Demand for this most adaptable of grape varieties has encouraged so many clever imitators that it is not always easy to know if it is worth paying the extra for the original and best. You can have all the reproduction white burgundy you want, courtesy of chardonnay from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and California - not to mention the South of France. So can I justify scratching around for funds to buy a case or two of the 1992 white burgundies?
I believe I can. There are several compelling reasons to shell out for 1992 white burgundy, not least a feeling that, for some producers, it could be the finest vintage for a long time. According to Mark Reynier of La Reserve, one of a number of specialists with offers of 1992 white burgundy, it has 'even more richness than the mighty 1990'. The 1989, he said, 'does not have enough acidity so will not age as well'; the 1988 'does not have the same richness; one has to go back as far as 1985 - and even that was not quite in the same league'.
This was the verdict, too, of Michel Bettane, France's distinguished wine writer, whom I found among the oak barrels in Jean-Marc Roulot's cool cellar in Meursault. 'The 1992 will be greater than any white burgundy vintage of the Eighties,' he pronounced, as he sipped one glass after another of fine Meursault.
Mr Roulot is an earnest young grower who manages to combine winemaking with professional acting. He was not play-acting, though, when he declared that '1992 doesn't have the power of 1990, but the harvest was so healthy, it has a purity that has been lacking in the Nineties. The balance is excellent and it should age well.' Tasting his sumptuously nutty, elegantly poised Meursault Les Perrieres (pounds 240 a case), I had to agree.
Few dry white wines can be aged in bottles for a decent length of time and most cellars tend to be top-heavy with classic reds. Fine white burgundy, however, has the stamina to improve for a good 10 years or more - and that is the second reason for buying some. Late rains in 1992 caused a wash-out in Bordeaux, and there was little to write home about among the classic reds from elsewhere. The better producers of white burgundy had meanwhile stolen a march on the rest of Europe by picking their chardonnay in early September before the heavens opened.
There is another good reason to lay down some white burgundy. The top growers' white burgundies are strictly limited, because the Napoleonic inheritance laws have resulted in far smaller divisions of Burgundy's vineyards. Once bought, top white burgundy rarely reappears at auction. Already expensive purchased en primeur, when it reaches restaurants or wine merchants it is prohibitively priced.
Demand for white burgundy is always high, but a combination of a drop in prices at the barometer sale of the Hospices de Beaune, and a growing reputation for the 1992s has set pulses racing. Becky Wasserman, a broker who deals mostly with the cash-rich US, says: 'I've already sold out of a lot of the 1992s. It's a very exciting year. It will be marketed as a ready-to-drink vintage, but the best wines should be put down for 10 to 15 years.'
Once you have decided to buy, the question is what to choose. If you do not have had the chance to taste the wines yourself, I can help a little here, because since I have managed to taste a number of mouth-watering 1992s, and of others I have formed at least a preliminary view based on reports from growers and merchants.
Among the real stars I have tasted, the Puligny Montrachets of Etienne Sauzet stood out, with the nutty, honeyed Les Combettes (Tanners, pounds 295.56; La Reserve, pounds 355) the finest. I was also captivated by the richness and intense flavour of Michelot-Buisson's amazing, butterscotch-like Meursault les Genevrieres (pounds 295); and Louis Latour's Meursault Chateau de Blagny (pounds 130) is excellent. For a straight village wine, Jean-Marc Morey's Chassagne Montrachet (pounds 145) is beautifully rich and well balanced. Other growers who have reputedly made outstanding white burgundies in 1992 include Louis Carillon, Pierre Morey, Domaine Leflaive, Comtes Lafon, Guffens-Heynen, Jean-Marc Boillot and Andre Ramonet.
For those who are not prepared to fork out more than pounds 10 a bottle, 1992 has also thrown up more affordable white burgundies. Among the best I would rate Hubert Lamy's toasted oak Saint-Aubin 1er cru en Remilly (pounds 108.72), Thevenot le Brun's exotic Bourgogne Hautes Cotes de Nuits Le Vignon (pounds 85), Olivier Leflaive's honeyed Auxey Duresses (pounds 72), Olivier Merlin's stunning Macon la Roche Vineuse Vieilles Vignes (pounds 75), and an excellent Hautes Cotes de Nuits from Jean Yves Devevey (pounds 85). Even Marks & Spencer is in on the act, with a pure, unoaked 1992 chablis and a piercingly fruity Montagny Premier Cru, both pounds 6.99, respectively from La Chablisienne and Buxy, two of France's most reliable co-operatives.
HOW TO BUY
Some specialist merchants have offers of 1992 white burgundy en primeur. This is always a risk because you pay before the wines are bottled and delivered. The risk is reduced in this instance, however, because some wines are already shipped and ready to be delivered. Some prices include duty and VAT, some just duty, others neither. In the last two instances, add VAT or VAT plus duty (currently pounds 12.13 a case) when the wines are ready. Wines not already in the UK will be shipped this autumn or next spring.
Domaine Roulot, Etienne Sauzet, Michelot-Buisson, Jean-Marc Morey, Thevenot-le-Brun: La Reserve, 56 Walton St, London SW3 (071-589 2020); Roulot also from John Armit Wines, 5 Royalty Studios, 105 Lancaster Rd, London W11 (071-727 6846). (Sauzet also at Tanners, Shrewsbury: 0743 232007). Louis Latour Meursault Chateau de Blagny: Farr Vintners, 19 Sussex St, London SW1 (071-828 1960); Berry Bros & Rudd, 3 St James's St, SW1 (071-396 9600).
Olivier Leflaive: Lay & Wheeler, Colchester (0206 764446 - offer remains open for limited period only to Independent readers); John Armit Wines.
Hubert Lamy: Lay & Wheeler.
Olivier Merlin and Jean Yves Devevey: Morris & Verdin, 28 Churton Street, London SW1 (071-630 8888).