Tue 2 Oct 2007
Since you asked, burgundy is so freakin’ expensive because of this equation:
Reputation + Rarity x That Damned Euro = Big Bucks!
The issue arises because I posted Sunday on KoeppelOnWine.com reviews of 17 burgundies from 2005 and one from 2004, all rated Excellent or Exceptional and being exemplars of what great wines from Burgundy should be. It’s not just a footnote or an aside that the wines are really expensive. When “village” wines from Burgundy cost up to — I swear that I’m not making this up — $90 a bottle, that’s mind-boggling.
And here’s a brief, almost simplistic explanation of the scheme by which Burgundy operates, then we’ll get back to the Reputation, Rarity, Euro thing.
Burgundy, in the department of the Cote d’Or in eastern France, is a slender ribbon of mainly tiny villages and vineyards running slightly southwest for about 30 miles from the city of Dijon. A line of southeastward-facing hills and declivities runs along this same ribbon; the best vineyards tend to be found about halfway up these hillsides.
The vineyards and wines of Burgundy can be divided — and again, I’m simplifying — into four levels.
(1) The basic wines of Burgundy are labeled Bourgogne. They are made from grapes grown wherever vineyards are approved, in other words not just in somebody’s backyard. Bourgogne accounts for about 52 percent of the region’s production.
(2) The first important classification, village wines are made from officially permitted vineyards surrounding the individual villages of Burgundy. The wines take the names of the villages and occasionally the traditional name of a vineyard. If you see a label that says only Gevrey-Chambertin or Puligny-Montrachet or Volnay, it’s a village wine. The implication is that these wines fit not only by nomenclature but by quality into a third tier, but that’s not always the case. Some of the village wines that I reviewed recently are splendid. Village wines make up about 36 percent of Burgundy production.
(3) The next level consists of wines made from Premier Cru (“First Growth”) vineyards. Labels for these wines will have the name of the village AND the name of the vineyard, hence Gevrey-Chambertin Clos-Saint-Jacques or Puligny-Montrachet Les Caillerets. The words “Premier Cru” must also appear on the label. To tell you how complicated Burgundy can get, Gevrey-Chambertin, a village for red wine, has 26 Premier Cru vineyards, while Puligny-Montrachet, a village for white wine, has 23. Altogether, Burgundy holds 562 Premier Cru vineyards, and if you think that’s a lot, you’re right. It would be good to winnow the never-heard-from, the under-achievers, the unduly-rewarded. Premier Cru vineyards producer about 11 percent of the region’s wines.
(4) The apotheosis of Burgundy wines is found in the Grand Cru (“Great Growth”) vineyards, of which there are 31. Only the name of the Grand Cru vineyard appears on the label, as in Le Chambertin or Le Montrachet, along with the designation Grand Cru. This ultimate level accounts for about 1 percent of the region’s production.
So, first, Reputation. Let’s state the case frankly: The best chardonnay and pinot noir wines in the world come from Burgundy’s Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards. All the wines of Burgundy don’t attain greatness, of course; there are good years and bad years, meticulous producers and careless producers. Yes pinot noir and chardonnay in some areas of California, yes pinot noir in Oregon’a Willamette Valley, yes, a hint of success for pinot noir in New Zealand, but the best chardonnay and pinot noir wines from Burgundy are simply the best anywhere.
Second, rarity. In Burgundy, a vineyard of 25 or 30 acres is considered large. Most Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards are tiny, two or three acres, five or 10 acres, so production is limited. The appellation of Volnay, for example, holds 35 Premier Cru vineyards that encompass 237.76 acres. The production from all of Volnay’s Premier Cru vineyards averages 5,800 cases annually, a figure at which most estates in Bordeaux or wineries in California would scoff. In addition, the best Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards often are owned by several or even many producers; it happens that one fine producer may own a few rows of vines in one vineyard and a few rows of vines in another vineyard and make, in an abundant year, 25 or 50 cases each of an avidly sought-after wine. The method that determines which restaurants and which collectors in Europe and America (and increasingly in China and Japan) may purchase one or two precious bottles of these fabulous wines is arcane and probably unfair, but that’s what capitalism is all about, the concatenation of fiduciary prowess. The point is, there’s not enough fine Burgundy to go around. That’s why Madame Bize-Leroy can charge $900 for a bottle of her Le Montrachet and get it.
Finally, that blasted euro is dealing dirty to our dollar. It takes $1.416 to buy one euro, or, to put it the other way around, a euro is worth a measly 71 cents. When you account for that exchange rate and consider the costs the wine accumulates as it travels from the producer in Burgundy to the broker in Paris to the importer in New York to the wholesale distributor in whatever lucky city can get a case (or a few bottles) to the retail store, well, you’re talking about wads o’ dough. And 2005 is a superb year in Burgundy, especially for pinot noir, the best vintage, in fact, in a generation. Nobody’s exactly tempering their prices from euphoria, as in “Sacre bleu, it’s such a great year and we made such great wines, let’s lower prices for our American customers that we love so much!”
That’s not the way the world works. It’s all supply ‘n’ demand out there, and it ain’t pretty.