The Original Grands Crus of Burgundy. So what? #1

Clos de la Perriere - 2 smToday marks the official launch of my book The Original Grands Crus of Burgundy on Amazon.com. Some readers may wonder if they really need yet another book on Burgundy on their bookshelf.  My posts over the next few days will highlight discussions found in my book which I hope will intrigue you, surprise you, and ultimately add to your drinking pleasure.

Clos de la Perrière

Clos de la Perrière was founded by Cistercian monks in 1142 AD.  It is an imposing site at the crest of a hill in the part of Fixin that borders Brochon.  It is no exaggeration to suggest that historically the wines of this Clos were viewed as nearly the equal of Chambertin and the Clos de Bèze.  The monks exploited the site for just less than 500 years, selling in 1622 to a M. Bouiller from Dijon.  The property changed hands several times until it was purchased in 1853 by the Joliet family, who are still the proprietors today.

Clos de La Perrière is commonly cited as an estate of 5 hectares (ha).  Technically, there are 4 ha, 90 ares (a) and 31 centiares (ca) in the lieu dit of La Perrière and 17 a 42 ca at the very top of the hill in the lieu dit of En Suchot.  Finally, there is also 1 ha 62 a 33 ca in neighboring Brochon that can be sold as Clos de la Perrière following a ruling in 1979, which included that portion of the neighboring vineyard (lieu dit Queue de Hareng, or the Herring’s Tail) which are between La Perrière and the road.  Of this, however, just over 5 ha are planted to vines, including a small percentage of white grapes.

It is certainly the case that the current AC regulations do not give Clos de la Perrière its due. While the property has known its ups and downs, today the wines are better than they have been in many years. Under the direction of Bénigne Joliet quality has been restored to its ancient lustre – the vines are worked according to organic principles (but are not certified), yields have been greatly reduced, and vinification is being carried out with the greatest care. A tasting of the 2010 and 2012 at the domaine this past summer were a revelation: dense, lush plum and cassis fruit with mineral and spice, a suggestion of earth, and above all a depth and density on the palate that were extraordinary.

What was the opinion of the authors of previous generations?  André Jullien, in his 1815 work Topographie de Tous les Vignobles Connus ranked Clos de la Perrière alongside his top category, noting, however, that it was even then not well known :

Independent of the wines of which I have just spoken [i.e. along with Romanée-Conti, Chambertin, Richebourg, Clos Vougeot, Romanée-Saint-Vivant, La Tâche and Les Saint-Georges] there are in several less celebrated districts privileged slopes whose wines approach the quality of those I cite. These [include]…Perrière in Fixin, in the district of Gevrey.]

Dr. Lavalle in his 1855 work Histoire et Statistique de la Vigne et des Grands Vins de la Côte d’Or is even more explicit in his praise:

The wines of the Clos de la Perrière have been classed for many years among the finest of Burgundy. The characteristics that distinguish them are that they are deeply colored, generous, and that they have the virtue of keeping longer than any of the great wines of Gevrey-Chambertin, and a bouquet that typifies the charm of the wines of Burgundy and places them at the head of the entire world.

There are several mysteries surrounding the Clos de la Perrière.  The first is surely how One of the curiosities is that a parcel of this size has never been subdivided – it still exists as one 5 ha parcel under a sole proprietorship. Second mystery: how has it been overlooked for so many years? The final mystery is this: where can we buy some? The Wine-Searcher pro version average price globally across all vintages is a derisory US$66, although American drinkers will have to spend a bit more: the average in the U.S.  is $93, and richly worth every bit of it.

Get the book here to find out more little known facts about Burgundy that can enhance your drinking pleasure: http://www.amazon.com/Mr.-Charles-Curtis-MW/e/B00OZR598M

Secret Burgundy Gems

CortonThe system of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée made its debut in 1936. Today it regulates all aspects of wine production in France and establishes the hierarchy of the vineyards of Burgundy. For two centuries prior to this, however, a number of authors ranging from learned amateurs to experienced professionals weighed in with their thoughts.  In my forthcoming book The Original Grands Crus of Burgundy I translate some of their works and look at how they relate to today’s appellation contrôlée system.

