John Lichfield: Our Man In Burgundy

Beaune - the perfect place to avoid claret
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The Independent Online

Where would you find a wine list in France without a single bottle of Bordeaux? Easy. Go to Beaune, capital of the Burgundy wine industry.

In a Beaune restaurant, we were given a list with 20 pages of Burgundy wines and then - as a sop to the obstinate - two pages of "wines from the provinces of France". The sub-list contained bottles from every French region, except Bordeaux.

Small-minded, the Burgundians? No, just proud.

I was in Beaune with two readers of The Independent, Chris and Mary Shepherd, who bid successfully in our Christmas charity auction for a day in the Burgundy vineyards.

We had a wonderful day, organised by the "bureau interprofessionnel" of Burgundy wine growers and traders, visiting the ripening grapes, tasting the 2005 vintage from barrels (and older wines from bottles) and talking to the people who produce them.

Much noise has been heard from Bordeaux this year, both good and bad; both ecstatic and catastrophic. The great châteaux in that other wine-growing region say - with some justification - that their 2005 vintage will be exceptional. Although not yet bottled, the finest 2005 clarets are already selling at silly prices to wine lovers and speculators.

Meanwhile, smaller producers of lower-quality "generic" Bordeaux are marooned on the rocks of the world glut of wine. They are unable to sell their 2004 generic claret, never mind the 2005, at any price.

Much less - good or bad - has been heard from Burgundy. Why? The Burgundy growers and traders - often the same thing - make three points. First, their 2005 vintage is probably every bit as good as Bordeaux. Burgundians prefer to wait and see, however, before talking of the "vintage of the century".

Second, Burgundy does not have the same class distinctions as Bordeaux, segregated between the posh chateaux and the rest. In Burgundy, the "domaines", or wine-holdings, are small plots scattered over many vineyards, both high quality and lesser quality. Third, Burgundy did not make the same over-planting mistakes as Bordeaux in the 1980s and 1990s.

As a result, the glut of lower-quality wine in the world is a problem for Burgundy but not a disaster.

Two other points emerged strongly. First, Burgundy vineyards are going over in a big way to natural production of wine without chemical fertilisers, pesticides or weed-killers. They prefer not to make a fuss about this on the label. They do not want a kind of "tree-huggers'" wine image. They believe that the quality of natural wine will speak for itself.

Second, there is a younger generation of growers and traders taking over in Burgundy. They are aware of the best, and worst, of what has been done in the New World. They are aware that French wine must adjust to the challenge, while avoiding some of the self-defeating short-cuts used in the past (such as placing chemicals in some of the best wine-growing soil in the world).

Vincent Girardin, 45, in Meursault, has built his own 20-hectare (50-acre) domaine in the past 27 years. Typically for Burgundy, this ranges from generic chardonnay to small sections of two "premiers crus" vineyards, Bâtard Montrachet and Bienvenues Bâtard Montrachet. The white wines produced here are among the finest on the planet. Add their neighbour, Montrachet, and you can leave out the among.

"There is still a peasant attitude in Burgundy," said M. Girardin. "We don't have chateaux, like Bordeaux. We have vineyards. We are close to the earth and to the vines. And that's the way we want to keep it."

Grégory Patriat, 31, is the wine-maker at an established Burgundy name, Maison Jean-Claude Boisset in Nuits-Saint-Georges. He has made his way up from field worker. The house owns its vineyards but also buys grapes from famous "grand" and "premier" cru plots to make wines under its own label, choosing only the best grapes available. This is a shift towards the New World way of doing things.

M. Patriat - whose wines are superlative - is frank about some of the mistakes made in Burgundy in the past. Many vineyards - even the finest - were replanted with a variety of pinot noir grapes called pinot droit, which produces large, succulent grapes - "as big as beetroots", M. Patriat says - but poorer-quality wine. He will buy grapes only from the vineyards which still have the gnarled smaller pinot noir vines (which are being widely reintroduced).

And what of the 2005 vintage? "Down in Bordeaux, every year is the best wine ever," he said. "Here, we don't shout as much. We are quietly confident that the 2005 will be fantastic and that 2006 may be equally good."

I told him about the Beaune restaurant without a single Bordeaux on its list.

"Quite right," he said. "Why come to Burgundy and drink inferior wines?"