John Szabo, MS
In this article: Burgundy Report: vintages 2007-2008-2009; what, for the love of Burgundy, is the difference between a cru, a lieu-dit and a climat? Measuring the label font sizes on a bottle of Burgundy; 90+ point Burgundies from The LCBO and a smattering of recommended private consignment wines; April 2nd’s Top Ten Smart Buys and a trio of Solid South Africans.
The Burgundians are smiling. While the news is not universally positive, the sales of Burgundy wines are finally looking up after the previous gloomy year of double-digit declines in all of the major markets. The health of the Burgundian wine industry is as dependent on exports as it is on sunshine: 1 out of every 2 bottles is exported to one of 150 countries. Of course, global economic recession and unfavorable currency exchanges contributed to the decline in sales; Burgundy is most definitely positioned in the upper tier segment of wine prices, and particularly sensitive as such to dips in purchasing power. Canada has done its part in the recovery, with 2010 growing by nearly 30% by value over 2009.
Yet the statistics are somewhat misleading. In reality, at the top end, there was no decline. The best wines of Burgundy are as recession proof as a hand-made Bugatti sport car: the quantity produced is so tiny that there’ll always be a buyer around. Fluctuations in sales affect the only the bottom tier, mainly the regional appellations and the most branded of all of Burgundy’s regions, basic Chablis. All of the big name domaines, with wines from the most famous villages and vineyards, operate on an allocation basis, invariably unable to supply the quantities required by all of their importers/distributers. And demand looks set to continue to rise. As Yang Lu, sommelier at the Peninsula Hotel in Shanghai, recently pointed out in a press release from the Burgundy Wine Board: “In China, the rarer something is, the more we want it. Watch out for the moment that the people currently buying Château Lafite discover that the production of Romanée-Conti is much smaller…. Even if half of them want to start drinking it the market will go crazy”. Frightening thought.
Ultra rare cult wines aside, there’s really never been a better time to get into Burgundy. According to François Labet, owner of the Château de la Tour at the Clos-Vougeot, the average quality in Burgundy has never been higher, and I’d agree. This past week a tasting of Burgundy in Toronto featuring 35 producers and their wines from the last three vintages (2007-2008-2009) was astonishingly consistent. Out of several dozen wines tasted there were no truly poor wines, only good, very good and excellent ones in many cases.
Track down a bottle of any of the following (all represented in Ontario, though either in consignment or private order, pricing unconfirmed) to see what I mean:
2009 Chablis 1er Cru Les Vaillons Domaine Christian Moreau Père & Fils (Rouge et Blanc)
2009 Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos, Domaines des Malandes (Tastevin Selections)
2006 Chalis Grand Cru Preuses, Domaine Marcel Servin (Groupe Soleil)
2006 Nuits-Saint-George 1er Cru Les Cailles, Maison Gilles (United Stars, )
2007 Pommard 1er Cru Les Chaponnières, Domaine Parent (Tastevin Selections)
2008 Mercurey 1er Cru Clos Tonnerre, Domaine Michel Juillot (The Case for Wine)
2007 Auxey-Duresses 1er Cru Clos du Val, Domaine Michel Prunier et Fils (Le Sommelier)
Why are things looking up for Burgundy? Several reasons. “Burgundians have always been the best farmers in the world”, says Labet, “but they haven’t always been the best winemakers”. The vineyards of the Côte d’Or have been meticulously farmed for over a thousand years, but much excellent fruit was miss-used in the winery. That’s changing. Despite high demand and a small surface area, Burgundians have had to tidy up their winemaking practices to compete nationally and internationally, or give up winemaking and just sell their grapes to the growing number of micro negociants, often talented, young winemakers looking to break in to Burgundy but who simply can’t afford the nearly impossible prices for vineyard land.
Better wine making was evident across the board at the tasting, especially from the challenging 2007 and 2008 vintages. In the past, tough years would result in poor wines that still demanded high prices, creating the general impression that Burgundy is a minefield of sometimes brilliant, sometimes terrible, but always-expensive wines. Consistency was the bane of the consumer, and knowing the producer, not just the reputation of the appellation, village or vineyard, was the only way to guarantee a good bottle. But given the hopelessly fractured landscape with some 100 different appellations in the tiny Côte d’Or alone (the famous 60km strip of east-south-east facing slopes from Dijon to Chagny further divided into the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune), 35 communes, 1,394 named vineyards, and thousands of bottling domaines, negociants and co-ops, many of which share the same or very similar family names, this is more than a daunting task.
