Andreas Whittam Smith: If you want a decent wine, buy it from the grower

My enjoyment of a glass of wine is enhanced by being able to picture where we bought it
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The Independent Online

I don't purchase wine from the usual outlets, whether specialist retailers with shops in every high street or supermarkets or even gentlemanly merchants. Instead, once a year, in the late autumn, my wife and I drive down to Burgundy to buy from the doors of the producers.

We are just back from our annual visit. On a further trip, often in the summer, we make purchases in the Rhone Valley. We buy some wine for drinking straight away and some for keeping. The two annual journeys take care of our needs.

I focus solely on the old vineyards along the Saône and Rhône valleys . I do this not because I believe they produce the best in the world, although they can do, but because I like the untidy, chaotic nature of these wine growing districts. The Clos de Vougeot, for instance, which we visited on Friday, is a 125-acre vineyard, surrounded by an ancient wall, originally the property of the nearby abbey of Cîteaux.

It is now parceled out between 80 proprietors, some whom possess just a few rows of vines - a vivid illustration of the constant subdivision of property which results from the French laws of inheritance. To the untutored eye, there is nothing to distinguish which row belongs to whom.

Each owner makes on average just 1,000 bottles a year, admittedly all "grand cru" sold at a high price. Nevertheless, as they cannot rely on the Clos de Vougeot alone for a living, many of them have vineyards or parts of vineyards elsewhere in the region.

The fragmented nature of Burgundy, with every wine-making village having an individual appellation d'origine controlée, often further subdivided into so-called climats or single plots, each with its own name, makes it impossible to market burgundy coherently. Few growers have either the time or resources to attend to "marketing" in the way which comes naturally to New World producers.

In any case, the burgundy growers have no tradition of orientation towards the consumer. Until the coming of canals and railways, the region was locked in and could only transport its goods long distances by river. Ownership of the best vineyards was prized, but the output was mainly consumed by an extended family and circle of friends. Still today, a few properties announce to all comers, private purchasers and ambitious wine merchants alike - pas de visites.

The complexity and the absence of modern sales methods is, perversely, one of the attractions of burgundy. It comes as an unexpected relief that you, the customer, have to make all the effort. Only a few of the bigger producers are open for sales to private purchasers at regular hours. These will have a price list, their tasting will be well-organised, and somebody will help you make up your mind. But in most cases, visitors must first telephone to make an appointment.

Even when this is done, and you arrive at the time arranged, you may be greeted by a grumpy wine grower, really a farmer, who only slowly warms to you if you appear to have some knowledge about wine. As you pick your way over hoses and pipes, down through cellars and into a tiny office with a wooden table and chair, you realise that this is agriculture pure and simple, not some rarefied activity.

A more serious problem for burgundy enthusiasts is inconsistency. I once went to a dinner in London arranged by a wine merchant friend at which a dozen of the best burgundies, both red and white, were to be drunk and discussed. They were all very expensive. Each guest was asked to contribute a bottle - which was vetted to make sure it was up to the required standard. My offering was rejected and I had to put in cash.

That evening I drank some sublime examples of the art of wine-making and, to my surprise, some very ordinary stuff. In other words, burgundy lacks an attribute which almost any other wine region, let alone any other business, would consider essential - a tight relationship between price and quality, a guarantee that you get what you pay for.

Why, then, do I persist with burgundy and do it the hard way? Alongside the famous names of the Côte-d'Or, such as Chambertin, Le Montrachet and the like, there are three areas that produce cheap. good quality wines of individual character - the Côte Chalonaise (Rully, Mercurey etc.), the Mâconnais and the beaujolais. Altogether the range and variety of burgundy is stupendous.

Moreover, purchasing at the door is far cheaper than any other method of buying wine. I see that in the Majestic wine list, for examples, beaujolais is quoted at double the price we paid on Saturday morning at Maison Georges Duboeuf. And this advantage extends right up the range, though it almost vanishes at the level of grand cru.

My enjoyment of a glass of wine is also enhanced by being able to picture where we bought it, not only the vineyard but the premises as well, often an old house, the maison de maître, together with outbuildings surrounding a courtyard.

Equally, I like to remember the growers we have met such as the Macon producer who proudly showed us menus of grand dinners, some of them at the Elysée, where his wines were listed. He hadn't himself been present, but his wines were there, and for him that was the same thing. We enjoyed his bottles. The journey was worth it.

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