Why Burgundy Is Still the Greatest Place for Wine

Despite all odds, Burgundy has not only managed to avoid the self-destruction that so often comes along with a quick rush of money and fame, but its wines are better than ever. Jon Bonné on the eternal nature of the Côte d'Or, and the producers who are shaping its future.

burgundy wine jon bonne

I developed a routine during my stay in Burgundy. Every few days, when the winter weather cooperated, I’d drive through the village of Vosne-Romanée, tiny and demure as it is. I’d continue up past Romanée-Conti, indisputably the most famous terroir in the world, up past the various grands and premiers crus, to a small concrete picnic table atop the hill. Occasionally a vigneron appeared just below, waving as he looked up from his pruning. Once in a while, the TGV on the plain below whooshed along like a jet, hurtling from Lyon toward Dijon. Otherwise, silent.

While I’ve stared at more vineyards than I can count, the view was, to say the least, captivating enough to distract me from writing. Here, just below, was a tiny path—the patch of green that separates Romanée-Conti from neighboring La Romanée. To the north, the expanse of Richebourg spread out, bigger than the imagination holds it. There, down along the side of the road, was La Grand Rue, next to the surprisingly steep rows of La Tâche.

This is old, hallowed ground, witness to centuries of history, to the toil of Cistercians and peasant farmers. The Côte d’Or’s ultimate treasure—its endlessly diverse climats, or individual vineyard parcels—was last year added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, affirming the region’s timeless theory: Place truly does matter.

But the dirt has been considered meaningful since well before Napoleon ever appeared; wine’s fundamental mysteries had been plumbed on these stretches for more than a millennium, which made my being so close to it all seem just a bit too accessible—a treasure with no guard.

It’s not that the world hasn’t always revered Burgundy, but the past two decades have been very good to this sliver of eastern France. The Côte d’Or has become the darling of wine as no other place has—its popularity today unprecedented, its best vineyards and producers the stuff of modern legend. Fans pore over esoteric maps and data in a way that verges on fetish, and they pay dearly to celebrate with their fellow Burgundy lovers.

I had come to Burgundy expecting to find the tattered remnants of its quiet old ways—to experience the last glimmers of its earlier charms, now eroded by perverse amounts of money. Not that the wines were ever cheap—“always a somewhat expensive privilege,” suggested one 1960s writer—but not long ago they were mostly accessible. Today most are priced, and sought after, as never before. Since the 1990s, Burgundy has been transformed into a full-bore luxury good—albeit one radically different from, say, great Bordeaux, in that it’s still mostly produced by small artisans working on a tiny scale.

Certainly Burgundy wasn’t suffering for attention, even in February. The Saturday market in Beaune was full of clatter, and Maseratis always seemed to be prowling up and down the D974, screeching to a halt at the traffic light in Premeaux-Prissey. And yet, for the occasional hour on a February afternoon, I could have the glorious expanse of the hill of Vosne almost entirely to myself.

I used those quiet moments to put Burgundy’s current moment in perspective. The culture of fame that corrupts most wine regions (looking hard at you, Napa) has somehow been tempered here. Sure, the cellars are tidier and the cars nicer. But it wasn’t too long in the recent past that this was still a region of relatively broke farmers, perennial underdogs to Bordeaux’s largesse. Even the most lauded vigneron of its modern era, Henri Jayer, ended his career modestly. And it remains a place where successful vignerons still get muddy out in the fields. Even the occasional corporate purchase, like LVMH’s 2014 acquisition of Clos des Lambrays, hasn’t ruffled the culture. This very old, hidebound place continues, for the most part, to stay un-fucked up.

But the most hopeful thing, as I concluded after nearly three weeks here, is that the wines of Burgundy are better than they have ever been.

That’s both an obvious statement and a complicated one. Lest anyone forget (and Burgundy customers sure don’t), less than a decade ago the region’s white wines were deeply mired in controversy, their tendency to oxidize prematurely creating deep anger in both longtime Burgundy lovers and a new, wealthy generation of fans. And just 20 years ago, the region was muddling its way through the unfortunate winemaking decisions that marked the late 1980s and early 1990s. In that era, red Burgundies were often deeply extracted and thick, the grapes soaked to give up more flavor and tannin than they reasonably could, and the wines were aged in too much new oak, all in hopes of emulating the bigger style of pinot noir that was gaining favor at the time.

