‘You are SO going to want these’
-Stephan Tanzer on the 2015 red Burgundies
It’s that time again, the bane of all wine merchants…a great vintage in Burgundy.
Why is that a problem? Why would an outstanding vintage in one of one of the world’s most revered wine areas be an issue at all? Wouldn’t that just make for more exciting wines for us to sell? Well, on the surface, yes it would be, if you only consider the positive sales aspect of having more good things to offer. The problem is the nature of Burgundy itself. From the production side, other than a few large negociants, the majority of the landscape is small producers making limited bits of variety of different wines based on small holdings in the region. Production of each individual wine is limited because the holdings are small. All-too-often these various little wines are offered as a ‘package’ (the operative word is parcel) in not particularly advantageous (from a sales perspective) assortments. For that reason, they are rather difficult to market profitably (or succeed in breaking even for that matter).
So why does anybody do it? Sadly, if you ask most long time wine folks what their most memorable vinous experience was, there would be a disproportionate large percentage who would count Burgundy experiences as their most treasured memories. As those who have been around wine for a long time will also tell you, Burgundy is the cruelest of mistresses. It can provide ethereal moments. But you can spend a lot of time and money trying to recreate the experience again, usually being disappointed most of the time because the wine is in a funny place developmentally or simply doesn’t live up to lofty expectations. That is simply taking it from the ‘drinking’ perspective.
The problem is, when you ‘hit’ one, all of the past travails are forgotten. All those disappointments fade from view and you are lost in the moment. Thus the process starts again. It is almost narcotic in how those experiences can haunt you, and we understand how someone can get swept up in the pursuit of Burgundy because the good times are so good. It drives rational people to consider things they would not otherwise. There are those who will tell you can get some of the greatest Burgundies in existence for $300-400 dollars a bottle even now with world wide demand at an all-time high, whereas top vintages of Bordeaux (Lafite, Petrus, La Pin) cost a lot more.
Point taken, but we’d rebut that you won’t likely get the actual wine for those prices as quantities are small, demand is well beyond supply, and there is usually a requirement to perform something else to secure those gems. The actual importer will only dribble out the ‘cherries’ to their very top customers, usually as a reward for exceptional past support, and even then there is usually a hitch. You can find things on the open market in Europe, but usually bundled in such a way with other wines from a producer’s portfolio (either lesser wines from the same vintage or remnants of past vintages) that even with the most creative math don’t make business sense.
So is this a new problem? Not at all. It is merely a worse manifestation of something that has existed for a very long time, exacerbated by that increasing world-wide demand for Burgundy and the physical limitations of the region. You cannot make Burgundy bigger. If you did, it wouldn’t be the same. Therefore a greater pool of folks clamoring for a piece of a fixed production asset only drives the price up and the creativity of those who broker these wines increasing the cost of making that mistake.
The whole growing demand for a limited production wine is not the end of the problem either. The typical affirmed Burgundy buyer is the most finicky in all of the wine world. He usually has the money to buy the best, and the temerity to expect restrained pricing as he moves in on the crème-de-la-crème. On the other side, most Burgundy producers expect their importers to buy everything they are offered, every year, regardless of proportions. As an estate’s popularity rises, so do their prices because the estate can always seem to find another buyer somewhere in the world. The ‘parcel’, as we called it previously, is typically a mix of a fair bit of the entry level (Bourgogne) and ‘Village’ wine, a few crumbs of the tippy-top Grand Cru cuvees, with a disproportionate chunk more-than-you-would-ever-buy-on-your-own Premier Cru bottlings at or near prices that the Grand Crus were just a few years ago.
In the olden times, Burgundy was sold the same way, in parcels. However, back then, the pricing was conducive to selling the different prestige levels to different tiers of the marketplace. The prices were moderate enough that buyers for the ‘entry’ and ‘village level’ wine that you could market the wine to people as an alternative to domestic Pinot Noir. You would have to wait a bit on the Premier Crus until their time had come, but they still went head-to-head with top Caifornia bottlings price-wise so their would eventually be an opportunity. Their top-notch Grand Crus eventually found a buyers. But as prices escalated on Burgundy overall, the prices went up on the higher end things to where even the most affluent Burgundy fans had to think about it, if in fact they could even find the wine for sale.
