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While in Tuscany the almond trees are already fading, the red poppies are beginning to shine and the fig trees are budding, in Burgundy there is still a colourless after-winter. Only the hawthorn provides splashes in the landscape. When the vine buds swell in Italy, the Burgundy winegrowers are still pruning the vines and burning the cut shoots.

And yet, every two years in spring, I am drawn to this region, where the landscape is not at all prepared for me wine tourists at this time of year. I regularly make the pilgrimage to Beaune for the Grands Jours de Bourgogne - the "great Burgundy days" that take place every two years.

I don't just go there for the wines, but to gain clarity. Clarity about wine communication, clarity about what brings order to our wine world, what is important for our wine culture.

Vive le Terroir!

I have always wondered why the vines are kept so low in Burgundy. The work on the vines and the grape harvest can only be done in a very stooped position. One wag said that their love of terroir made Burgundians seek proximity to the soil... But that alone can't be it, I guess, so I asked the winemakers.

Vincent Dureuil-Janthial (Domaine Vincent Dureuil-Janthial) is of the opinion that the vines are protected by the low growth and can thus grow older. Ludovic du Gardin (Clos Salomon): "With 8,000 to 11,000 canes per hectare, we are forced to keep the canes low. Another reason: the heat reserves are transferred from the soil to the grapes. For the back, however, these low vines are not so good."

In fact, the vegetation of vines with Burgundian planting density would be difficult to control with standard cane training, and the vine tractors would have to be built with even higher legs. The production regulations prescribe this high planting density, and it is probably difficult to implement other than with this short-stemmed training. The decrees for Mercurey, Rully and Givry dictate a planting density of at least 8,000 vines per hectare. But not only that, the distance between the vines must not exceed 0.8 metres and the lane must not be wider than 1.4 metres.

The law also stipulates that no more than 15 percent (Mercurey) or 20 percent (Givry and Rully) of the vines may be missing from a plot. This, together with the realisation that older vines make better wine, is the reason why one finds young vines everywhere in the vineyards between the old vines, often protected by a plastic roll against wind biting. Because for the average age of the vines, it is better to replace missing plants than to renew the whole vineyard. Ludovic du Gardin (Clos Salomon): "A high age of the vines is very important for quality, because young plants are very vigorous and fertile and produce too many grapes."

Burgundian winemakers emphasise the diversity of their terroirs, from village to village, from cru to cru, and attribute the diversity of the wines to this. That is beautiful! A beautiful fairy tale in which I will continue to believe, and gladly. This is despite the fact that there is no doubt that the diversity of wines within a vintage is primarily shaped by the producer.

(Photo: Merum)

In fact, from a historical-agronomic-geological point of view, there are clear differences between the individual vineyards, which can also be expressed more or less discreetly in the wines. However, these differences between the individual sites are only noticeable in the wines of the same producer. This is because the difference between the wines of different producers from a given site is much greater than the difference between the single vineyards of a given producer.

Large vintage differences

The proximity of the grapes to the warming soil certainly has its significance in some years, even though the danger of grape rot would certainly be less if the soil were further away.

Burgundy, unlike most wine regions in Italy and southern France, is a growing zone where sun and warmth are not abundant. Here, sun orientation of the sites, heat-retaining stone walls and soils still have their importance. Climate change does not have the undesirable consequences as in more southern growing regions; on the contrary, an overheated, precocious vintage like the 2009 is still being praised by the press as the "vintage of the century". The 2007 and probably also the 2011 were similar to the 2009. "But we don't risk too high an alcohol content here," says Jean-Claude Brelière. The only exception so far was 2003, when we had wines with 14 percent by volume. In fact, it's still botrytis that determines the harvest time for us."

Fortunately, there are still the "difficult" vintages with later ripeness, perhaps with more botrytis problems and lighter colour: they are more Burgundian, more multi-faceted, finer, fruitier, crisper and more drinkable. In this sense, good vintages are certainly 2010, 2008 and 2006.

Brelière: "The 2009 is darker because it was very hot in mid-August and September. The skin became thicker and that brings more colour. 2010 was cool, the skin remained thin, the wine became light, but finer. The 2010 is certainly more Burgundian than the 2009, but the consumer wants dark wines. We keep trying to explain to customers that Pinot doesn't give much colour."

