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Why Burgundy Is The King Of Wines – And The Wine Of Kings, Part II

With Burgundy now the most sought-after wine in the world, Lewis Chester DipWSET of Liquid Icons offers a guide to the very best.

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We all want to get in on the best wines, whether as an investment or to drink. With Bordeaux, it is a relatively easy question to answer: the five First Growths, plus a handful of other Left Bank wines (like Châteaux Las Cases, Pichon Baron, Pichon Lalonde, Cos d’Estournel and Montrose), plus a few elite Right Bank estates (including Châteaux Cheval Blanc, Angelus and Ausone in St Emilion, Petrus, La Conseillante, Le Pin and – my personal favourite – Lafleur in Pomerol).

With Burgundy, it is a much harder question to answer. Firstly, vignerons come and go: death, divorce, retirement, family generation succession, family disputes and, in some instances, the outright sale of an estate. To keep abreast of these developments – which are often not generally publicised – you need to wear out the shoe leather and keep your ear to the ground.

When changes like this happen, they often lead to a shift in direction in the winemaking, which only becomes apparent after a number of vintages. In other words, it’s complex, and not easy to be ahead of the game unless you are willing to put in the work. Of course there are wine critics, but very few wine geeks even bother to read what wine critics think about Burgundy wines as it is so taste- and vineyard- dependent, even in vintages where the general view of the quality of the vintage is uncontroversial. Robert Parker’s impact on Burgundy was precisely zero.

So what are Burgundy’s wines of the moment?

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Burgundy’s Best Of The Best

Red Wines

It is not a surprise that Charles Lachaux of Domaine Arnoux-Lachaux won the Golden Vines World’s Best Rising Star Award. Along with a small number of other vignerons, he’s changed the vineyard layout, utilising the Échalas vine training system (one wooden stake per vine), which creates four times the amount of work and produces a lower yield – but of very high-quality, concentrated grapes. He is making electric wines. They have an incredible amount of energy and purity, and are almost universally ‘wow wines’. Personally, I think his Premier Cru Aux Reignots is his best wine, but I love them all.

Many Burgundy vignerons are defined by low yields but extraordinary quality  Brasil2

Jean-Yves Bizot from Domaine Bizot is making sensational wines, also using the Échalas method in his vineyards. Unfortunately for all of us, he is making tiny quantities from his diminutive estate. Even his white Vosne – and it’s highly unusual to be producing Chardonnay in the legendary Pinot Noir village of Vosne-Romanée – is incredible. If I knew I had an hour to live, I would crack open a magnum of Bizot’s Echezeaux or Les Jachees. (Note: large formats age wines much better than the 75cl typical bottle size and, hence, where possible, any serious wine geek only buys his wines in magnum or above.)

Of the new generation, Sebastien Cathiard at Domaine Sylvain Cathiard is one of my heroes. I love his wines. Indeed, his Premier Cru Aux Malconsorts is the red wine I own most of in my cellar. His Romanee Saint-Vivant (RSV for short) is stunning, if you can find it.

Domaine de la Romanee Conti (often referred to as ‘DRC’ for short, much to the annoyance of the estate) is certainly still the leading domaine in Burgundy. It is the reference point. It also happens to own the best vineyards which helps! Domaine Leroy, from the same village, is highly sought-after and loved by wine geeks and collectors. Personally, my experience with these wines has been mixed, but maybe I have been unlucky with the bottles I have tried – after all, wine is a natural product.

Jean-Yves Bizot of Domaine Bizot-fame 

Then we come to some stalwarts of Burgundy: Domaine Georges Roumier, Domaine Mugneret-Gibourg, Domaine JF Mugnier, Domaine Comte Georges de Vogué, Domaine Dujac and Domaine Armand Rousseau. Add to these some younger pretenders to the throne, in particular the wines from Domaine Cecile Tremblay, Pierre Duroché from Domaine Duroché and Maxime Cheurlin from Domaine Georges Noellat.

Let’s not forget Yannick Champ at Domaine Prieure Roch, another wine loved by many wine geeks, as reflected in its secondary market price. Finally, we come to Monsieur Pantalon Rouge, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair of Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair, who makes undoubtedly some of the greatest red wines in Burgundy (and a personal addiction).

Consideration should also be given to the new generation of vignerons that are springing up around Burgundy at an ever-increasing rate, as the old guard tends to retire in their early 60s: Mathias Parent at Domaine A-F. Gros (in particular his Richebourg), Mathilde Grivot at Domaine Grivot, Arnaud Mortet at Domaine Mortet and Charles Van Canneyt at Domaine Hudelot Noellat. Add to this group the young, tall, handsome Viking-lookalike Edouard Labet at Château de la Tour in the Clos Vougeot, who I suspect will do something great at that noble Domaine. Youth is dominating the Burgundy scene, which promises an exciting future for its wines.

White Wines

I have so far mainly focused on the red wine domaines of Burgundy. Why? Because I believe that the most innovation and improvements in wine quality are to be found in the Côte de Nuits, where Pinot Noir reigns supreme.

In the Côte de Beaune, where the world’s most famous white wines are made, there are far fewer star performers. My theory is that the best vineyards are still mainly dominated by the ‘négociant’ (‘trader’) producers, larger groups that buy the wines (or grapes) from small growers and bottle them under their own labels.

