Beyond Burgundy

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Short harvests and spiralling prices aren’t making life easy for Burgundy lovers. So why does the trade persist, and what are the alternatives? Graham Holter reports

 

Forming an educated opinion on the state of play with Burgundian wines can be challenge, since a dwindling number of us have the ability to buy and enjoy them. That situation looks unlikely to improve any time soon.

The 2021 vintage is being described as a “classic”, which may be good news for those – like Tom Innes, of Burgundy specialist Fingal-Rock – who were alarmed by the “super-ripe” reds that 2020 produced. “A very small harvest, pitiful quantities, some some extraordinary levels of alcohol, and lots of colour – more like Rhône than Burgundy,” was Innes’s take.

So there may be more typicity in the 2021 wines. But savage spring frosts contributed to another Burgundy shortfall and prices are only heading in one direction. Burgundy fans, it seems, should be braced for more disappointment.

“We’ve seen the Burgundy market change dramatically in the last few years: prices have risen exponentially, and allocations have, for the most part, been drastically reduced, in some cases by over 80%,” says Sebastian Thomas, buyer for Howard Ripley Wines.

“The sought-after growers are pretty immune to price hikes, but there is some price resistance at the less glamorous end. However, diminished quantities mean that little is left unsold. How long that continues – in a vintage like 2021 for instance, which is perceived as difficult – remains to be seen.”

Jason Yapp of Yapp Bros adds: “With increasing demand, smaller harvests and inflation, the outlook isn’t too promising.

“I think people are pretty sanguine about rising costs. The real difficulty is securing stock.

“According to a specialist Burgundy buyer I know, the entry-level price for Burgundy is now £26 a bottle.”

Robert Boutflower of Tanners

At Tanners, private sales director Robert Boutflower believes that “the writing has been on the wall for a decade that Burgundy is mostly poor value”.

So why does it have such enduring appeal? “Because worldwide demand for wine in general, and by extension top-end wine like Burgundy in particular, simply outstrips supply, so the trade has continued to sell it,” he says.

“Top-end Burgundy is all about the growers and their reputations, much more so than most other regions, and new money seems to come in when existing customers drop out. Several historical customers, on finding out prices on the secondary market, have told me their cellar is now ‘too expensive to drink’ – which perpetuates demand, regardless of price.

“So we still sell all our allocation from Rousseau, Roumier, Coche-Dury and Lafon. Dauvissat Chablis is more sought-after than ever, as is Leflaive Puligny at every level. Nearly every bottle of Côte de Nuits on our list currently sells for three figures, yet nothing is older than 2014.

“Somewhere in the UK there is someone wanting to buy an expensive Burgundy from our website at least weekly, and they do.”

For those who conclude that Burgundy isn’t offering value for money, what are the alternatives? Yapp Bros has been “sourcing some great Pinot Noir from other locations, like the Pfalz”.

It’s a part of the world that is also performing well for Howard Ripley.

“Climate change and greatly increased know-how mean that Germany consistently produces excellent reds and whites,” says Sebastian Thomas. “It’s not surprising that our sales of the considerably cheaper German wines have increased: in the last two years we have seen 75% growth in dry whites and reds.

“German Pinot Noirs are filling the price gap left by Burgundy, and demand is particularly strong for them. As a result, we have taken on four new growers this year, and will start with five more next year.”

Charles Lea, director of Lea & Sandeman, believes that “Burgundy still has a lot to offer” – including, in some cases, value for money. Indeed he argues that there are “Bourgogne rouges which regularly trump the latest ‘exciting’ wines from elsewhere”.

The Pfalz is a credible source of top-end Pinot Noir to rival Burgundy

Even so, Lea & Sandeman is quite excited about some of the Pinots it is discovering beyond Burgundy’s borders.

“Yes, Germany is one place to look for value Pinot,” Lea says, “and we import several which have a following: Petri in the Pfalz, Lehnert-Veit on the Mosel, Braunewell in the Rheinhessen.

“Quality is on the up, as you’d expect from the increasingly warm weather in these northern climes. But it is far from the only place, and we have had success with Land of Saints in California and Illahe in Oregon, as well as Rippon, Black Estate and Felton Road in New Zealand.”

Even Patagonia is on Lea’s Pinot radar. The company has achieved “remarkable success” with the Chacra wines of Piero Incisa della Rochetta, “which far outstrips the volumes of all our German Pinot”.

Boutflower at Tanners is hesitant about nominating viable Burgundy substitutes. “We’ve been here before,” he says, “with New Zealand and Oregon, let alone Germany and Romania.

“It’s not helped by Pinot being inclined to change its style in other countries.

“We’ve got a magnificent Slovakian entry. But they are all a bit of a hand-sell, a ‘trust-the- merchant’ purchase, and come with their own baggage. ‘Germany? Is that Liebfrau Pinot Noir, then?’

Burgundy importers will make a proper assessment of the 2021s this autumn. “Some growers seem to be happy with what they achieved,” says Charles Lea.

“It’s always a bit of a mistake to pre-judge the quality level, even if we know that quantitatively the 2021 harvest was poor to disastrous for some. We look forward to our tastings in October and November when we will get a good look at the wines.”

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