So much has changed today. After decades of hideous postwar farming, more of Burgundy’s vineyards are finally receiving the respect they’re due. You can still, tragically, wander important parcels like Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet and find barren, herbicide-soaked strips. But organics and biodynamics are now simply understood, by most top properties, to be the only logical choice.

More than anything, a new generation of confident and thoughtful winemakers is taking over—that is, when they’re not out socializing in the streets of Beaune, packed on a winter night into drinking holes like Bar du Square or Bistrot du Coin, alternating between beer and bottles of newly fashionable Mâconnais red. Some are daughters and sons of established properties; others are young upstarts not just from France, but from England and Australia and Japan, pursuing a very particular Burgundian dream.

These new Burgundians aren’t just well-educated and well-traveled, often having worked in New Zealand or California, but, like their contemporaries in those places, they’ve found a middle path between technical education and modern folk wisdom. They seem remarkably unswayed by winemaking fads, and, perhaps unlike their friends in other regions, nearly all understand the stakes: They’re making some of the world’s most coveted wines.

“The young vignerons have got so good so fast,” says Cécile Tremblay, Jayer’s grand-niece, who runs her own estate in Vosne-Romanée. “It’s not like the ‘80s, when everyone experimented with big, hard extractions.”

Failure is, quite simply, not an option for this new generation. Once, the region’s winemakers talked of amateurs, which in French describes someone who loves drinking wine but has no professional interest. Today, the operative word is collectionneur. The wines are increasingly viewed as trophies to be stored or resold—the old sentimentality for Burgundy, which could be alternately sublime and confounding, now supplanted by a certain ego-driven expectation of greatness. The shift is almost too well-documented; nearly every fine-wine controversy of the past decade has Burgundy at its core. It’s heartbreaking, in a way, to attend the new-vintage tastings of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and watch the labels be scratched out to deter fraud. Even an empty bottle now has a risk factor.

That, in turn, has brought all the expected side effects. Land prices on the Côte d’Or have similarly risen almost beyond comprehension—due in part to a land rush prompted by that same collectionneur frenzy. By one estimate, a hectare of a grand cru like Bâtard-Montrachet now exceeds $11 million (although you couldn’t buy more than a fraction of a hectare), and a hectare of less prestigious vineyard in a village like Chambolle-Musigny might approach $1 million. These values have quadrupled in a decade, which might be why Benoît Ente, in Puligny-Montrachet, calls them “a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads,” creating a momentary sense of wealth but killing any chance for a small property to grow—or even, given France’s punishing inheritance taxes, to be passed along.

“When you look at the price of vines now,” he tells me, “you’ll never get them, and the next generation either.” (When I ask Ente how he acquired some new parcels, he quips, “I killed my aunt. That’s the new fashion in Burgundy.”)

The wine prices, too, have reached a point of discomfort. If places like Napa at least partially engineered their own inflation, in Burgundy the market was largely forced up by external factors—a mixed gift from the collectionneurs. That has left people like Jean-Charles le Bault de la Morinière, who runs Bonneau du Martray, the only domaine with solely grand cru vineyards, puzzled about how to price his Corton-Charlemagne, which now costs about $190, up from $125 a few years ago.

“The prices have moved up so fast. It cannot work,” he says. “At the same time, we can’t fall too far behind and be priced lower than less interesting wines.”

So how, then, do we mere mortals get to keep our toe in Burgundy? No amount of democratic socialism or moonbeam wishes will restore the region’s former economics. And scarcity is a real thing here, unlike Bordeaux’s more manufactured iteration; just ask vintners hampered by miniscule quantities from the past several very lean vintages, or consider how little wine will be made after this year’s insidious hail storms. But what did anyone expect? That Burgundy would remain unplumbed forever?

Even on this point I found myself more hopeful than despondent. For one thing, the Burgundians really are hellbent on a commitment to making everyday wines; they understand that village-level bottles and basic Bourgogne still form an economic backbone, and they’re putting more effort than ever into them. Fanny Sabre in Pommard, for instance, saves her expensive Stockinger wooden fermenters for her Bourgogne Rouge. (“I’m a big believer in small wines,” she tells me.)