Côte de Beaune is, says Chester, where the world’s most famous white wines are made  Eloi_Omella

You have almost certainly heard of some of them – perhaps Bouchard Père et Fils, Louis Jadot, Faiveley, Albert Bichot or Louis Latour. Of these, my personal favourites are the wines of Joseph Drouhin, an establishment at which Véronique Drouhin makes very high level red and white wines, and also happens to be one of the nicest, warmest, and classiest persons on planet earth. The issue for the négociant producers – who now invariably own a great deal of vineyards alongside buying in grapes and wines – is that they are big, and it is harder for them to make the best ‘hand-made’ wines in comparison with the smaller vignerons who know every vine in every vineyard.

A number of the top white wine producers have suffered reputationally from the lingering effects of the ‘premox’ era, a time when inexplicably large numbers of white wines suffered premature oxidation, impacting a number of vintages from the late 1990s up until the mid-2000s. Domaine Leflaive is one of the classic producers of top white Burgundy wines, but was one of those which collectors and wine merchants felt was ‘unsafe’ due to the risk of premox.

However, following the death of Anne-Claude Leflaive, family member (and a friend) Brice de la Morandière has taken over and done an incredible job at the estate. Not only has he dedicated himself to eradicating the premox issues – change of winemaker, change of pressing, change of corks and much else besides – but he is also investing heavily in every aspect of the domaine. As a result, I believe that the wines of Domaine Leflaive are now the best white wines in Burgundy.

Besides Leflaive, there are a number of great producers. Foremost among these are Domaine d’Auvenay, the sister estate of Domaine Leroy (although the wines are arguably too ‘reductive’ – which refers to a smell of burned match and sulfur), along with Domaine Coche-Dury, Domaine Comte Lafon, Domaine Roulot and Domaine Ramonet. Domaine Arnaud Ente is definitely making great wines that are highly sought-after, as is Domaine Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey (known, by most, as PYCM). Moving to a very different style, Domaine Hubert Lamy’s wines must be mentioned, in particular his Chassagne Grand Cru, Criots-Batard-Montrachet.

Although Chablis is often thought of as a separate region, it is legally part of Burgundy. For this reason, up there and perhaps right at the top (certainly for me) are the wines of Domaine François Raveneau. Indeed, I own more wines of Raveneau than from any other white wine estate in my wine collection. They are sublime, and age forever. The 1986 Raveneau Butteaux is my all-time favourite white wine.

Almost every wine lover has heard of, and craved, the wines of the Montrachet Grand Cru. The vineyard is split between the villages of Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet, but whichever village it’s from, it is the unparalleled white wine vineyard in the world. A few rows of its vines are valued in the millions (if not, tens of millions) and the finished wines often surpass £1,200 per bottle – sometimes a lot more.

Puligny-Montrachet  kontrast-fotodesign

Therefore, I am going to share a tip with you. There is one winemaker in the town of Givry that is making a lot of Montrachet Grand Cru, and where the wines are priced below many other top producers’ Premier Crus wines. Jean-Baptiste Bordeaux Montrieux inherited Domaine Baron Thénard in the mid-2000s. The wines had previously been sold mainly to Négociants. Over time, more and more is being bottled under his own label at fabulously affordable prices and the wine is great.

Not many wine critics even bother to visit, as Givry is quite a schlep from Beaune. Doing a tasting with Jean-Baptiste is fascinating, as you can taste over 20 barrels of Montrachet Grand Cru from different coopers (barrel-makers) and see how much impact the wood makes on the final product. As a wine lover, would you prefer to pay more for a decent Premier Cru white burgundy or less for a very good Montrachet Grand Cru white burgundy? I will leave you to decide.

Talking of wood, I think it’s worth explaining how great an impact the barrel makes on a sensitive grape like Pinot Noir. A lot of the finesse and purity of a Pinot Noir is impacted by the barrels, especially in terms of the quality of the tannins (which provide structure to red wines and emanate from both the grape skins and the barrels). Hence, each vigneron having a different proportion of ‘new’ oak versus ‘old’ oak (re-used barrels) for each wine.

My good friend Pierre Cavin, of Burgundy barrel maker Tonnellerie Cavin, makes the most expensive barrels, especially his Aphrodite range. He’s 30 years old and went to school with many of the new generation of vignerons popping up in Burgundy today who are increasingly proliferating their cellars with Cavin barrels. Wine critics such as William Kelley of The Wine Advocate have started to notice the impact of Cavin barrels on the quality of wines from the young producers using them. So a good tip is to buy wines from producers using the Cavin barrels!

Visiting Burgundy

Bad news I’m afraid. It is just not possible to get on a plane or train, arrive in Burgundy and get a tasting at a domaine. As I tell my friends, it just doesn’t work that way in Burgundy. These are small operations. They do not have much wine to share – especially after the impossibly low yielding and traumatic 2021 vintage – and they’re not marketing people: they’re farmers. However, you will never get to know the wines of Burgundy unless you do the pilgrimage, taste the wines and meet the vignerons. It’s well, well worth the extensive groundwork.

Lewis Chester DipWSET is a London-based wine collector, member of the Académie du Champagne and Chevaliers du Tastevin, co-founder of Liquid Icons and, along with Sasha Lushnikov, co-founder of the Golden Vines® Awards. He is also Honorary President and Head of Fundraising at the Gérard Basset Foundation, which funds diversity & inclusivity education programmes globally in the wine, spirits & hospitality sectors.

If you do wish to enjoy a truly authentic Burgundy experience, bid for a luxury package – VIP tour, tasting, lunch or dinner with the vigneron for between 6-8 guests – in the Golden Vines Fine Wine, Rare Spirit & Experience Auction between 1st October and 16th October 2022. All proceeds go to the Gérard Basset Foundation to fund diversity & inclusivity education programmes globally in the world of wine, spirits & hospitality.

 

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