At that point, most collectors were still ‘ in’ for the top 2-3% at the higher prices for the top tier. But they had no interest in anything else. One could develop interest in moderately priced Bourgogne and ‘village’ level juice in a great vintage vis-à-vis Pinot alternatives. But with the rising prices overall, it was the ‘middle’ that killed the market, or at least the sanity of playing at all. In a world where lieu dits (village vineyards marketed under the vineyard name…typically a cut above the ‘standard’ bottlings) are now in the $50-60 range and Premier Crus from top guys had three figure prices, value was out the window. The pricees left them out of the reach of most buyers, and, since they were not the top, of considerable less interest to those elite buyers who could pay the freight.
At the low end, there were folks that were interested in the value Burgundy section provided the prices weren’t scary high. You could find buyers that were interested in Bourgognes and village ‘Vosne Romanee, though they have been a much tougher sell for those that have escalated price-wise. Usually Bourgognes that were in or near the price of domestic Pinot value versions ($15-30) still found buyers as long as the tabs didn’t stray too far away from the price ‘comfort zone’.
In summary, you could find buyers for the top tier as long as you didn’t charge too much. You’d have a tough time selling those entry level wines at fair prices from bigger named domaines. And there was n0 one to buy those Premier Crus, which often made up 30% of the dollar value of a parcel, except at a sometimes substantial loss though you could simply think of them as ornaments. Does that make any sense from a business perspective in a great vintage? Of course not, and that is without even considering having to buy other, less economically feasible vintages previously (and having them as ornaments, too) to establish your place in the pecking order. Even then, some Swiss guy could drive to the domaine with cash and likely get a portion of ‘your’ prime allocation cellar door (see also Napa Valley). Are we conflicted? Burgundy does that because, in the end, when it is right, it is magic. Otherwise no one would bother.
A $30 Bourgogne from a top producer in a great vintage? Just think of it as top flight Pinot and it is competitive. A $200-300 Grand Cru? Hey, if you have the funds, they are the best of the best. But who buys the ‘middle’? The guy buying at the top wants the ‘top’. The prices of the middle are 2-3 times (or more) greater than the entry level stuff, and beyond the financial reach of most folks. So those expensive Premier Crus have no market these days, and will essentially collect dust long after the others are gone.
We are pretty creative, but the Burgundians are in the driver’s seat in a vintage like 2015. Someone will buy these wines somewhere at whatever price the market will bear, but at that point it is far beyond what makes sense as a ‘business proposition’. We have seen a number of stores and distributors get crushed from within by the Burgundy mistress. We feel particularly sorry for them. Like we said, they have to play the game or get kicked out of the queue in a vintage like this, no matter how bad the proportion is within the offer. Even worse, they would have to have bought the prior two vintages, one that was kind of crummy (2013) and one that was quite good but no one cared (2014) because the ‘good’ vintage was on the horizon. So two vintages that weren’t going to sell to anyone for the right to buy a third that was only 40-60% viable? Do the math. Even the government can’t make that make sense, yet people still do it.
Is it sour grapes (no pun intended) on our parts? Nope, just reality. This is the most difficult region for consumers (and most of the wine trade) to understand, and easily the most difficult financially from a return-on-investment (or even rational?) perspective. We have spent a number of seasons on the sidelines over the years, simply not buying anything of note because the cost is too much. We do it with our eyes open with the understanding that it might hurt our chance to get the kind of crummy, overpriced ‘bundles’ that will be the ‘main course’ of the high demand vintage that 2015 promises to be. Hey, if we don’t buy 20 cases of wine we will probably have to sell at cost or below to move through to get three bottle of some kitchy Grand Cru that we could never charge enough for, the upside is that we have a much better chance of being here when the next ‘vintage of the century’ comes along.
So if you want to know where the waiting list for the 2015 Roumier Musigny is, it’s right next to the unicorn registry.
We have tasted enough of the 2015s to tell you that these wines are epic. They bring back memories of our favorite vintages of all time like 1985 and 1990 in that they have great stuffing, sufficient structure, and are at the same time oh so sexy. These are the kinds of wine that can make smart people do dumb things (we could make the appropriate comparison to romance but we won’t).
For our part, we’re going to fight to get everything we can, but don’t feel like we have to sell our souls. In a juicy vintage like 2015, where areas that don’t usually get as warm had unparalleled success, a few new faces will appear on the scene, and a few new importers will try their hand at selling Burgundy, we will (and already have) found some delicious things to sell without mortgaging the farm. We have tasted great vintages of Romanee Conti, for which we are thankful. But we have also seen an angel or two in a Marsannay from a right vintage at the perfect point in its development. For us, Burgundy is our desert island wine. There are a number of pain-averse ways to approach the subject in 2015 if the goal is simply to find great wine to drink. We wish it was easier. But that’s Burgundy.