There are definite surprises that emerge.  Even a cursory glance shows that the order has changed considerably over time.  A savvy (and budget-conscious) wine lover can use this information to unearth wines that sell for a fraction of what other comparable wines.  Here are some of the most surprising conclusions:

  1. In former times, the Clos de Vougeot was considered to be at the very summit of Burgundy quality.  Today’s wine lovers do not rank it as highly, and even though it’s a grand cru, the wines are much less expensive than other top grand crus.  To see what the fuss was about, try the 2009 Clos de Vougeot “Musigni” from Gros Frère et Soeur.  (Wine-Searcher average price $114)
  2. The “Les Saint-Georges” vineyard in Nuits Saint-Georges was considered a “tête de cuvée” by all commentators.  It was not promoted to “grand cru” in 1936 because some growers didn’t want to pay the higher taxes that go along with grand cru status.  The 2007 Nuits Saint Georges “Les Saint-Georges” from Robert Chevillon is a highly accessible (and affordable) wine – average price: $119
  3. The Clos de la Perrière was planted by Cistercian monks more than 1,000 years ago.  Today, it languishes, nearly forgotton, as a Fixin premier cru.  Pick up the 2009 to see what we’ve been missing (average price: $54)
  4. The best vinyards in the town of Beaune today produce only premier cru wines; formerly both Les Fèves and Les Grèves were considered têtes de cuvées.  You can find the flagship Bouchard Beaune Grèves “Vigne de l’Enfant Jesus” for less than $100 in some vintages.
  5. Volnay was once full of têtes de cuvées!  Today there are no grands crus at all in this village.  The vineyards called Caillerets and Champans were considered among the very best.  Try the 2008 Volnay Champans from the Marquis d’Angerville for a beautiful introduction to the style.
  6. Further south in Santenay, the Clos de Tavannes was once renowned.  The version from the Domaine de la Pousse d’Or is a fantastic value: the average price for the 2010 is only $49
  7. Savigny-les-Beaune not only had a tête de cuvée – Les Vergelesses – but one section of it was considered particularly exquisite.  Today Savigny Les Vergelesses “Bataillère” is a monopole of Domaine Albert Morot, and you can get the 2010 for an average price of just $44
  8. It would be a mistake to forget about the whites.  Meursault has no grands crus today, although many would consider Meursault Perrières worthy of the honor.  Some are quite expensive, but the 2008 Meursault Perrières from Château de Puligny-Montrachet, run by star winemaker Etienne de Montille, is a comparative steal: the 2008 averages just $80.

More than a dusty history lesson, The Original Grands Crus of Burgundy provides a roadmap for the discovery of forgotten gems, hidden in plain sight. Crucial reading for all who love Burgundy.

2013 Wine auction recap

2Now that the dust has settled on 2013, we see once all of the figures now tallied that 2013 was something of a disappointment for the major wine auction houses, with fewer sales and lower totals.  In 2013 there were 87 live auctions held by the major houses (not counting internet sales) that generated just shy of $300 million, while last year 102 live sales generated $345 million in sales, for a decline of 13.1% year on year.

Sales declined in all major markets from Europe to Asia and in North America.  London sales dropped from US$ 42.7 million to $40.1 million.  Sales also slumped in Amsterdam and Paris, although they rose in Geneva, and the sales total for the Hospices de Beaune sale in Burgundy was higher this year in spite of having less wine to sell.  Sales in the U.S. were down from US$ 127.9 million last year to US$ 118 million this year, in spite of much stronger performance by HDH in Chicago.  This is due to a drop from US$ 88.5 million to US$ 70 million in New York, the principal North American market.  The sharpest declines were seen, however, in the Hong Kong market, which went from a total of US$ 154 million to just over US$ 118 million in 2013.