Today, the wines are incomparably more consistent, and expensive disappointments fewer and further between. Witness the charming, forward 2007s, as evinced by my top wine from the upcoming April 2nd Vintages release, the superb 2007 DOMAINE TAUPENOT-MERME BEL AIR GEVREY-CHAMBERTIN 1ER CRU AC $83.95.
The 2008s, on the other hand, are more firm, more angular or “classic” and ageworthy. Both vintages required not only conscientious farming, but also some masterful handling in the winery. I found the 1998s in particular to be generally excellent: less fleshy, leaner, but very accurate reflections of their typical village or vineyard style, and highly age-worthy in the best appellations. In fact, my number one smart buy this week is the 2008 DOMAINE GILLE CÔTES DE NUITS-VILLAGES AC, Prop.-Récolt. $24.95, which has classic Côte de Nuits character and drinks like a village or even decent premier cru red for a fraction of the price.
Then there are the 2009s, which have been hyped up in the press. Lots of sunshine and high temperatures yielded very ripe fruit and it shows in the wines. The reds have super ripe, almost candied red fruit flavour while the whites verge on tropical fruit. Acidity is low and tannins are very soft, meaning that these wines are showing really even now – a perfect vintage with which to get to know Burgundy. It was also a generous year so quantities should be in decent supply at least. Try the 2009 DOMAINE ROUX PÈRE & FILS LES CHAUMES CHASSAGNE-MONTRACHET 1ER CRU AC $38.95 for an example of the ripe, almost new world style of the 2009s.
Cru-Lieu-Dit-Climat: Reading the labels
But even if more consistent, the region is still complex, and that’s a good part of the allure of Burgundy for wine lovers. Don’t expect to understand it all. Ever. Au contraire, revel in the mystery and the deliciously puzzling classification of plots of land, so scrupulously delineated over the past thousand years. English author Stephen Gwynn summed it up nicely back in 1934: “Burgundy is not the designation of a wine produced and standardized in immense quantities. It is the general description of a great number of closely related wines, having kindred excellence conforming broadly to one type, but varying infinitely by fine shades, which is the pleasure of connoisseurs to distinguish.”
One of the key concepts to understanding the region is that of the cru, or lieu-dit, or climat, or whatever they call it. Just when I thought I had understood the concept, a little research pulled me deeper into this mystery of Burgundian proportions. But I find it fascinating, with more than a trace of Aristotelian division and sub-division. So here’s how it works, I think:
The appellations of Burgundy function like a set of nesting Russian matryoshka dolls. The largest, outer doll represents the regional appellations: basic Bourgogne Rouge and Blanc, Crémant de Bourgogne, Bourgogne Passe Tout Grains. The fruit for these wines can come from anywhere within the viticultural region of Burgundy; it is all-encompassing. The next doll/set of appellations covers a slightly smaller area: the sub-regional appellations such as Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits, Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune, Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise, etc., essentially any appellation containing the word “Bourgogne”. The fruit for these can be sourced in relatively broad areas, but not from not from the entire region. The next doll as we crack our way down to the smallest represents appellations such as, Mâcon or Mâcon-villages, Côte de Nuits-Villages, Côte de Beaune-villages. These again are slightly smaller, more specific regions, clearly demarcated. Next step down would be specific village or communal appellations, for vineyards located within the communal boundaries. There are many, but some of the more famous village appellations are Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, Meursault, Puligy-Montrachet and Pouilly-Fuissé, for example.
Yet another layer down, it starts to get really exciting. You see, since the Burgundians have had a couple thousand years to get to know their terroir really well, they have given individual parcels of land within each village’s borders their own specific names. These are called lieu-dit, or literally “place called”. The names, established from regular usage since the middle ages or even Gallo-Roman times, derive most often from some historic connection or physical feature. The origins of some names are simply mysterious, while others more obvious, such as the type of vegetation found in the parcel: Les Charmes, Les Genevrières; the soil type: Les Perrières, Les Grèves, Les Cras, Les Caillerets; the location of the parcel: la Pièce-sous-le-Bois (“the parcel under the woods”), Derrière le Four (“Behind the [ancient coal] oven”), La Romanée (next to an ancient Roman road); former proprietors: le Chambertin (le champ de Bertin, or, “Bertin’s Field”), Le Clos du Roi (‘the King’s Clos”), etc. One can only imagine how the lieu-dit Les Amoureuses (“the Lovers”) in the village of Chambolle-Musigny got its name.
If a wine is grown exclusively in one of the lieux-dits, then it is entitled to put the name of the parcel on the label, along with the name of the village in which it’s located. But hold on: it’s not that simple. Just because the parcel is named doesn’t mean that it’s equal to all others. Burgundy is all about hierarchies of potential quality. Over the centuries, certain lieux-dits developed a better reputation for their wines than others. Early on, these superior parcels were refered to as hauts lieux, that is, higher [better] parcels. Later on, under the official AOC regulations introduced in France in 1935, these superior vineyard parcels became enshrined as premier cru vineyards, and in just 33 out of 1394 cases, grand cru-classified, for the really special parcels that have proven their worth over centuries.
