Ahead of our Value Villages of Burgundy tasting on the 23rd of January, Honest Grapes Chairman and life-long Burgundy enthusiast & collector Nathan Hill reveals his insights for how to find value in Burgundy.
Improved Technology and Winemaking in Burgundy
Whilst prices have undoubtedly increased substantially over many years, it’s also true to say that quality and reliability of production in Burgundy has seen an extraordinary transformation. Back in my early days of collecting, corked, flattish and tired wines were to be expected as a significant proportion of bottles in any case, purchased. Tom and I had the opportunity to test 60 bottles of a Premier Cru Savigny-lès-Beaune 2009 back in 2015. Of these, 2 were corked and 12 lacked fruit vibrancy, leaving only 46 perfect specimens. Whole vintages suffered from winemakers inability to cope with heat spikes in vintages such as 2003, the ‘ladybird issue’ of red 2004s and the often discussed scourge of premox would often be enough to put me off buying whites of any age and from particular producers. We nowadays rarely see a truly badly made wine or one that won’t survive a few years in bottle. The last 15 years have seen no write-off vintages, and instead each year expresses the multifaceted pleasures to be had from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in this most complex and exciting of regions. We have the luxury of being able to enjoy vintage variation without as much quality variation.
Chase Quality Not Classification
My first buying strategy is effectively to trade down. Where one formerly needed to purchase a Grand Cru, the depth and complexity of these is nowadays offered by moderate to mid-level Premier Crus. There are some frankly superb Lieux Dits, these being named vineyards formally at the village level, but which offer exciting terroir specificity at a price well below their Premier Cru colleagues. In the current 2022 vintage this is even more apparent as, whilst the harvest is only some fraction above the 10-year average, this has led to more price acceleration at the restricted top end of the market and near to level pricing for village and Lieux Dits, thus making them more accessible.
De Montille has some excellent parcels, including Caillerets near Montrachet
Of course if you are obsessed by the need to pick up wine with a specific climat and grower Label, you should ignore this advice and realise that you are paying for that luxury and brand. If, however, like me, you are simply after great value and quality, this is an easy first step in containing your budget. The ultimate trade down, one of my great pleasures each year in Burgundy is to find the perfect red and white regional wine (Bourgogne Blanc / Rouge) made by one of my favourite producers. These are often from younger vines, so-called declassified grapes, and some benefit from the recent designation of Bourgogne Côte d’Or.
Value Vineyards and Favoured Sites
My second and related strategy is to consider value vineyards and favoured sites. These tend to fit into two categories, namely vineyards which sit strategically adjacent to much more famous, higher priced climats, and secondly specific blocks of vines within vineyards, which benefit from the same terroir and growing conditions offered by better-known winemakers. Great examples in the first category would be the Jane Eyre Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru Corbeaux (next to Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru) and the Cailleret Premier Cru vineyard in Puligny-Montrachet (which abuts Le Montrachet and Chevalier Montrachet). But it doesn’t even have to be as illustrious vineyard as, for example, Nuits-Saint-Georges ‘Au Bas de Combe’ sits adjacent to both Vosne-Romanée ‘Les Chaumes’ and ‘Aux Malconsorts’. An example of vine proximity would be also with Jane Eyre, whose Charmes-Chambertin barrel specially produced as a crowdfunded project for club members in 2020 was sourced from a block of vines immediately adjacent to those of Thibault Liger-Belair. Many of Domaine Clos de la Chapelle’s holdings are adjacent blocks to those of Domaine de Montille and Dujac. The fruit from Eric Boigelot’s vines in Meursault is so good that much is purchased by Coche-Dury.
Value Villages in the Côte d’Or
Now let’s consider value villages within Burgundy as a whole. Some of this is driven by land prices, but just as important are the effects of climate change and winemaking styles within individual villages. This means that some of the truisms with which I grew up in my Burgundy collecting career, no longer hold.
Domaine Clos de la Chapelle is an exciting new discovery for us
Starting with villages within the Côte d’Or, we have for the new vintage introduced some stunning wines from Benoit Girardin, a new winemaker in Santenay who is storming the sommeliers of France and landing on desirable restaurant tables. This Domaine results from generational change in the Girardin family. We found the wines to be precise, charming, specifically built for early to mid-term food-friendly consumption, and with a strong sense of environmental sustainability. This all follows our thesis of “old vines, young wine makers“. Wines from Santenay were often disregarded, sold locally or simply as regional Burgundies. They now deserve recognition and are available as a fraction of the price of wines from the neighbouring Montrachets.
I was never much of a fan of the red Grand Cru Corton in the past. The somewhat brackish, black fruit and stewed spice profile never appealed to me. But since about 2017, there’s been a revolution in this area. In tastings I recognise more elegance, more red fruit, still a different kind of spiciness, but one that I now find appealing. After years of abstinence, I have a few cases in my allocation each year.
