This is partly a reminder. We and others have gone on at length about 2015, particularly with respect to the flattering reds, one of the juiciest and most engaging vintages we can recall. For Burgundy veterans, think back to the expressive, fleshy 2009s, but lighter on their feet like the 2002s, with a nice verve to the acidity that calls 2005 to mind. It will surely be considered in the pantheon of great vintages.
We have also (and often) discussed the difficulty in finding value in Burgundy a number of times over the years. High demand, small production, not to mention the ups and downs of marginal viticulture in general, have an upward effect on the price tag. Even at the lower end, prices aren’t necessarily all that low. It’s not impossible to find a deal. It’s just really hard. The best results usually come in concert with the blessing of Mother Nature because Pinot is a delicate grape that needs all the help it can get, a little extra sun raising the level of all vineyards great and small.
Untimely rain, thin skins, under-ripeness, too much heat, not enough heat, there are many things that can cause Pinot to underperform. But the reason that some appellations consistently sell for much higher prices than others is history, plain and simple. Chambertin has hefty price tags because it consistently performs at a high level. The places that don’t carry big tickets do not by virtue of the fact that they don’t perform at the highest level consistently. Maybe that lack of consistent success is due to exposure, or perhaps the fact that, year-in and year-out ripeness levels might not be as high as other locations. But it is because they are on the more marginal side of ‘marginal viticulture’ that they sell for less.
However, when the sun shines, those areas perform at their very best. But, because of history, the vignerons can’t charge substantially more money when they are successful because of the ‘hierarchy’. When that happens, it is the consistent recipe for a deal, and that’s how to play Burgundy in 2015 unless you own oil wells or invented an app. Places like Marsannay, Savigny-Les-Beaune, and Mercurey had sensational seasons in 2015 and we have spent a good amount of time going through the less famous locales to find the honest gems. That we did, though we had to, as they say, ‘kiss a lot of frogs’ and work through some disappointments to get it done. Hey, that’s Burgundy.
The hardest part isn’t the work, though. The hardest part is bucking the system. When we first referred to the ‘hierarchy’ in that last paragraph. That is a very specific phenomenon in our view. While there is an ‘official’ classification to Burgundy that determines Grand Crus and Premier Crus from ‘village level’ vineyards, there is also an unspoken but immutable pecking order to the vineyards as reported by the press. It’s hard to explain even to Burgundy ‘hardcores’, many of whom accept the hierarchy as law. But if you read enough stuff, you realize that a most of the ‘conclusions’ are forgone and/or political.
By ‘foregone’, we mean that there is a certain ‘weight’ assigned to certain climats and producers. The most brilliant Maranges ever made has an upper limit to its scoring potential because it’s Maranges. Most of the time it will dwell in the upper 80s score-wise, perhaps creep into the low 90s on occasion, almost always in cases where that domaine doesn’t have significant upper cuvees in their lineup. But that’s it. If it is tasted in the same cellar next to a wine from a better appellation, the odds of it besting that wine isn’t ‘zero’. It’s just nearly zero.
Sure there are always exceptions, just not many of them. When a reviewer tastes at a Burgundy domaine, he is presented the wines in the ‘order of importance’ of the bottlings…Bourgognes et. al, villages wines, Premier Crus and Grand Crus. Reviewers will taste them relative to their pecking order, and the reviews stick to that script a preponderance of the time. Is that the most logical result? Probably, but our point is that it almost never varies to the contrary.
On top of that, the 100-point scale that everybody uses these days has an upper limit…100. A wine cannot score greater than 100, so everything is scaled back from whatever the top effort is. If the best wine in the cellar, using the numbers analogy, scores a 94, the next best has to be less. By the time you get 2-3 wines down the ladder, you are in a place where most consumers are lukewarm about most things, particularly something that has a $50-60 price tag. Those potentially delicious ‘little wines,’ in these hierarchy lineups, have a remote chance of getting a review that will motivate buyers even though the quality warrants it.