And, frankly, while we tend to dwell on the Burgundy bubble, that collectionneur market only encompasses a couple dozen domaines. Even in villages like Vosne, you can quickly find great and slightly underrepresented work from producers like Maxime Cheurlin at Domaine Georges Nöellat. For other properties, it’s been a matter of waiting for a talented daughter or son (or outsider) to help out—like at Volnay’s Domaine Yvon Clerget, where 24-year-old Thibaud Clerget has his first wines aging in barrel, having taken up the work his father retired from in 2009. Even in his debut 2015 vintage, Clerget has captured all the beautiful things about Volnay: quiet fruit, scents of dried thyme and crushed flowers.

For that matter, shifting economics have also forced positive changes in the region’s old power dynamics. Today, its négociants are far from being the opportunists they once were; the best—I’m thinking Faiveley and Bouchard—are converting into a collection of mini-domaines, making much of their wines from their own vineyards. And there are also the micronégociants—typically, outsiders who want into Burgundy and work with small amounts of purchased grapes—who have similarly become a notable force for good.

That, in fact, is where you’ll find some of Burgundy’s most promising new names—like Chanterêves, run by husband and wife Guillaume Bott and Tomoko Kuriyama, or Le Grappin, run by the Australian-British couple Andrew and Emma Nielsen, who make small lots of quirky wines, like a white Beaune-Grèves, in what appears to be the last operating cellar inside Beaune’s old town. Even young Charles van Canneyt, who makes the wines at his family’s Hudelot-Nöellat in Vougeot, also has his own tiny négoce business—and, tellingly, often gets higher prices for those wines than the Hudelot domaine bottles.

Even in the Cote d’Or, there’s still unheralded terroir to be appreciated. I’m not talking about outlying areas, like the Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, that have been touted for at least a decade as a great unrealized hope. Rather, there’s new momentum in some established but less-known villages, usually due to young winemakers who want to make some modest reconfigurations to our view of Burgundian terroir. This includes people like Amélie Berthaut, whose wines from Fixin (just north of Gevrey) are disproving that commune’s rustic reputation. Chisa Bize and her crew at Domaine Simon Bize have done the same for Savigny-lès-Beaune, as has Pablo Chevrot in little-known Maranges. And David Croix, when not making the wines at much larger Camille Giroud, is obsessed with revealing the beauty of the slope of Beaune itself in his Domaine des Croix wines.

There’s even been room for a blossoming naturalist movement, although some of these wines raise complicated questions about just how natural wine fits in a place with such a heavy weight of tradition. A fascination with the Beaujolais-like technique of carbonic maceration, pioneered here by people like Philippe Pacalet, captured a lot of attention but also prompted questions about whether it can distract from an integral expression of terroir. In a way, those more outré wines draw away from subtler efforts, like the Gevrey-Chambertins from Jean-Luc & Eric Burguet, which tick all the minimalist boxes but taste like classic Burgundy. There are even a few young naturalist hopefuls who, rather than buying grapes, are determined to farm for themselves, like Nicolas Faure, who tends about a hectare of his own vines when not at his day job at the iconic but controversial Domaine Prieuré-Roch.

Just before I left Burgundy, I drove up the hill of Vosne one more time, on a clear day with lazy cirrus clouds streaking the sky. I’d come from a visit with Sylvain Pataille, who’s doubling down on the terroir of his native Marsannay—the Côte’s northernmost village, known primarily for rosé—making four single-parcel whites from the humble aligoté grape. And I weighed something that Aubert de Villaine, proprietor of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, had told me a few days earlier, just down the slope. “Even if we wanted to freeze Burgundy, it would be impossible,” he said, “because it’s alive.”

In other words, if Burgundy was having a raised-pinkie moment, it was just that: A moment—one that would pass, at least partially, before the collectionneurs move on. Its ability to adapt in a respectful way has made the wines today better than ever—probably even better than before phylloxera. Over the centuries it has endured far stranger things than this current tulip-craze rush of fame. This moment will retreat. But the Côte, with its endless mysteries and its subtle charms, will remain eternal.

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  • Bob Rossi

    On 2 of our recent trips to France, we stopped at a few producers in the Cote Challonaise. Some very good wine being made there, and at very fair prices.