1Calculations of market share are always complicated, since auction houses who have internet auctions normally include them, while Bonham’s and Sotheby’s do not.  Christie’s practice of including the results from the sale of the Hospices de Beaune are also controversial in some quarters, since technically the sale for the Hospices is a charitable sale.  Normally charitable sales are not included in the tally, since the results are assumed to be inflated because of the charitable associations.  In this particular instance, the sale is included since it has always been considered in the trade a bellwether for prices rather than a purely charitable sale, and because Christie’s receives a buyer’s commission in this sale as it would in any other sale.  Bearing in mind these caveats, Christie’s managed to maintain its lead in the world auction market, with a provisional total of US$ 71.6 million, giving them a 23.9% market share (down from 24.9% last year).  Sotheby’s was in second place, with a total of US$ 57.8 million and a 19.3% market share, closely followed by Acker, Merrall, with US$ 55.9 million (18.6% of the market), and Zachy’s with US$ 52.9 million (17.7%), while Hart Davis Hart (HDH), selling only in Chicago, managed US$ 36.1 million (12% of the global market).  HDH must be pleased with their result, as they were the only one of the top five houses to grow their market share, up from 7.6% of the global market last year.

What may not please the auction houses, however, should bring satisfaction to wine collectors.  Lower totals generally mean lower prices, and this was true in 2013, particularly for Bordeaux wines.  Top recent vintages of Bordeaux are selling on average for the same price that they were five to six years ago, and it is possible to stock a cellar with beautiful wines from outstanding years for a very reasonable price.  Even buyers who neglected to buy the absolutely stellar 2009 vintage have been granted a reprieve, as they can now purchase these wines at or in some cases below the en primeur price.  2009 is a monumental vintage, on a par in terms of quality, with the very best: 1982, 1961, 1945, 1928.  Buyers who do not take advantage of this situation may rue the fact in years to come.  While prices have been slowly coming back from the correction that they took in 2011 and 2012, they are still approximately 20% off the global peak of 2010.

Buying Burgundy well has proven a bit more problematic recently.  The wines in general are selling at historic highs, and with more collectors showing more and more interest in Burgundy, this trend can only continue.  As new collectors discover the less well-known producers, those prices will rise as well, to the chagrin of those who have enjoyed them for many years.  The other side of this phenomenon, however, is that buyers are no longer concentrating solely on “trophy” wines, and in fact some of these have begun to come down, such as Romanée-Conti 1990 or Henri Jayer 1985 Richebourg, whose prices rose to incredible, unheard-of heights before returning to merely insane levels.  For collectors with modest means, however, it will be necessary to search very diligently in order to find top Burgundy wine at reasonable prices.

Collectors have also begun to show interest in other categories.  Champagne, Italian wines from Tuscany and Piemonte and even the top wines of California have recently begun to be very popular.  Only too soon their prices will be certain to rise.  This being said, there are still categories of wine producing stunning quality and great value where mature vintages can be had very inexpensively: Sauternes, Port and German Riesling chief among them.  In short, all is not lost.  2014 will be a great time to buy wine, with modest prices and a lively market, the true wine lover will certainly prosper.

Essential White Bordeaux

49 Rieussec.medNow it is time to finish with the whites—perfectly appropriate, since Bordeaux produces in Sauternes and Barsac arguably the world’s greatest sweet whites.  White wine in Bordeaux, though, is much more than the stickies.  There are dry wines, too, and quite a range: everything from light, fresh quaffable wines to those that are worthy of cellaring for half a century.  There is a wide price range here as well, with wines ranging from $26 to $916, and the majority are extremely good value.  We met a number of whites on our list of the 25 best values in Bordeaux (with the least expensive coming in well under $20), but here on the list of the greatest white wines, there are only seven out of twenty five on the list that break into three digits, and only three that are seriously expensive.  Those three?  Definitely worthy.  Here is the list:  Continue reading

Essential Bordeaux, Part II

bx.La Miss.29.3.smThe second stage of defining “Essential Bordeaux” is a fascinating exercise: take the top ten properties off the table and choose the best of the rest.  There are surprises indeed, and no little controversy.  Many people labour under the misconception that the Bordeaux hierarchy is carved in stone, but nothing could be further from the truth.  While it is true that the classification done in 1855 is still used, there is enough flexibility to make Bordeaux-watching interesting sport.  Continue reading