Charles Nebout (Belleville): "In Burgundy, it is the climate that presents us with the biggest challenges. In Rully, it hailed heavily in 2011 and the volume was drastically thinned out. In 2010, the temperatures dropped to four to five degrees before the harvest. This is great because these temperatures block the diseases, concentrate the grapes. 2009 was warmer, the wines have less acidity,
less freshness, but they are dark and concentrated. According to the press, a vintage of the century. I, on the other hand, love the freshness of the 2010s! But to each his own taste."

The harvest time is subject to strong fluctuations in Burgundy. Mid to late September could be considered a normal harvest date in the Côte Chalonnaise. Jean-Claude Brelière (Domaine Brelière): "In 2003 we already started on 19 August, in 2007 on 1 September. In the 1960s we harvested at the beginning of September, in the 1980s in October. Then after 1985 it became earlier and earlier."

Ludovic du Gardin: "Here in Givry, the grapes ripen about a week to ten days earlier than in the Côte d'Or. We are already further south here. We usually pick the grapes between 10 and 20 September," but Ludovic stresses that the early picking dates are not necessarily due to climate change alone, but also to better vineyard management, which results in the grapes ripening more regularly. And, to dispel the spectre of climate change, he tells us that there was already a period in the 14th century when grapes were harvested at the end of August. Ludovic du Gardin: "Pinot is very sensitive to the climate, much more so than Chardonnay. It can sprout three weeks earlier when the temperatures are warm and the harvest can take place a month earlier as a result."

(Photo: Merum)

In Burgundy, the harvest date is primarily determined by the sugar content and health of the grapes. It is not always easy to reach the legally prescribed natural sugar concentration of 187 g/l for the Villages and 189 g/l for the Premiers before grape rot forces the harvest. As a rule, one waits with the harvest as long as grape health permits. Because grapes harvested too early result not only in a weak wine, but also in an acidic wine. Ludovic du Gardin: "The acidity is quite high here, we have a pH of 3.15. That means we really have to wait for full ripeness if we want to avoid the acidity characterising the wine too much."

Burgundy does not end at Santenay

The Côte Chalonnaise is an ancient wine region. Its close proximity to Chalon, with a port on the Canal du Centre that was important especially in the last few centuries, connecting the Mediterranean to the Atlantic via the Saône and the Loire, encouraged not only industrial production in the area but also viticulture. In the 19th century, the plain between Givry and Chalon was a single sea of vines. It served primarily for mass wine production. Quality viticulture took place further away in the hills.

The greater the distance to the port, the more valuable the wine had to be, otherwise the transport would not have been worthwhile. According to this reasoning, the winegrowers of the Côte d'Or have always been forced to produce quality wine. The quantities of wine from Chalon, on the other hand, were also used to supply the workers of the coal mines of Montceau-les-Mines. It is said that these people needed six, eight, even ten litres of wine a day to get through the ten-hour shifts underground. However, the wine at that time is said to have contained no more than six to seven percent alcohol.

At the beginning of the 20th century, wine production was decimated due to phylloxera and powdery mildew as well as labour shortages after the First World War. After the Second World War, it then experienced a new heyday with the increasing thirst of the post-war French. It was not until the 1970s that viticulture began to retreat to the hills and quality became an issue.

Ludovic du Gardin: "40, 50 years ago there were only a few bottles, most wine was somehow sold openly. The self-marketing that then started triggered a rapid development of quality. The winegrowers have put a lot of work into their vineyards in recent years and work much more carefully than before."

Jean Claude Theulot (Domaine Theulot Juillot): "In the past, our wines had a reputation for being rustic. In the last 15 years, we have made great progress in the finesse of the wines."

Indeed, the reds from Rully, Givry and Mercurey are becoming increasingly interesting even for die-hard Burgundy fans. It is no longer a lack of quality, but at most the lack of image of the wines of Chalon that is unsettling the wine clientele.

Jean-Claude Theulot: "We still have to work on our image, we are considered the little cousins of the Côte d'Or."Jean-Claude Brelière is also not happy about the relationship with his colleagues from the Côte d'Or: "We from the Côte Chalonnaise are considered second-class winegrowers in Beaune and Nuits. We don't feel taken seriously as Burgundy winegrowers. For our colleagues from the Côte d'Or, Burgundy means Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune. Mâcon and Côte Chalonnaise don't really belong to it for them. I have the impression that they don't want to share the 'Burgundy' brand. But Burgundy doesn't stop at Santenay!"

