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Burgundy’s Affordable Hidden Gems Shine in Tricky 2008 Vintage

Blair Pethel
Burgundy winemaker Blair Pethel at his winery in Savigny-les-Beaune, France. Pethel, whose first vintage was 2004, transformed a former tractor garage into a well-equipped winery that includes a filter to remove all chlorine from water before use. Photographer: Elin McCoy/Bloomberg

April 26 (Bloomberg) -- I enjoy a grand cru Burgundy as much as the next wine lover, and maybe more. But with top names going for several hundred dollars a bottle, my budget rarely supports such splurges.

Which is why I was on the prowl for seriously seductive bargain-priced whites and reds at last month’s Grands Jours de Bourgogne trade fair.

I found some of the most delicious wines I sampled during my week’s stay in the underrated appellation of Auxey-Duresses. The village, a 15-minute drive south from Beaune, is overshadowed by its famous neighbors -- Meursault, Pommard and Volnay. Navigating its narrow twisting streets one rainy morning, I tracked down Domaine Jean et Gilles Lafouge by spotting a stone plaque with the name Gilles Lafouge next to a modest cobblestone courtyard guarded by a snoozing labrador.

Ten minutes later, Gilles, the sixth generation of this winemaking family, was welcoming me into a low damp cellar with a gravel floor and neatly stacked barrels.

Lafouge, in dark fleece vest and jeans, set bottles of his six whites and five reds on an upturned barrel. The domaine is small, he explained as he poured, just 10 hectares of vines, most in Auxey-Duresses’ top spots and premiers crus vineyards. What stood out in his wines was the purity of fruit and precise, delicate, nuanced flavors that reflected the individuality of each vineyard plot.

“2008 is a vintage for precision and terroir, for aging,” said Lafouge, before launching into a description of this tricky vintage -- rain, hail, mildew -- in rapid French. It was a year that tested winegrowers’ nerves, a potentially disastrous vintage saved in the nick of time by mid-September warm weather and sun.

Sorting Grapes

What counted in this vintage, as in more-acidic 2007, was how much time and energy producers put into the vineyards during the growing season and how diligently they sorted grapes at harvest time. Lafouge got it right.

I put stars next to notes for most of his 2008s. Among the superb whites, the rich Les Boutonniers tastes of ripe pears; among reds, Les Duresses is deep and structured with hints of violets, while La Chapelle is mouth-filling, with notes of savory fruit and a long finish.

I’m especially surprised when I discover they sell for $25 to $35.

The night before I’d sampled widely in another low-buzz appellation, Marsannay, at the far north end of the Cote d’Or, the narrow 35-mile-long limestone escarpment on which Burgundy’s greatest vineyards lie.

Drinking Song

Dozens of producers’ best bottles circulated from table to table at the convivial dinner called La Paulee de Marsannay as winemakers periodically burst into the “la, la, la” chorus and loud claps of the region’s signature drinking song.

Marsannay has no premiers or grands crus (it received appellation status only in 1987), and is best known for its delicious roses. Yet, it has some ambitious young winemakers aiming to make great reds, like Sylvain Pataille, whose domaine is organic. His scented, succulent Marsannay L’Ancestrale, which will probably sell for $45 a bottle when it gets to the U.S., is cheap for a Burgundy this good.

The financial crisis hit Burgundy hard as wine lovers traded down in price. “2009 was a struggle,” said Cecile Mathiau of the Burgundy Wine Board.

The value of exports to the U.S. fell 35 percent and to the U.K. 26 percent, compared to 2008. Worldwide, volume dropped 16 percent.

Don’t expect a slide in Burgundy prices as a result. During the same period Hong Kong sales climbed 35 percent, and Asians were out in force at the Grands Jours tastings.

Tractor Garage

Besides, one reason the best Burgundies cost so much is that famous vineyards don’t come cheap. At the converted tractor-garage winery of Domaine Dublere in Savigny-les-Beaune, U.S. journalist-turned-winemaker Blair Pethel was crowing over his good luck in signing a deal the day before to buy 1/4 hectare (0.6 acre) of chardonnay in the grand cru Corton-Charlemagne vineyard for 2 million euros. By contrast, 2/3 of a hectare (1.6 acres) of more ordinary chardonnay a kilometer away cost a mere 600,000 euros.

That helps explain why wines from underrated appellations can be a good deal -- Pethel’s savory Savigny-les-Beaune Les Peuillets blanc sells for $100 less than a Corton-Charlemagne.

A low-cost way to try Burgundy’s top names is at Beaune restaurant Loiseau des Vignes, awarded its first Michelin star last month. The by-the-glass wine list consists of 50 premiers and grands crus from producers like Coche-Dury and Roumier, the bottles displayed behind glass in a deep red wall cupboard.

A rare Raveneau Chablis Vaillons (10 euros for a 12 cl glass) matched well with basil-laced Saint-Pierre fish, as did rich 2001 Drouhin grand cru Charmes-Chambertin (25 euros) with roasted pigeon.

At home, though, it’s Auxey-Duresses and Marsannay for me.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of the story: Elin McCoy at elinmccoy@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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