Burgundy’s new breed of wine producers
“Burgundy lovers, such as the hundreds who attended more than 20 tastings during London’s Burgundy Week earlier this month, may complain about the recent steep price rises for the wines they enjoy so much. Yet the price of the land that is responsible for them has risen even more sharply.
“In the past nine years, while grape prices have risen threefold, the price of prime sites on the Côte d’Or has increased tenfold.
“Burgundy’s top vineyards are now so valuable that banks are apparently falling over themselves to lend against them. Twelve years ago, Olivier Bernstein owned a modest wine farm in Roussillon, south-west France. He then moved to Burgundy and, in 2007, started making wine in a dilapidated garage in a Gevrey-Chambertin backstreet, buying the grandest fruit he could lay his hands on.
“His has been the most meteoric rise I have witnessed in the region. Today, he commands his winemaking empire from the old cellars of the Hospices de Beaune, within this historic city’s ramparts.
“Bernstein’s eponymous operation is just one of the more glamorous of the new breed of Burgundian producer. In the old days, Burgundian producers were divided into growers who made their own wine (good) and négociants or merchants who bought in grapes and wine, made big blends and sold the results under their own label (bad).
“Today, such big négociants as remain – the likes of Bouchard Père & Fils, Drouhin, Faiveley and Jadot – are fastidious about quality and often oversee work in the vineyards, many of which they own.
“But there are an increasing number of newer producers who might not own their vineyards but make extremely good wine thanks to a network of grower-suppliers – let’s call them modern négociants. They are multiplying because it is becoming clear that only the super-rich, such as Bernard Arnault and François Pinault, can afford to buy vineyards. If someone wants to make burgundy or expand a family-owned domaine, the only option may well be to buy grapes from land belonging to someone else.
“Bernstein told me this year that he has decided he wants to buy the vineyards that supply him. Thanks to new record prices set when LVMH acquired Clos des Lambrays, and Pinault bought nearby Clos de Tart – not to mention the sale of Bonneau de Martray to US sports magnate Stan Kroenke – he is confident of raising the money.
“‘I’m lacking a little tiny bit by not owning vineyards,’ he said. “And if the investisseurs pay hundreds of euros a bottle for my wines, they need continuity of supply.
“‘The dearer the wines are, the more people want them,’ he added with an impish smile. “I was lucky to arrive just before the hysteria of vineyard prices. Le Musigny went for ?60m a hectare, but today it could easily sell for ?75m.”
“On the same day, I visited another celebrated modern négociant who has chosen to adopt a quite different strategy. Pierre-Yves
“Colin-Morey’s rise has been as marked as Bernstein’s. He and his wife, Caroline Morey, have built a reputation for finely chiselled white burgundies, using as a basis the vineyards Pierre-Yves was due from his father, Marc Colin.
“Although he owns 85 per cent of the vines that supply his grapes, and his team tends 100 per cent of them, Pierre-Yves is adamant he wants to retain his status as a négociant and has no ambitions to expand for expansion’s sake.
“There are many other models for the growing band of modern négociants. Etienne Sauzet and Olivier Leflaive are well-established names. One of the first of his generation was Nicolas Potel, son of the family that used to own the eye-catching Domaine de la Pousse d’Or in Volnay. His local network is unrivalled, and the only hiccup in building his business was losing control of his name to one of the old-style big négociants.
“Today, Potel’s businesses are Maison Roche de Bellene (for wine from bought-in fruit) and Domaine de Bellene (for wine from his own vineyards). He operates from a courtyard on the outskirts of Beaune with a very particular business model. For every six hectares he works, he attracts 90 investor lots, which together form a GFA (groupement français agricole). Investors have to be approved by him and get his permission to sell their shares. Gradually, he is able to buy some of these shares, so his percentage of ownership increases as and when he can afford it. In the past 10 years he has amassed 23 hectares in this way, which gives him control, unlike the situation in family or public businesses. No wonder he always looks so relaxed.
“White burgundies are the real stars of 2014 Burgundy 2012 wines
“The real problem today is the family business, which is the most common in Burgundy. Typically, many different family members will have a share of a wine domaine, the majority of them often with no day-to-day involvement. Now that vineyard prices are so high, there can be terrible pressure from such relatives to sell. As Louis-Michel, Comte Liger-Belair of Vosne-Romanée, observed last November, “The Bonneau de Martray sale really hit people. They thought, ‘If that family can sell and make a lot of money, why shouldn’t we?'” He is particularly well plugged-in to Burgundian land deals and anticipates “a couple more big sales in the next couple of years”.
“Meanwhile, such modern négociants as Benjamin Leroux and Pascal Marchand, with their luxurious winemaking facilities in Beaune and Nuits respectively, are laughing. Both extremely talented winemakers, they are bankrolled by well-heeled outsiders – British businessman and sailing enthusiast Ian Laing and Canadian banker Moray Tawse respectively.
“Or there is the Australian model. Every January, modern négociants Mark Haisma, Andrew and Emma Nielsen of Le Grappin and Jane Eyre show their wines together at a tasting in London and burgundy lovers lap up their liquids.
“‘I’m at the bottom of the pile to be offered fruit,’ Haisma admitted cheerfully in his modern cellars outside Gilly, a village in Burgundy. “Thanks to the short crop, I went from filling 65 barrels in 2015 to 25 in 2016.’ He’s already sold every bottle of 2014 and 2015, so he must be doing something right – as now-friendly banks acknowledge. He has had such success that he is buying land in Mâcon.”