Chief among them are the dual problems, from the perspective of someone who wants to learn about the region, of terribly fragmented vineyards and wide-ranging stylistic differences amongst producers that run the gamut from delicate and ethereal to rich and powerful wines.
So, why are these problems and what can one do about them?
You can of course see the inherent problem here: with such small parcels, producers tend to make tiny quantities of wine. While this can make it frustratingly difficult to find certain wines, there are some benefits to the consumer that arise out of this scenario.
The first is that with so many winemakers producing wines from a single vineyard it is very easy for the finest wines to gain the recognition they deserve. Whether through exceptional winemaking, or the fortune of the finest terroir, these wines that perform year in and year out quickly rise to the top of their respective heap. Of course, the limited supply of these wines, coupled with their growing demand, almost invariably leads to them being priced out of reach of many, if not most, consumers, so this may not be a benefit at all.
A second piece of the Burgundy puzzle that this sort of land ownership has almost forced into creation does something quite the opposite. With so few vines in many, if not multiple, appellations, many growers choose not to vinify their own wines, but opt instead to sell their grapes, and yes sometimes wine in barrels, to négociants. As the name implies, négociants began as middlemen of a sort. Over the years, several firms grew large enough to take on winemaking responsibilities, and today several companies dominate much of the Burgundian landscape, and that is not a bad thing.
Négociants are able to create an economic situation that is beneficial not only to themselves, but also works to reward the landowners who choose to not make their own wine and because of the sheer scale of many of their wines they are able to deliver great Burgundy to consumers at attractive and fair prices. It’s easy to criticize négociants in the abstract. They rarely make the best wine of any particular appellation and, due to the volume of wine they generally have to sell, tend to favor a safe, middle-of-the-road approach to winemaking. But again, what on its face can be seen as a negative is quickly turned into a positive for the consumer.
As I touched on earlier, Burgundian winemakers produce their wines in a broad range of styles. While this is part of what makes Burgundy exciting, it is not especially helpful to those wishing to learn more about the region’s wines. If you are hoping to learn about the region by comparing a Volnay to a Gevrey-Chambertin, for example, it is crucial to try and find wines that share a winemaking philosophy so that the wines speak more about their respective terroirs than their winemaker’s intentions. With the fragmentation of Burgundy’s vineyards it can be difficult to find many producers whose lines cover much, if not all of the region, except of course for the négociants!
We should return to the négociants' styles for a thought. As I mentioned, they tend towards the middle of the road, which in this case, with one trying to learn more about the region, is a distinct advantage. I’m not going to spend too much time here discussing producers' styles in Burgundy, but I will say I buy several négociants' wines on a regular basis and do so because I enjoy their styles. Pinot Noir, and particularly Burgundian Pinot Noir, can produce a subtle wine. To my palate, a gentle hand in the cellar allows the grape to tell its story in a far more interesting way than one that strives to wring every last ounce of power out of the grapes and winemaking process.
The discussion of producers and their styles will have to wait for another day. One can argue whether producer or appellation should be more influential in determining where one’s Burgundy bullseye lies, but generally the truth lies in a combination of the two. Discovering regions that appeal to your palate is a far easier proposition, particularly when you have access to the wines of a grand négociant.
Joseph Drouhin is one of the finest négociants not only in Burgundy, but in the world. The family produces wines in classic négociant fashion, as well as from properties that they own outright. I don’t know exactly how to describe their style. "Middle of the road" can sound frankly derogatory at times, but to me it seems just about right.
When tasting through the wines of Drouhin I can really get a sense of each wine’s terroir, and each wine expresses not only the flavors and aromas of the vineyards, but more importantly to me, the texture as well. There is no over-arching winemaking style imposed on the wines other than a fine combination of elegance, balance and a refined sense of richness.
I recently tasted some of the Drouhin’s current releases and the wines are as good as ever. Some specific bottlings showed a bit better than others, but these are wines that I look forward to tasting again!
See page 2 for tasting notes on Drouhin's current releases