The group of new-wave California producers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay known as In Pursuit of Balance made their first trip to London recently - all of them inspired but not constrained by the wines of Burgundy, which are made from the same grapes as theirs but grown in very different settings.
At the tasting I bumped into a one-woman specialist burgundy merchant bemoaning the fact that she found their costumers unwilling to buy the most basic burgundies. “And why should they“, she cried, “when they can buy these lovely wines at more or less the same price?“
As someone just back from Australia I have sympathy with that view. Some Burgundians make charming red and white Bourgogne, but I feel too many apply the same winemaking recipe as they do to fruit from their grander vineyards that can take extended macerations - which can result in a sullen Bourgogne you wait many a long year for. The producers of the new world's finer Pinots and Chardonnays, on the other hand, are much keener to deliver wines that are user-friendly in youth. And an increasing proportion of them nowadays can age well too.
I wondered how traditional UK wine merchants who make en premieur offers every January, are coping with spiralling prices, fuelled by increased international demand. Many Asian wine collectors, for instance, have switched allegiance from bordeaux to burgundy - so prices for Grands Crus from sought-after domaines have more than doubled in the padt 10 years.
Some burgendies have always been more desirable than others but the segmentation of demand is becoming acute. Many merchants find it harder to sell wines from domains other than the top 30. And, as Charles Lea of Lea and Sandeman puts it, referring to those wines an importer has to take to ensure that they get the most desirable ones, “There has been a tendency to ramp up top wines' prices, then dump the collateral damage, no doubt because of the 'disrupters': brokers who sell wine on a no-stock basis.“
It is clear, however, that burgundy exerts a unique appeal. In the words of Mike Laing of Armit, “It's not uncommon to find burgundy drinkers who also appreciate Pinots and Chardonnays from the US ans New Zealand, but I think informed ones do so in the knowledge that they are choosing different wines for different reasons.“ Chris Davey, of the burgundy-centric OW Loeb, states robustly: “Competition from other parts of the world is not a factor for us - at all.“
All the major burgundy metchants I questioned agree that there is a dramatic difference between selling the top slice and and the rest. But as Mike Laing observes: “Merchants do make differing margins at differing levels of the hierarchy - “leading to disparity in en premieur offers.“
In the internet age, producers can now monitor the prices asked for their wines, which can make for some tense discussions. Like their importers, they would like the most sought-after wines to be drunk by the private individuals who buy them - but a study of brokers' lists suggest that an increasing proportion of them are flipped after a few years sitting in specialist storage such as Octavian's.
Burgundy enthusiast Thoemas De Waen, who recently moved from London back to his native Belgium, draws a distinction between how burgundy is sold in the UK (“in six-packs and your ability to access the most desirable wines is directly linked to yourvtotal spend“) and his favourite Belgian merchant who, he claims, is motivated by sheer passion, allocates special wines by the single bottle, “and if he catches anyone flipping the wines, you are off his list“.
The general trend in burgundy prices has been steeply upwards and, as Sebastian Thomas of Howard Ripley observes, so steep in cases such as Grivot and Clos de Tart that “they have priced themselves out of the market“. For those domaines on the way up in terms of reputation, communication is so speedy nowadays that new stars such as Cécile Tremblay and Georges Noëllat are able to ramp up their prices almost as soon as they become fashionable.
But some producers, including Coche-Dury and Raveneau, still price moderately, and are available only to those on their allocation lists for years. “So what happens“, De Waen points out, is that merchants and 'flipping' allocatiers end up making more money than the winemakers themselves, which is obviously very silly.“
But as Roy Richards, a burgundy veteran and Burgundy resident, notes, even the lesser wines from the most desirable growers are an easier sell than a premier crus from less popular producers or wines from unfashionable Spekulation such as Nuits. The challenge is to make enough money on sought-after wines to allow them to finance less desirable ones until they are mature enough to sell on. This means, for consumers, that the real value in burgundy is in the best lesser-known names, young or old.
You may ask why the UK merchants, who are clearly making a decent margin on the top burgundies , don't simply discount the less popular ones. Mike Laing again: “Most growers will be offended (some considerably) by disrespect for their wines and the merchants dumping [heavily discounting] them.“
Charles Lea distinguishes between red and white burgundy. Premature oxidation has made selling young whites difficult anyway. As for reds, juggling supply and demand has become increasingly complex, particularly since, “Over the last generation, importers have taken on more stock as a result of the shift from buying from négociants to buying from growers, and sometimes when you take up your importer's allocation, a few producers are requesting payment of 50 per cent in the June after the harvest.“ Buying burgundy was never easy.
Fazit: Für Saufstoff kann man viel Geld ausgeben.