I’ve long been a fan of the villages in the side valley scattered to the sides of the main road as one heads south of Beaune. Perhaps driven by land, prices or winemaking styles, the wines of Monthelie, Auxey-Duresses, Saint-Romain and Saint-Aubin offer me much pleasure, generally at prices below those of their more illustrious neighbours.
Beaune's value villages include:
Perhaps no longer such great value opportunities, it’s still worth mentioning that the Premier Cru lines of Beaune, Savigny-lès-Beaune and neighbouring villages have accelerated in quality over the past ten years while still being lower in price than their posher neighbours. It’s important to take advice in these areas though, particularly as the Beaune designation is quite big and has numerous distinct terroirs.
Delaunay, Pierre Meurgey & Jane Eyre all make some lovely villages wines that overperform on their price point
In the north of the Côte d’Or, the areas between the villages, while still offering value, seem to be gradually catching up with the famous names, such as Nuits-Saint-Georges and Gevrey-Chambertin. Villages such as Marsannay and Fixin have been on our radar for numerous years, but others are following in their wake.
Nuits' value villages include:
- Aloxe Corton
- Haut Cotes de Nuits
The Other Burgundy
Moving outside of the Cote d'Or, the main areas to discuss are Chablis, Chalon and Macon. Of these, Chablis is perhaps the most controversial, as those aspects which make Chablis more accessible in taste to people like me are exactly those that put off the traditionalists and much of this appears to be the result of climate change. The wines are recently plumper and fruitier with less of that steely apple nature. Thankfully texture is retained and good producers coax wonderful wines from their vineyards. Whilst prices have increased significantly in Chablis, in relative terms, there are plenty of good wines to be had at prices well below those to be found on the Côte d’Or.
Villages such as Rully and Mercurey in the Cote Chalonaise gather more votes from me in providing quality and value. The acceleration in technical standards of winemaking, older vines with more concentrated fruit, and a focus on a style of pretty and perfumed wines with less brassy new oak make wines from these two villages essentials for me, in particular as early to mid-term drinkers. I find producers such as Paul Jacqueson and Francois Raquillet to be great examples in these two villages.
The Raquillet family have been making cracking wine in Mercurey for generations.
There’s a revolution underway in Macon. The new Premier Cru classifications allowed in Pouilly-Fuissé are driving a new era of competition for quality. I expect this eventually to lead to increased prices in the area, so now is certainly a good time to be looking at producers such as Nadine Ferrand, Pierre Meurgey’s Meurgey-Croses venture and Chateau-Fuissé.
A central theme for our wine club is Tom’s knack for spotting up-and-coming wine makers. As growers become better known, international demand for their wines accelerate. They succumb to the natural temptation to allocate their wines across ever more countries and merchants so for wine clubs like ours, allocations decrease and prices increase.
Fortunately, there’s a new generation of superstars coming along and it’s our job to recognise those as well as to secure favourable allocations from the people we’ve spotted early. I’d particularly highlight our long-term partnerships with producers such as Domaine de Montille, Jane Eyre and Maison Edouard Delaunay, all of whom produce superlative wines, and for which we still maintain excellent allocations.
In terms of our rising stars, it would be wise to take a very good look at the wines from Domaine Clos de la Chapelle, Benoit Girardin, Frederic Magnien and Jean Tardy. The first two are new introductions for us in 2022, both offering thrilling wines at prices below, those demanded by their more famous compatriots. The latter two I’d say, are hidden gems, with very strong and consistent wine making philosophies, but somewhat below the radar of the international critics.
Value Grapes, Value Vintages and the Great World Beyond
If none of that is sufficient to convince you to root out some great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the 2022 vintage, there remain three final strategies:
Alternative grapes should no more be overlooked. The rise of single vineyard Aligoté Has led to some very impressive wines and we offer several including a special production from Edouard Delaunay and a value offering from Maison Albert Bichot. Village Beaujolais Crus have shaken off the curse of Beaujolais Nouveau to become great creations, often nurtured by our favoured producers such as Philippe Pacalet and Jane Eyre.
I won’t dwell too much here on value vintages, but if you follow the philosophy that there is more value to be had in back vintages, we have good access to these both direct from producers and from club members. I’d particularly highlight 2007, 2011, 2017 and 2021 (the latter two for reds) as being vintages which made exciting and collectable wines. Prices for these vintages are more moderate as they were overlooked at the time.
Finally, whilst a sad exodus, there’s no doubt that if Burgundy prices continue to rise, lovers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay should look at alternative regions. There is now a proliferation of excellent production of these two grapes around the world, and the Burgundians should consider this at their peril if they continue to increase prices at an immoderate rate.
In summary, whilst the wines of Burgundy are indisputably at the luxury end of the wine world, I find plenty of pleasurable and thrilling wines, which offer me joy and value, leaving me with a desire to collect a number of cases en primeur every year (whatever the naysayers preach, it’s not the same as Bordeaux). Frankly, the key is to open your mind, move away from old school brands and wine snobbery. Chat with us that about wines that will fit your pallet and wallet. Invest in your future drinking pleasure.