Ludovic du Gardin: "The Côte Chalonnaise is the natural continuation of the Côte de Beaune with very similar soils. Unlike the Côte de Nuits, our appellation is rutted by cross valleys and does not consist of one continuous slope. In Napoleonic times, the Côte Chalonnaise was separated from the Côte d'Or only for administrative reasons."

(Photo: Merum)

Indeed, when one thinks of Burgundy, one thinks of Beaune and the Corton, of Nuits, Clos de Vougeot and Gevrey-Chambertin. But the Côte d'Or, which we associate with Burgundy, is only part of the almost 30,000 hectares of Burgundy wine. This begins in the north in Chablis and spreads out to Mâcon.

In the Côte Chalonnaise, mixed farming is still practised, you can still see cows grazing and farmers bringing in hay. Between one wine village and another, you follow romantic river courses and cross forests. Although there are more vineyards here (4,500 hectares) than in the Côte de Nuits, they are much more widely distributed in the landscape. Apparently, wine journalists don't seem to take the wines south of the Côte de Beaune seriously either. Brelière said to me when I greeted him, almost amazed: "You are the first wine journalist to visit us here since 1990! Many used to come, but no one has been interested in us for over ten years. Only one Japanese came by once, but you would have had to pay to be mentioned in the article."

I would have liked to read something about the Côte Chalonnaise in recent years and acquire knowledge about the area. Unfortunately, no wine journal deals with this qualitatively fast-growing area, it is too much in the shadow of famous neighbours. If I had found something useful on the subject, I certainly wouldn't have written this report.

Crisis? There is none.

Compared to the Côte d'Or, but also to some famous appellations in Italy, the wines of the Côte Chalonnaise are reasonably priced. The wines of the regional appellations (Bourgogne, Côte Chalonnaise) cost from six or seven euros, the communal appellations (Mercurey, Givry, Rully) between eight and twelve euros, and the Premiers mostly between twelve and 20 euros.

If we ignore the official classification and stick to the Merum hearts, the wines with two and three hearts cost an average of 13.30 euros. By way of comparison, the average ex-farm selling price of the best Barolos in our last tasting was 30.80 euros, and 9.90 euros for the best Chianti Classico.

After my conversations with the winemakers of Chianti (Merum 2/2012), I expected gloomy expressions in Burgundy as well. But the fear proved to be unfounded. The biggest problem of some winemakers seems to be having too little wine. When asked how he was coping with the crisis, Vincent Dureuil-Janthial answered with a laugh: "No, we don't have a crisis. On the contrary, we can't fill all the orders."

However, the reasons for the wine shortage are also the small harvest of 2010 and the fact that the winegrowers in Rully had bad luck with hail again in 2011. In addition, the press had praised the hot 2009 vintage and ensured that the vintage was sold out. So the winegrowers went into the following vintages with empty cellars.

Pierre de Benoist (Domaine de Villaine) has most of his vineyards in the white Aligoté appellation Bouzeron, where the red wines only have the status of Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise. We were allowed to taste his Digoine for the Merum Selezione, but he probably sent Merum his wine more out of politeness than commercial interest, because his wine is in short supply and he has to allocate it to customers: "We could sell much more than we produce every year."

(Photo: Merum)

According to Amaury Devillard (Château de Chamirey), the economic crisis is even useful for them: "The Grands Crus clientele has turned to the Premiers for price reasons and the Premier customers rather to the Village qualities. Some Côte d'Or clientele have looked for cheaper alternatives and discovered the wines of the Côte Chalonnaise. Many wineries here have advantages thanks to the crisis. We, for example, have seen double-digit increases in sales over the past three years."

But small winemakers have nothing to complain about either. Patrice Masse from Masse Père et fils near Givry: "Demand has been increasing for two or three years, we don't know any sales difficulties. We are even building a new fermentation cellar this year."

Jean-Claude Brelière, a small winegrower in Rully: "We sell our wines well. We can't speak of a crisis, but global competition has become fierce and the situation is certainly not like it used to be."

Jean-Claude Brelière, who speaks good German, draws attention to another phenomenon, namely the lack of German wine tourists. "I would like to sell to customers from Germany. In the past, a lot of them used to come here. But after the fall of the Wall and the introduction of the euro, the Germans increasingly stayed away. I've heard they buy cheaper wines today, also from Italy."

Patrice Masse (Masse Père et fils): "Importers say our price performance is good, also in blind tastings the Rully, Givry and Mercurey always come out well next to the Côte de Beaune."

