of Burgundy’s main problems was inconsistency and that the good name of the appellation system and the reputation of the merchants who then, as now, sell the vast majority of its wines, was too often jeopardised by poor winemaking.

Henriot was not the only Champenois to invest in Burgundy in the 1990s.  In 1999 the house of Bollinger, which had been looking for a suitable property in the region for some time, struck a deal with another of Beaune’s major négociants that had fallen on hard times – Chanson Père & Fils.

There are a number of parallels between the deals, although the Bizot and Montgolfier families who run Bollinger didn’t make the same extravagant gesture as Joseph Henriot at the outset.

While Etienne Bizot managed the company initially, in 2002 Bollinger put a Burgundian at the helm in the shape of Gilles de Courcel, whose family owns a premier and grand cru estate in Pommard.

Even before Bollinger made the purchase it had enlisted the services of winemaker Jean-Pierre Confuron, who was, says de Courcel, asked to assess the quality of the 38-hectare estate and propose a plan for the vineyards which are concentrated around Beaune and include 10 different premier crus.

De Courcel goes along with Henriot’s criticism of Burgundy.  "In the eighties ‘old style’ Burgundy lacked consistency and there wasn’t the necessary commitment to continue to produce great wines; people were getting lazy.

As with Bouchard, better management of the vineyards and lower yields have played a key part in the improvements made at Chanson. 

"Ploughing in the vineyards so the vine roots go deeper and better express the terroir; looking after pruning so fewer bunches of grapes are allowed to grow and air can circulate better thus limiting disease; and, perhaps most importantly, delaying the harvest until phenolic ripeness is achieved," all play their part, explains de Courcel.

On the winemaking side, $600,000 has been invested in the winery in Savigny-les- Beaune, introducing smaller, temperature controlled vats so that tiny parcels can be vinified separately.

"We now make five different cuvées from the 3.79 hectares of the Beaune Premier Cru Clos de Fèves before deciding what to use for the final blend," says de Courcel.  Two big sorting tables, not previously used at Chanson, have been introduced, and 20 people now discard rotten and diseased grapes.

"We rejected around 25% of the Pinot Noir from the recent 2004 harvest, though perhaps only 5% in 2002.  We use the sorting tables for Chardonnay too," says de Courcel.

Whole bunch fermentation, cold maceration, less new oak, gentler pressing, using only the heart of the cuvée (the first 50 litres are run off), are other subtle changes that have been introduced at Chanson.

In the grand cru of Corton Vergennes, where Chanson has a 0.64ha holding which, according to de Courcel, was "very obviously better terroir for producing top-quality Chardonnay, but mostly planted with Pinot Noir, the whole vineyard was replanted with Chardonnay last year and it will be seven or eight years before we can make wine from this plantation."

Just as Henriot said of the new regime at Bouchard a few years back, de Courcel says, "We’ve made an enormous number of small changes." But has it paid off? Has Bollinger seen an appreciable return on its investment?

"There’s been a recognisable level of improvement in the wines at three levels of quality," says de Courcel.  "The improvement in Clos des Mouches [Chanson’s biggest premier cru holding in Beaune of 4.48ha] in 2001 and 2000 is like the difference between night and day; you can clearly see the change.

The négociant wines of Chanson were previously only bottled and sold by the company.  Now they are made in the same way with the same care as our domaine wines.  We have contracts with the growers and work with them to get the same quality.

We buy their grapes and make the wines ourselves.  Compared with 10 years ago there’s a huge difference in quality.  "Our entry-level wines from simple Bourgogne Rouge or Macon Villages to Viré Clessé are doing extremely well; we’ve considerably increased sales of the latter.

We increased the value and the volume of Bourgogne Rouge.  It’s not very big at 7,000 cases, but when I joined the company it was only 3,000 cases.  We aren’t in the mass market.  What’s important for Bollinger, as a family group, is that any production reaches the highest level of quality possible.

"A few years ago no-one even realised that Chanson owned part of Clos des Mouches. People thought it was a Joseph Drouhin monopoly and Chanson’s wine sold at half the price of Drouhin’s.  Now they realise someone else makes this wine too and, while we haven’t been able to double the price in just three or four years, we’ve substantially increased it by around 30%.

Ultimately, the objective is to have a higher price for this wine than Drouhin," says de Courcel.  While the fortunes and image of Bouchard and Chanson have clearly improved, "Louis Jadot has got the best profile among the quality Burgundy négociants, it’s the strongest brand for Burgundy at the moment," says Patrick McGrath at UK agents Hatch Mansfield.

"We are selling more wine than anyone else in Burgundy.  Louis Latour does well, but some of their business is wine from the Ardèche.  We shift well in excess of 50,000 cases a year in the UK market.

We are certainly the strongest brand across the Côte d’Or and in Beaujolais," says McGrath. Jadot is the only Burgundian négociant listed among "the 10 greatest wine producers" in Burgundy in the 2005 Wine Report, notes McGrath.

