Suck it and see

WINE The best way to judge the pros and cons of en primeur burgundy is to go along to a tasting and make up your own mind Illustration by Spike Gerrell

When Que Choisir (France's Which?) reported recently that there were some "scandalous products" on the market with the appellation controlee label, the wine authorities in Bordeaux and Burgundy tried to gag it.

Perhaps the deepest wound to French amour-propre was the confusion of some of the fanciest French burgundies with New World wines, in a blind tasting organised by the magazine. Nowhere is there a more quasi-mystical, age-old attachment to the earth than in Burgundy. The tasters who thought their grand cru chablis and clos de vougeot were New World chardonnay and pinot noir respectively will no doubt be strung up if they set foot in Burgundy again.

The foundation stone of the appellation edifice is the belief that terroir, the combination of soil, site and climate, is more important than grape variety. But gone is the idea that this is an exclusively French preserve: distinctive New World wines are continually emerging.

Ironically, since 1990 Burgundy has had a fortunate run of vintages. It produced some superlative white wines in 1992, and in 1993 some of the most elegant expressions of pinot noir. The 1994 vintage is currently being touted as a vintage to buy en primeur - to buy now, that is, wines that will be shipped during 1996 and 1997 for laying down. Buying en primeur allows one to snap up the wines of small domaines whose supplies rarely reach the saleroom. But is it worth it?

Three independent burgundy specialists, Justerini & Brooks (0171-493 8721), Morris & Verdin (0171-722 5577) and Bibendum (0171-357 8866), were quick off the mark with tastings of growers' 1994 burgundies in London last month. Many were still only cask samples, but they offered a useful snapshot of the vintage. "The keys to success in 1994 were a sharp pair of secateurs in the vineyard, nerves of steel in picking late, and sang-froid in the winery," says Hew Blair of Justerini & Brooks. More bullishly, Bibendum announced that "1994 has already gained the reputation of being a white one... the best growers have produced excellent wines, both red and white."

Reading between the lines, and tasting along the tables, 1994 is a vintage to be selective about. There was a record harvest, but the vintage itself was dogged by rain and the grapes were prone to rot.

Despite weaknesses, the specialists were able to salvage some winners in 1994 - not all at ludicrous prices. Among the whites, enjoyable now but not for laying down for any great length of time, Justerini & Brooks showed a fine Chablis Beauroy 1er cru from Domaine Laurent Tribut (pounds 108 per case), a rich and steely Chablis Forest 1er cru from Dauvissat- Camus (pounds 117), an attractive white Auxey-Duresses from Michel Prunier (pounds 96), an intense Hautes Cotes de Nuits from Jayer-Gilles (pounds 120), a characterful Pernand-Vergelesses, le de Vergelesses 1er cru from Remi Rollin (pounds 141), and a fine Meursault from Albert Grivault (pounds 129).

Morris & Verdin's floral, spicy Hautes Cotes de Nuits Blanc from Jean- Yves Devevey (pounds 92) showed star quality, while at Bibendum, Henri Goyard's super-ripe and richly honeyed Macon Montbellet (pounds 95) was good, but its slightly cloying nature suggests that a whole case might pall. You will need at least five numbers and the bonus ball to opt for the likes of Jean-Noel Gagnard's sublime Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot 1er cru, Grivault's Meursault Clos des Perrieres 1er cru or Etienne Sauzet's Puligny-Montrachet Les Garennes 1er cru, at, respectively pounds 237, pounds 282 and pounds 279.

As for 1994 reds, the best are fragrant expressions of the red fruits character of pinot noir. But dilution has resulted in some lean wines without the fruit to support the stringy, toughish tannins. There are exceptions, but you have to pay for them. At Bibendum, there were the supple, fragrant qualities of Denis Mortet's Gevrey-Chambertin "En Champs" Vieilles Vignes (pounds 210) and his sumptuous Gevrey Chambertin 1er cru Lavaux St Jacques (pounds 260). At J & B, Robert Chevillon has produced a perfumed Nuits Saint Georges, Les Cailles (pounds 189) and Bruno Clair a Savigny Dominode 1er cru (pounds 150), probably his finest red. More modestly, Henri Prudhon's St-Aubin Les Frionnes 1er cru (pounds 84), and, at Morris & Verdin, Patrice Rion's Bourgogne Rouge Bons Batons pounds 78, show promise.

The best way to judge en primeur burgundy is to go to a tasting and make up your own mind. Morris & Verdin will be holding their "grand burgundy tasting" on 7 March, and Corney & Barrow, The Wine Society, Lay & Wheeler, Laytons, Haynes Hanson & Clark and Tanners, are likely to make offers of 1994 during the year. Note that prices for the wines are in bond, ie without duty and VAT, which are added on delivery

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