We refer to this as the ‘theory of relativity’, as in reviewers tend not to always be able to figure out where one group of wines fits in to the broader array of all wines. The best and most extreme illustration is Romaine Conti. Always presented ‘in order’ (and remember nothing can be scored above 100), by the time you get ‘down’ to the Echezeaux, you are at 91-92 point scores, the same as a modestly-priced Rioja or Argentine Malbec. Silly. Take that Echezeaux and put it in a different lineup, and it crushes. So what is the takeaway from this small and very slanted sampling? Nothing clear.
Also, from one year to the next, reviewers are either clueless or afraid. Let’s take the 2013 vintage in Burgundy versus the 2015. While the vintages were substantially different qualitatively, the majority of the scores on the individual wines were within a couple of points between the vintages, hardly a reasonable representation of the difference between those two vintages. Also, we don’t recall anyone coming out on the 2013s and saying that these wines weren’t worth the prices and don’t buy them. With 2012 still on shelves, and the very good 2014s and flashy 2015s coming down the road, did anyone say not to spend your hard-earned dollars on the 2013s.
That would have been honest advice from these reviewers who represent themselves as working for you, the consumer. But we don’t remember seeing anything of the sort in print. We can point to Robert Parker’s brutal honesty with respect to the 1983 red Burgundies a long time ago. He said the reds were overly tannic and had issues with rot. Was he right? Doesn’t matter, he was simply giving his honest opinion to the folks that pay him to give them his opinion. The Burgundians didn’t like it very much and, if memory serves, there weren’t many subsequent reviews on Burgundy from Parker.
Are we saying reviewers go easy on the Burgundy producers so they get to come back (and you can infer the same for a lot of top addresses in other areas as well)? Are we suggesting that Burgundy gets treated with ‘kid gloves’ by the press for fear of reprisal? You can read the pages and pages of predictable reviews and judge for yourself. The same wines finish at the top, the general rankings of the individual wines relative to each other within a portfolio are virtually unvaried year-to-year. Sure there will be the occasional ‘up and comer’, but the inter-relationship between producers and vineyards is virtually unchanged from house to house and year to year.
Maybe we are jealous. Would we like to get paid to hang out in Burgundy and tell people to buy Dujac and Roumier? Heck yeah! But we have a hard time wondering why anyone would do that. That leaves us, the poor schmuck merchants who are trying give consumers some viable, reasonably priced and enjoyable options thanks to the quirk of fate of an exceptional vintage in a prestige (and typically expensive, sometimes laughably so) region, in a tough place.
There are a lot of delicious wines in Burgundy that won’t break the bank. But the ‘system’ does not lend itself to promoting them in a meaningful way. Human nature being what it is, we certainly can’t expect people to easily shell out say $50-60 for something ( say a village Vosne Romanee) that the ‘system’ allowed no more than 90-91 points within the ‘hierarchy’. Better to spend it on an Oregon Pinot that got a ‘94’, though that score came in a completely different category and mix.
We’re going to continue to do our best because it’s the right thing to do. We love finding that delicious Bourgogne or Marsannay for a song. They are out there, particularly in vintages like 2015. Just don’t expect there to be lofty reviews because of the way Burgundy is handled by the media. The hierarchy of vineyard and producer, the top-heavy score bias, and the ‘old boy’ review network, make us feel like salmon swimming against the very predictable current in the sense of creating sales. You will get sweeping (though calculated) comments regarding a vintage overall. But when you actually dig into the individual reviews, the information is predictable and not particularly enlightening.
Still, we have found things that we are truly exciting from this vintage because they are compelling, engaging bottles of Pinot Noir to drink (or hold) from the place where Pinot was born. That is ultimately the point. Given all of the things we have mentioned, you can clearly understand that there are a lot easier things for us to sell than Burgundy. But finding a $20-30 Monthelie that you can pull out in a few years that puts a smile on your face is a labor of love.