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Is Burgundy on Road Back to Its Former Greatness?

February 09, 1989|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

Truly dedicated wine lovers often ask me these days if Burgundy is coming back. The question ought to be, I suppose, did Burgundy really ever leave?

The allegations are everywhere, placed there by "allegers" as knowledgeable as Anthony Hanson, master of wine and one of the first major critics of the way Burgundy wines have been made recently. At least, the way Burgundy wines were being made through the 1970s when Hanson was researching his now-infamous book on the region.

But to backtrack: I have tasted Burgundy as it is supposed to be. I have tasted wines from 1929 and from 1933 and '69 and '71. And '76. The great wines stand out like beacons, with elements that span the vinous lingo from cherry to earth, from pipe tobacco to cedar, from something as mundane as barnyard to as evocative as a pine forest after a rain.

Great Burgundy is a rare treat, and the word rare is used with knowledge aforethought because of the difficulty in finding a truly great Burgundy. And when one does find one, the price is always prohibitive (as with the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti wines, the '86 versions of which were evaluated here recently. They run $80 to $250 a bottle.)

Yet even at as "modest" a price as $30 or $40 a bottle, quality is erratic. We all know that the emperor occasionally wears rags, but who among us would shout it? Hanson did in his 1982 book entitled, simply, "Burgundy."

Fanatical Demand for Burgundy

Hanson lived in Burgundy for three years researching his topic and his no-holds frontal assault on the sacred region had the elders of the soil screaming foul.

"Burgundy has a secret," Hanson wrote to open one chapter. "It is the extent to which its reputation as a producer of great red wines is founded on occasional splendid vintages."

He alleged, among other atrocities, that dark-colored wine "from Mediterranean shores" was added to Burgundy to give it color (a legal no-no). He said sugar was routinely added before fermentation to boost alcohol content, even in good vintages where it wasn't necessary.

He said the fanatical worldwide consumer demand for Burgundy over the past two decades encouraged faster production methods, to the detriment of the result. The wines were thin, washed out, lacked dense flavors, as once was found in "old" Burgundy.

Hanson was ruthless. The book sold well among Burgundy lovers of my acquaintance, and many of them (especially a San Francisco resident and longtime friend) merely shook their heads and said, "I knew there was something wrong."

Legendary Wines of 1969

Burgundy, we all knew, was not as it had been. There are those who will tell you that 1969 was the last great year in Burgundy--a great vintage as well as the last time the broad spectrum of producers made wine the old-fashioned way: they earned it by time-consuming and time-honored--and costly--methods known to work. The '69s were great wines, still are.

With the heralding of the supposedly greater-than-all-others 1985 vintage wines from Burgundy, I have been asked the question over and over: Is 1985 the greatest Burgundy vintage ever? My initial answer was: Potentially, I suppose. It was certainly a great vintage, and the wines taste pretty good.

But greatest ever? Or comparable to the best? Only severe analysis and time will tell.

Jean-Michel Ricard was in Los Angeles the other day. He is a vice president of Antonin Rodet, a Burgundy house that frankly hit a slippery spot in the road a few years back, with its wines skidding all over the street.

For various (and unconnected) reasons, Rodet's wines were unimpressive for more than a decade, and by the time Hanson's book came out, the Rodet wines were in decline, appearing to be a victim of all Hanson warned about.

Changes in House of Rodet

Ricard admitted the other day that, yes, Rodet's wine were not all they might have been during a period of years in the past. He declined to state a specific reason, but he did note that Bertrand Devillard, son-in-law of the Marquis de Jouennes, the owner of the house of Rodet, made a major decision in 1981 to upgrade the quality of the wines.

One step was to discard a huge number of the old barrels in which the winery aged the wine; new barrels came in. Also, the family reduced the amount of wine it made to concentrate on quality, and it reached agreement to develop and market the wines of Jacques Prieur, a producer of top-quality wines based in Meursault.

Rodet's wines always have been fairly priced, and one reason is that the property is located in Mercurey, a region not accorded as much fanfare as the better-known regions of Burgundy.

"Mercurey does not have the fame," said Ricard, pointing to wines with names like Rully and Chateau de Chamirey and noting that they aren't household names in many wine shops. And Rodet Mercurey (about $15) is a good value these days.

Comeback for Burgundy?

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