The term cru derives from the past participle of the French verb crôitre, to grow, and is usually translated into “growth” as in “1st growth” or ‘great growth”, or is just left in the original French. But in inner Burgundian circles, amongst the connoisseurs, you’ll more often hear the ancient term “climat” used instead of cru to refer to the top vineyards. ‘Climate’ refers to the unique conditions of a micro piece of land – soil, aspect, drainage, orientation, elevation, etc. Simple enough, right? Well in the 1986 Nouvel Atlas des Grand Vins de Bourgogne by Pitiot and Poupon (revised in 1999), the definition of climat and it’s variations in meaning stretch on for over 3 pages. It seems lieu-dit and climat were once used interchangeably, and then later on, for unknown reasons, the meanings diverged. I’ll spare you the historical details of this philosophical meandering, and skip to the definition that Pitiot and Poupon propose, and that one that is most widely accepted today (my translation): “The term climat is applied above all to those territories classified in the AOCs premiers crus and grands crus… One must then know that the notion of climat can be either restrictive or encompassing with respect to that of the lieu-dit”.
And here’s where it gets more fun. As it turns out, a climat can be just a small part of a larger lieu-dit, for example: Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru “Porrets Saint Georges”, where Porret Saint Georges is just a small portion of the lieu-dit “Les Poirets”. In other cases, a climat can contain certain parts of several lieux-dits, i.e. Pommard Premier Cru “Clos des Epeneaux”, where the Clos des Epeneaux is actually composed of part of the lieu-dit “Les Grands Epenots” and part of “Les Petits Epenots” (note the different spelling of Epenots vs. Epeneaux). It follows logically, of course, that a climat could contain within it’s boundaries the entirety of one or more lieux-dits, as in Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru “Les Pucelles”, which encompasses the whole of the lieux-dits “Les Pucelles” and “Clos des Meix”, or that it could include the entirety of some lieux-dits and only parts of others, as in the “Clos des Lambrays Gran Cru”, where the Clos des Lambrays lieu-dit incorporates the lieu-dit “Les Larrets ou Clos des Lambrays” in its entirety, the lieu-dit “Les Bouchots” in totality and just a part of the lieu-dit “Meix Rentier”. I shouldn’t neglect to mention that a climat can actually be referred to under the nickname of an existing lieu-dit, as in Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru “Lavaux Saint-Jacques”, even if one might not naturally realizes that Lavaux Saint-Jacques is the nickname for the lieu-dit “Lavaut”!
Isn’t it marvelous! Such fantastic complexity! Only in Burgundy, say the Burgundians. I suppose if you lived in very close proximity to your neighbors for a thousand years and cared so deeply for the land that every piece of it was given a unique name for identification, your neighborhood might have a complex web of intermixed whimsical names as well.
The Appellation authorities have fortunately devised a system to make the differences between the good, very good and the best named-sites readily apparent on the label. First of all, any vineyards classified as premier or grand cru will state as much on the label, as in: Vosne-Romanée (the name of the village) “Les Beaux Monts” (name of climat) Premier Cru (classification of the climat); or Chambertin Grand Cru (Climat, classification). Further more, if the wine comes from a lieu-dit within a village that is not rated premier or grand cru, the name of the parcel can still appear on the label but only in a font size half of that of the village font size, as in MEURSAULT CLOS DU MAZERAY (Meursault is the village and Clos du mazeray is the name of the unclassified lieu-dit; but: PULIGNY-MONTRACHET LES COMBETTES, where the name of the village and the name of the premier cru-classified climat appear in the same font size.
So that should straighten things out I hope….The real point is that the notion of lieux-dits and crus and climats all intend to evoque the spirit of the winegrowers who have worked this land for so long, and have come to know and understand the most minute variations in soil, slope, altitude, orientation and surroundings that consistently give wines of a certain character. Once you’ve grasped that, then you are on your way to understanding burgundy. The rest is just the enjoyable homework of reading, traveling and tasting. Or to make life even easier, check out these 90+ point Burgundies, each guaranteed to fairly represent their village and vineyard.
From the April 2nd, Vintages release:
Top Ten Smart Buys
90+ point Burgundies
Solid South Africans
John Szabo, Master Sommelier
Filed under: Featured Articles, Wine, Burgundy, John Szabo, South Africa, Vintages, Vintages Preview