Clive Coates places it 8th and also makes it first among the 10 "best value producers", this time specifically for its Beaujolais from Château des Jacques in Moulin-à-Vent. 

While Beaujolais generally is suffering from a serious "vin de merde" image, Jadot’s five Clos wines from its 26.19ha estate in Moulin-à-Vent are on strict allocation, says McGrath.

He is particularly pleased with the sales performance of Jadot’s Beaujolais Villages, which retails at around £6.99 in the UK and has "a very high offpromotion rate of sale".  Jadot was "the first négociant to buy grapes to produce its Beaujolais Villages style; traditionally all the others involved bought in wine.

Jadot ferments 30% of the grapes itself and will raise this to 60% thanks to increased capacity at the winery it shares with Loron.  It managed to do this by paying the growers the same price for grapes as it had for wine," says McGrath.

The resultant improvement in quality has paid off and, while McGrath says he is not party to the figures as the company is privately owned (by its New York importer, Kobrand, owned in turn by the Kopf family), he knows Jadot is profitable.

"The wine industry has to make Beaujolais generally profitable.  Jadot couldn’t continually re-invest if it wasn’t successful.  It’s currently looking to invest further in Burgundy, perhaps in the Côte Châlonnaise or Chablis.

It could improve the quality of its Chablis if it had a facility there," says McGrath.  Demonstrating that it has made significant strides to improve the quality of its domaine and négociant wines has been high on the agenda at Patriarche over the past couple of years.

It has perhaps been more readily associated for some with sparkling wine production under its Kriter brand, although it has two significant estates in the Côte d’Or at Château de Meursault – 60ha under vine including the communes of Savigny-les-Beaune, Pommard, Volnay and Puligny-Montrachet – and Château de Marsannay.

Evidence of efforts to improve quality were demonstrated during the recent harvest with head winemaker Jean-Claude Mitanchy overseeing the sorting tables.  The beneficial effect of a whole range of improvements from better vineyard management and lower yields to more careful buying (négociant wines) showed in a number of tastings of previous vintages.

These included some impressive wines like a 2001 premier cru Vosne Romanée (en Orveaux) and Château de Meursault premier cru (1998 and 1999).  The basic village wines – white, red and rosé – made at Château de Marsannay by Yannick Bourgeois also impressed.

Louis-Fabrice Latour looks to be correct when he asserts, "Today, the négoces are well-equipped for the difficult road ahead."  As president of Fédération du Négoce et Éleveurs de Bourgogne (FNEB) he believes, "Now it is the growers who need to look to the future.

Patriarche, Bouchard, Chanson and Louis Latour are all still family-owned and run businesses.  Chanson and Bouchard are still family-run even if the families have changed.

"At Louis Latour we have survived by continuing to invest in the market and have had no outside financial input.  There haven’t been many changes since the difficult times of the early 1990s, apart from Chanson.  Most companies restructured themselves in the midnineties. 

The key is constantly updating your business but you can only do this if you are running a profitable business.  To make good wine you need to make good money, like in any other business," says Latour.

"About 75% of Burgundy’s sales are made by the négoces and they own around a quarter of all the grand crus.  Their combined annual turnover is about €2.2 billion. We have doubled in size at Louis Latour since the mid-1990s.

The company now sells around 6m bottles a year. We want to grow, but not too quickly, we have to make good wine, and we don’t buy it if we don’t like the vintage.  Our growth was partly built on a run of good vintages in the Mâconnais in the 1990s and as a result of investing in other areas outside Burgundy like the Ardèche and Var regions.

"We are the biggest owners of grand cru vineyards in the Côte d’Or – about half of our 49ha of land are so designated.  But like most of the other large négociants, our domaine wines only account for about a fifth of the business in terms of turnover; in volume terms it’s less, more like 5%," says Latour.

Asked about the recent rejection by Burgundy’s producers of the Vin de Pays option, Latour explains it was partly a question of retaining the option of varietal labelling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  He estimates the négoces sell 2.5m cases a year under varietal labelling. "The Côte d’Or producers were very much against it [Vin de Pays].

Today we reject, in the future, I don’t know.  Producers in the Mâconnais and Beaujolais were much more open-minded about it."  As for the recent trend that has seen a number of growers becoming négociants, Latour says, "They are welcome as long as they understand négociant mentality.

It is relatively easy when it comes to selling premier cru wines but, now there is much more open access for everyone to the world’s markets, the days are gone when the Burgundy name made selling easy."

Perhaps any decent Burgundian négociant should really be judged on the quality of its Bourgogne Rouge and Blanc rather than wines from grand crus where producing high quality should be relatively easy.

Patriarche currently scores well on this front and is about to introduce two varietally branded (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) basic AOC styles, which it hopes will retail around the £6.99 mark in the UK market.

This is perhaps the real challenge for Burgundy’s negociants. 

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