Pierre de Benoist (Domaine de Villaine): "In recent years, the wines of the Côte Chalonnaise have become a little more expensive, but they are reasonably priced compared to their quality. For us, quality is a must, because the Côte Chalonnaise is not famous, the winegrowers here cannot hide behind the illustrious name of the appellation, but are forced to make themselves noticed through their wines. The wine has to be good if you want to sell it."

Perhaps this report will serve to make some Burgundy lovers, who have become disloyal because of the high prices, want to taste these wines again. The Côte Chalonnaise also offers less wine-loving companions some beautiful landscapes and cultural sites worth seeing, as well as a few excellent restaurants.

What vineyards cost

At the Vignerons de Buxy, a large cellar cooperative in the south of the Côte Chalonnaise, Véronique Moreau and Sylvain Rozier explain to me that the average age of the winegrowers is getting noticeably higher, even though they are all doing well: "At the same time, the number of winegrowers is decreasing and the average vineyard ownership is increasing."

(Photo: Merum)

The reason for this is the high price of land and the inheritance tax law, says Jean-Claude Brelière: "A hectare of Premier Cru Rully - whether red or white - costs 180.According to Ludovic du Gardin, it is no less in Givry, namely 150,000 to 160,000 euros per hectare.

"In the Côte de Nuits, on the other hand," says Brelière, "the price per hectare can also be a million euros! This high value, however, is a problem, because every time there is a change of generation, the tax office strikes. The longer the vineyard remains in the hands of one generation, the lower the tax," so the father will wait until old age if possible before bequeathing the property to his descendants.

If several siblings inherit a vineyard and some of them want to cash out, then the property must be sold. Brelière: "The big entrepreneurs get more and more vineyards this way, and the small estates become fewer."

If the wines of the Côte d'Or are significantly more expensive than those of the Côte Chalonnaise, the reason is not higher production costs, but astronomically high land prices. Taxes, inheritance issues, land acquisitions, pressure from investors and shareholders push the producers of the Côte d'Or towards greater returns and higher sales prices.

Organic progress is slow

The organic movement is not very strong in Burgundy. As recently as 2006, 540 hectares, or less than three percent of the cultivated area, were free of toxins. Since then, however, a lot has happened, so that today more than 7.5 percent of Burgundy's vineyards are cultivated organically (some of them are still in conversion). The greenest is the Côte d'Or with twelve percent of the cultivated area.

Most plant diseases can be kept under control in normal years with the copper and sulphur permitted by organic law. Instead of the convenient "clean spraying", the organic winegrower has to keep the spontaneous vegetation low with labour-intensive mechanical methods, with soil cultivation, for example, or with frequent pruning in the case of permanent planting.

In the fight against the vinegar fly, organic winegrowers have natural preparations and traps at their disposal; only against the autumnal grape rot (botrytis), to which Pinot is particularly susceptible, has no effective organic herb yet grown.

Vincent Dureuil-Janthial has been working organically since 2005. He, too, knows of no remedy against botrytis. So what to do? "Harvest everything and then remove the rotten grapes at the sorting table at home and only put the healthy ones into the fermentation vat." Vincent Dureuil-Janthial believes that the organic wave in Burgundy is slowly dying down: "In the Côte de Nuits there was a huge organic push in the past few years, but this development seems to be finished."

(Photo: Merum)

Paths to style and quality

Ludovic du Gardin: "A distinction is made between Pinot fin, Pinot moyen and gros Pinot. The clones have small, thick-skinned to large, thin-skinned berries. The Pinot fin and to some extent the Pinot moyen produce high quality. One of the important works of the Côte Chalonnaise for years has been to replace the unsuitable clones with good ones."

For perhaps 20 years, cold maceration before fermentation begins has become common in Burgundy. This soaking of the berries in their own juice is expected to yield better aromas and colour. Charles Nebout (Belleville): "We macerate and leave the grapes to macerate for six days at ten or twelve degrees. Then fermentation starts and the temperature rises to 30, 32 degrees. Every day we pump the fermenting wine over the grape cap once or twice or push the cap down by hand. It takes 20 days before pressing."

To avoid a one-sided taste of wood, Domaine Belleville does not use a single supplier, but buys the barriques it needs from as many different producers as possible.

