Burgundy, Home of Bargains?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robinson lives in London and is editor of "The Oxford Companion to Wine." Her latest book is the autobiographical "Tasting Pleasure."

In 22 years of writing about wine, I never thought I would find myself arguing that Burgundy was good value. But today, all Burgundies but a tiny proportion of grand cru wines look like bargains beside the top Bordeaux, at their current silly prices.

It's true that 1996 and 1995 are particularly wonderful vintages, but they represent a trend. Time and again, I taste really exciting, well-made (yes, well-made!) lesser Burgundies--juicy crimson Santenays, for example, or taut, dense whites carrying a lowly appellation such as St. Aubin, St. Romain or even garden-variety Bourgogne Blanc--and I find they also carry a modest price tag. Even if the prices are not exactly bargain basement, these wines are certainly a fine value next to comparable American and South Hemisphere Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. And the best village or premier cru Burgundies can be, quite simply, stunning--of another order of subtlety than their counterparts outside Burgundy.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is how few great Burgundian-type wines there are outside Burgundy. The best Pinots and Chardonnays of California, Australia, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa and Spain are produced in such small amounts that they are inevitably expensive, and they drag up the prices of the not-quite-so-great examples with them.

In Burgundy, on the other hand, there is no shortage of these two grapes, and the skills of the hundreds of people in charge of growing them and turning them into wine have soared during the past few years. This is partly because of the competition from outside Burgundy: The region could no longer sell its wines on famous but often disappointing names alone.

But only partly. The great revolution has come from a new generation of Burgundians who have traveled and tasted wines other than their own, who communicate with each other and have a real appreciation of the hand that nature has dealt them. If, by accident of birth, you have one of the world's most promising vineyards to play with, and you're surrounded by like-minded vignerons, you might just decide to make the best wine you possibly can.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this upward spiral in quality, particularly for those who live far from the region and are more likely to get wines from the larger firms than from the smaller domaines, is that it has also spread to the merchants, or negociants. The wines of Louis Jadot, Joseph Drouhin, Faiveley and Louis Latour have stood ahead of the crowd for some time, but new life is also being breathed into Bouchard Pere et Fils (by Joseph Henriot of Veuve Clicquot fame), Chanson, Mommessin, Laboure-Roi and La Reine Pedauque. Some of those names I would have avoided at all costs 15 years ago--some of them even as recently as five.

They have been joined by a new breed of negociants, driven by quality and authenticity right from the start. Chartron et Trebuchet and Olivier Leflaive led the way, to be followed by the high-fliers Verget and Dominique Laurent (for hand-crafted whites and reds, respectively) and the very new Francois d'Allaines (motto: "neither sober nor sad.") More and more, producers such as the famous Etienne Sauzet are also buying grapes and attempting (sometimes managing) to make with them wines as good as those from their own vineyards.

Not that everything is rosy. The quality jump has been much more marked in red wines than white. Far too much white Burgundy is as massive and alcoholic as it ever was and yet, eerily, squeaky clean at the same time, thanks to all that imported technology. Not a happy combination.

And the region is still devilishly difficult to understand. It's a bit like the worst aspects of the British class system: Once you think you have something figured out, along comes an entirely unpredictable yet terribly important exception.

I do wonder how many Burgundians, let alone how many non-Burgundians, can unerringly identify exactly which vineyard a wine comes from on taste alone. And, to raise a philosophical point, if distinctions cannot be discerned, are they worth making? At least Burgundy is not quite as willfully complicated as Germany.

I admit that, being based in London, I benefit financially from the strength of the pound relative to the French franc. But the pound is strong relative to the currencies of most New World wine producers too. The reality is that cellar-door prices in Burgundy have increased only quite modestly as quality has gone soaring.

"We've kept our heads cool" is how one fine grower put it to me, with some pride. Apart from grands crus, Burgundy is bought by enthusiasts, rather than by speculators, which has prevented the sort of overheating we have seen in Bordeaux.

Long may this delightful situation last, and continue to act as an inspiration for all those equally passionate and ambitious producers of great Chardonnay and finicky Pinot Noir elsewhere.

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