Essential Bordeaux

28 Margaux.smI make no bones about it: I love Bordeaux wine.  Some of the greatest wines that I have ever had in my life have been Bordeaux wines – and some of the best values have been as well.  I really believe that collectively Bordeaux is at the top of their game, and making better wines now than they ever have before.  Some wine drinkers feel that Bordeaux has gone out of style—au contraire!—the wines are set to become (once again) all the rage.  Quickly, before everyone else jumps on the bandwagon, I thought I’d offer up my list of Essential Bordeaux: Continue reading

Dr. Lavalle: Puligny

Puligny.smMore of my ongoing work translating Dr. Lavalle’s book on the Great Wines of the d’Or: -

COMMUNE DE PULIGNY

The largest portion of the vineyards of this village is consecrated to the culture of Gamay.  Nevertheless, in the middle and upper portions of the magnificent slope where the village of Blagny is situation, one harvests white wines of an exceptional quality and red wines that are the equal of the best of the Côte de Beaune.  The method of grape growing is the same as in Meursault and Chassagne; the vines are still Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc for the climats that give fine wine.  The number of hectares planted in Pinot is still more than 180 ha.

The principal climats are: Continue reading

Dr. Lavalle: Meursault

Meursault.smMore of my ongoing work translating Dr. Lavalle’s book on the Great Wines of the d’Or:

COMMUNE DE MEURSAULT

The vineyard of Meursault is one of the largest and most interesting of the Côte d’Or.  Until now we have hardly noted, in all of the villages that have passed in review, several rare climats consecrated to Pinot Blanc.  In many of them we have found no trace of it.  In Meursault, to the contrary, more than 320 ha are consecrated to the growth of fine vines, and among these, more than half are devoted to the careful cultivation of Pinot Blanc.  We must also divide the good vineyard into two parts, one is planted in Pinot Noir, the other in Chardonnay or Pinot Blanc.  In the vines destined to the production of red wine, growers are careful to destroy the white vines.  In those that must give white wine, the Pinot Gris is destroyed, above all in the good climats.  It is also possible to say that in the renowned climats there is no more than one vine in fifty that is not Pinot Blanc or Noir.

The climat of Perrières, the first for white wine, produces hardly more than 14 or 15 hl/ha in an average year; the climats inferiors, from 20 to 30 hl/ha; Santenots-du-Milieu yields hardly more than 15 – 16 hl/ha, and the other good red vineyards from 17 – 20 hl/ha.  Vine growing methods are the same as in the preceding villages.

The climats should be classified in the following order: Continue reading

Dr. Lavalle: Monthelie

Monthelie.smMore of my ongoing work translating Dr. Lavalle’s book on the Great Wines of the d’Or:

 COMMUNE DE MONTHELIE

In spite of the small size of the territory cultivated in vines, Monthelie merits to be counted among the commune s of the Côte d’Or that produce our good wines.  Situated above Volnay and bordering the town of Meursault, the vineyard can be considered superior to 85 ha for the part consecrated to fine vines, gives wines that have body and good color but lack a bit of bouquet.  The grape growing practices are the same as in Volnay and the vine is identical. Continue reading

Best $10 Bordeaux in the world?

Grand Village 2006.smRegular readers of my blog will realize that spend a lot of time writing about the market for fine and rare wine: it is, after all, the topic of my monthly column in La Revue du Vin de France / China.  Despite my love of rare wines, however, I have a confession to make: not every bottle I drink belongs to those starry heights.  Not even most of them.  Like most mortals, I need to find wine for dinner, too.  And like most of the self-employed, I have a keen sense of my budget.  When I forget the budget, my business manager, in the person of my lovely wife, hastens to bring it to my attention.  And thus, dear reader, my focus on a bargain.

Bordeaux might not be the first region that comes to mind when wine bargains are discussed, but believe me: it should.  Bordeaux is much more than the first growths.  The crus classés account for less than 5% of the region’s total production, and the appellations “Bordeaux” and “Bordeaux Supérieur” account for 55% of all production.  This should be the first stop for consumers looking for value in everyday wine.  The day-to-day wines that Bordeaux produces are better than good value – they’re good wines, period.  Nearly every wine shop will have some “petits châteaux”, and sometimes they transcend the good to offer something superb. Continue reading