Charles Nebout: "In the Côte Chalonnaise, they generally only work with a small percentage of new barriques. Some don't use barriques, but large barrels, so you might get more fruit, but also harder tannins" Jean Claude Theulot (Domaine Theulot Juillot): "Wood is a question of the cellar master's sensitivity. Jean-Claude Brelière uses no more than 20 per cent new wood; he doesn't want his Burgundies to smell of wood. He even vinifies some wines in steel tanks.

Vincent Dureuil-Janthial is different; he is convinced of the benefits of barrique. For his reds, he renews a third of his barriques every year. In fact, the tasting for the Merum Selezione showed that his Rully is quite characterised by new wood.

Brelière sorts the grapes in the vineyard, and fermentation always takes place in steel tanks. When the grapes are without rot, he subjects them to a cold maceration at ten degrees, followed by fermentation, and two weeks after the start of fermentation, they are pressed. The more beautiful the grapes, the longer the wine is allowed to stay on the skins; in 2010 there was some rot, so pressing was done earlier.

My experience with the wines of Burgundy is that the more famous the producers and the more prestigious the site, the more the wines smell of new barriques. Unfortunately, this denies me access to some top sites and to the wines of some top producers.

We have found the best wines at reliable but less prominent producers, wonderful wines. For budgetary reasons alone, it cannot always be Clos de Bèze or Corton Bressandes, the desire for a glass of Burgundy can occur more often than just at Christmas and birthdays. That's why I discovered the wines of some producers from Rully, Mercurey and Givry. I can afford them more often.

Ten or fifteen years ago, I could hardly find any wines south of the Côte de Beaune that excited me. I went home with bottles from Ladoix, Gevrey and Vosne-Romanée. For a few years now, however, I have been doing my shopping here, between Rully and Givry. This not only meets my taste requirements, but also rather my financial circumstances...

(Photo: Merum)

What the vignaiolo can learn from the vigneron

No, the Italians do not make worse wines than the French. But unlike their north-western neighbours, they don't really know how to sell quality wines in a sustainable way. For example, they miss the deeper meaning of appellations. While the Burgundians think strictly collectively, the individualistic Italians have a hard time with such things. For the Burgundian, appellation is the central dogma of his professional life, whereas for every healthy Italian this term is synonymous with a straitjacket.

To put a super Burgundy in Vins-de-Pays status with an addition of foreign varieties on the price list as the most expensive wine is an individualistic aberration whose idea has not yet occurred to anyone in the whole of Burgundy.

In Italy, on the other hand, and especially in Tuscany, it is customary to ridicule one's own appellation in this way. The wine producers don't want to admit that the stupid habit of depriving Italian appellations of any appeal is ultimately commercial suicide.

Try suggesting to a Burgundian winemaker that he mix a little Merlot into his Premier Cru and offer it as an overpriced table wine... Try scolding a Burgundian winemaker about one of his colleagues. He'd sooner kick you out than let anything derogatory pass his lips.

The winemaker from Rully is aware that his reputation is linked to that of his appellation. If you badmouth another Rully winemaker, you badmouth him too. If dirty laundry has to be washed, then certainly not in front of outsiders.

For me as a journalist, however, this admirable attitude of the Burgundian winegrowers is a torment, because it is rather unproductive. When it comes to their wine world, Burgundians are politically correct to the point of boredom. No divulged secrets, no insider gossip, no malicious gossip, no familiarities... However, I am willing to pay the price of the imposed abstinence from information, even if it makes the research more elaborate and nothing nourishes the illusion of not being an outsider.

It's different in Italy, especially in central and southern Italy. If you don't insist on remaining a stranger, you can almost feel yourself being absorbed socially. Conveying a sense of belonging is a typically Italian characteristic. The Italian reveals something of himself so that the outsider does not feel like a stranger. The Italian wants to please, wants to impress, wants to be loved and admired. And for that he tells you everything you want to hear....

As an admirer, you also have a respected position in Burgundy. But you don't let the outsider get close. The distance is maintained and you can feel it. Italy is my home, I am married to Italy, I love Italy with all its weaknesses, because it has so many positive things to give away. Burgundy, on the other hand, I adore like a woman I know I can never have.

I never forget what Paolo de Marchi (Isole e Olena) said to me after a trip to France together some 20 years ago to characterise the difference between the Italians and our hosts: "The French have few ideas, but clear ones." I don't think it can be summed up any better than that.

Order Merum 4/2012 with interviews and tasting results

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