Wine: Pick of the bunch

Anthony Rose makes the case for Burgundy 1996

Unveiling the 1996 vintage this month, the country's Burgundy specialists are inviting us to dig deep into our pockets for what they are touting as an excellent vintage. Certainly the offers now oozing like buttercream piping from pukka wine merchants represent not the drab, anonymous negociant side of Burgundy but genuine, handcrafted wines from the creme de la creme of the region's growers.

At its best, Burgundy transcends the fruit flavours of the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, no matter how delicious they may be in themselves. Fine Burgundy combines sensual pleasure and complexity, expressing something of the character of the vineyard and the skill of the grower. Why else is so much of the New World on a mission to try out its alchemy on these red and white supermodels of the grape catwalk?

Unlike wines of the New World, though, the link between Burgundy and value for money can be tenuous. So, with moderate price increases for the new vintage absorbed by the strong pound, it's by sheer luck rather than good planning that now is a good time to buy. Even so, when you've paid a small fortune for a bottle which turns out to be a disappointing experience - as happens too often - it can try the patience of all but the most masochistic of Burgundy lovers.

Is it worth digging deep for 1996? The accolades from merchants and growers vary from good to exceptional. Tastings of largely unfinished wines this month suggest ordinary to very good is closer to the mark. But separating out the elements - the quality of the vintage, the prices and the wines (warts and all) - the answer is an unqualified yes.

As a vintage, 1996 was a year, as Des Lynam might put it, of two halves. It was a whopper, at close on 200 million bottles, well above average for the past five years. While conscientious growers discarded green, unripe bunches in July to accelerate the ripening process, even as meticulous a grower as Ghislaine Barthod still managed to squeeze a relatively large crop from her Chambolle Musigny Premier Cru vineyard, Les Chatelots. Until mid-August, unseasonal cold and rain aggravated fears that the grapes might not ripen sufficiently, or rot. But a cool, drying wind and late- season sunshine helped bring in an abundant, largely healthy harvest, albeit with a sharpness in all but the ripest grapes.

Given the fine quality of Chardonnay coming from so many parts of the New World, white Burgundy has to be exceptional to justify its price. But there are some superb white Burgundies in 1996 which will unquestionably benefit from ageing. The less good, though, come across as rather mean, with worrying levels of lemony sharpness.

Among good buys at under pounds 100 a case, two crisp, flavoursome Bourgogne Blancs stand out - one from Jean-Yves Devevey (pounds 72, M&V, see list of merchants below), another from Alain Coche Bizouard (pounds 60, BIB), along with a typically honest Macon-Uchizy from Domaine Talmard (pounds 53.40, J&B) and a well-crafted Pernand-Vergelesses from Champy (pounds 91.70, HHC).

Ascending the ladder of quality - and price - Laurent Tribut's steely Chablis Beauroy Premier Cru (pounds 108, J&B), will repay cellaring, while the stylish balance of Marc Morey's rich, subtly oaked Chassagne Montrachet (pounds 133.85, HHC) makes it a star buy (as is his wonderful Chassagne Premier Cru Les Vergers at pounds 192.40). Look out, too, for fine Meursaults from Bouzereau (M&V), Grivault (J&B) and a superb Chassagne Montrachet Premier Cru Les Chenevottes from Jean-Noel Gagnard (pounds 198, J&B).

Red Burgundies in 1996 tend to be less tannic than the muscular 1995s, and rather closer to the excellent 1993s, although, perhaps, less concentrated and intense. This makes for good medium-term wines, where the Pinot Noir has ripened enough for the voluptuous sweet, red-berry fruitiness to shine through. But the reds appear to be less consistent than the whites, and where they lack flesh, a streak of acidity pokes through. So caveat emptor: pick and choose carefully, not just from grower to grower, but from wine to wine. No easy task, admittedly, when so many of the wines at this stage are still unfinished cask samples.

At a relatively humble price level - for red Burgundy - there are some good options: Georges Roumier's Bourgogne Rouge (pounds 79.75, HHC), Tollot- Beaut's Chorey-Les-Beaune (pounds 93, J&B), Eric de Suremain's Rully Preaux Premier Cru (pounds 105, J&B) and Girard-Vollot's vibrant, modern Savigny-Lavieres (pounds 115, M&V).

From top producers who haven't yet priced themselves out of the market, my favourite reds to date come from four Cote de Nuits-based growers: Ghislaine Barthod-Noellat (Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru Les Chatelots, (pounds 210 BIB), Anne-Francoise Gros (Chambolle-Musigny, pounds 162.95, HHC), and from Nuits Saint Georges, Jean Chauvenet et Christophe Drag (Nuits Saint Georges Premier Cru Les Damodes, pounds 210, BIB) and Robert Chevillon (Nuits Saint Georges Premier Cru Les Saint Georges, pounds 207, J&B).

Where to buy the new Burgundy

It's worth bearing in mind that, unlike offers of the new Bordeaux vintage, which span a relatively short period, offers of pre-released Burgundy are a moveable feast, spanning from now until the summer and probably beyond. Prices are per case in bond or ex cellars with delivery terms varying from merchant to merchant. If in bond, duty at pounds 13.02 plus VAT, and VAT on the total is invoiced after shipment and delivery later in the year or early next. In the case of ex cellars, a charge for shipment is also added.

Bibendum (BIB, 113 Regent's Park Road, London NW1 8UR (0171-722 5577); Morris & Verdin (M&V), 10 The Leathermarket, West Street, London SE1 3ER (0171-357 8866); Haynes Hanson & Clark (HHC), 25 Eccleston Street, London SW1W 9NP (0171-259 0102); Justerini & Brooks (J&B), St James's Street, London SW1A 1LZ (0171-493 8721). Other recommended merchants with current offers: Gelston Castle, Gelston, Castle Douglas, Scotland DG7 1QE (01556 503012); Goedhuis & Co, 6 Rudolf Place, Miles Street, London SW8 1RP (0171- 793 7900); OW Loch (whites only), 82 Southwark Bridge Road, London SE1 0AS (0171-928 7750); John Armit, 5 Royalty Studios, 105 Lancaster Road, London, W11 1QF (0171-727 6846); Tanners, 266 Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury, SY1 1XD (01743 232007); Raeburn Fine Wines, 21 Comely Bank Road, Edinburgh EH4 1DS (0131-343 1159); Montrachet (reds only), 24 Cornwall Road, London SE1 8TW (0171-928 1990).

White of the week

1997 Churton Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 6.90 (pounds 5.99 introductory offer), Tanners (as above). Labelled exclusively for Tanners, this exuberant new Sauvignon Blanc is a typically assertive Marlborough style, with intense, gooseberry and tongue-tingling, tropical citrus-fruit flavours. Delivery is free, so it's well worth taking advantage of Tanner's good-value, introductory unsplit case offer until the end of February.

Red of the week

1990 Chateau de Gueyze, Buzet, pounds 6.99, Tesco. Aged in new French oak casks, this blend of 40 per cent Merlot, 35 per cent Cabernet Franc and 25 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon is made in the heart of south-west France's Buzet appellation. Youthful still, the blackcurrant fruit richness has developed mature bottle-aged character and softened into a heartwarmingly supple-textured red. Blink, and you could almost be in Saint Emilion.

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