Burgundy Bargains Lurk in Beaune Cellars: A. Craig Copetas

Bjorn von Below
Raider of the Lost Vine Bjorn von Below, vice president of EFG Bank in Geneva, surveys the vineyards of Chassagne-Montrachet before compiling his holiday season list of gift and investment wines. Photographer: Alastair Miller/Bloomberg

Dec. 21 (Bloomberg) -- In a crypt beneath the French village of Chassagne-Montrachet, Jean-Francois Rateau flicks away a spider sleeping on the dust-encrusted glass neck of Prince Florent de Merode.

The bottle of Grand Cru Corton Bressandes wine is crimson, a 2002 pinot noir handpicked from the highest slopes of Burgundy’s Cote de Beaune.

Rateau pulls the cork and pours. Standing to his right and biting his lip is John Lonardo, senior adviser at the international property brokerage firm Sperry Van Ness International and a member of the Burgundy wine-hunting fellowship, the Raiders of the Lost Vine.

Toward a dim light, the real-estate-investment specialist from Miami raises his glass. He swirls it, closes his eyes and lets his nose follow the aroma to discover if the 93 euro ($121.60) a bottle of Bressandes will be a 2011 holiday gift of choice for his clients. He sips and holds the liquid in his mouth for a long moment. Standing opposite, French publisher Philippe Larminie fidgets with a calculator and processes the Corton’s case price in silence.

At the top of a stone stairway, a cell phone is positioned to transmit Lonardo’s verdict across the border to the office of Bjorn von Below, a founding member of the Lost Vine and senior vice president of Geneva-based EFG Bank, which is owned by EFG International AG, a Swiss private bank controlled by Greek billionaire Spiro Latsis and his family.

Chinese Rivals

“Buy,” the 61-year-old Lonardo says. “My Chinese clients don’t yet know that Domaine de la Romanee-Conti leased Bressandes’s 2.27 hectares and are slapping a DRC label on the ticket.”

As Von Below tells it, this is an important moment in the 10-year history of the Lost Vine, a coterie of bankers, brokers and physicians who each year gather along the “Lieux-dits de Cote d’Or” (Vineyards of the Golden Slope) to pursue uniquely priced Burgundy drinking wines with exceptional terroirs and a good story.

“The Burgundies we’ve discovered over the years have been great but little distributed Grands and Premiers Crus available at source for under 100 euros a bottle,” Von Below says. “DRC now controls Bressandes and the Chinese have raised the auction price of almost all top-level Burgundies. I suspect they’ll soon be traveling to the source, with cash to inflate many of Burgundy’s drinking wines into investment vehicles.”

Burgundy Cases

Indeed, the Lost Vine expedition this season came in the wake of deep-pocketed wine collectors in Asia over the past few months sidestepping investment-grade Bordeaux Grands Crus in favor of Burgundies priced at more than $128,000 a case.

That was two days after Alain Suguenot, president of the Hospices de Beaune and mayor of Beaune as well as a member of the French parliament, says he entered into talks with Air China Vice President Fan Cheng on supplying the airline and other Chinese corporate clients with Champagne and Burgundy wines.

“The negociants see this as sending a signal of strength and stability to the market,” says George Legrand, director of Maison Boisset.

“Burgundy’s on fire and sizzling,” adds John Kapon, chief executive officer of New York-based wine-auction company Acker Merrall & Condit, which set 145 price records at its Nov. 4 and 5 auctions in Hong Kong. “Bordeaux is a day at the office now.”

U.S. Collector

Kapon told Bloomberg News that over a two-week period in November his company sold thousands of bottles from the Burgundy cellar of U.S. collector Donald Stott. Acker’s Oct. 29 sale in New York totaled more than $4 million and set 114 records, while the two-day Hong Kong event raised $14.5 million. In London, Bonhams Fine & Rare Wine Auction in December offered 92 lots of red Burgundies, including a case of 1985 Romanee-Conti Domaine de la Romanee-Conti for 140,000 euros.

“I expect the price of pre-DRC Bressandes to triple over the next few years,” says Rateau, whose family for almost a century has managed Caveau de Chassagne-Montrachet. “Once it has the DRC label, the sky is the limit.”

Von Below says Chinese investment, coupled with the “tempting DRC branding” of Bressandes, will make finding off-the-beaten track Burgundies more difficult to isolate.

“We’re going to have to fight harder and be more open to appellations like St. Aubin,” Von Below reckons. “It will be harder to drink the big-name Burgundies for pleasure, but the region is so complex that it will take longer than the professional wine brokers who deal with China think to turn Burgundy into a real investment wine.”

Celebratory Haul

For this season, though, the Lost Vine isolated a fine haul of celebratory Burgundian wines fit for immediate gratification and the discerning investment portfolio.

At the top of the Lost Vine’s list are the wines of the exceptional pinot noir vintner Jean-Marc Boillot, whose 2009 Beaune Premier Cru Montrevenots at 25 euros a bottle overwhelms the Beaune competition in the all-important quality-to-price ratio. Other liquid stars in the Boillot cave include his 2003 Pommard Premier Cru Les Saucilles at 32 euros a bottle and the 2007 and 2009 vintages at 35 euros a bottle.

The younger Saucilles harvests require a few more years rest before drinking. The 2003 is robust and ready to enjoy, a soundly priced example of one of France’s grandest wines. Larminie says that Boillot’s second Pommard, a Premier Cru Les Jarollieres vintage 2000 and 2001, both priced at 36 euros a bottle, is the ideal drink to accompany a traditional Christmas roast goose.

Vincent Dancer

Lonardo says that his most remarkable discovery is the “Village” wine of Vincent Dancer. Is that too high praise for a lowly and usually watery red? Maybe, until the Raiders trudged through the fields to isolate the wine’s provenance. French law bans growers from printing the name of a wine’s origin on the label of village output. Dancer’s biologically produced table wine hails from grapes grown on Pommard flatlands.

Dancer’s “Bourgogne Appellation Controlee 2009” bursts with terroir and the affluent tang of the region’s Premier Cru wines for 25 euros a magnum.

Single-bottle holiday investments of distinction for under 100 euros include the 2007 Premier Cru Beaune Les Teurons from Albert Morot and, from the Cote de Nuits, a 2006 Grand Cru Chambertin-Clos de Beze from Domaine Robert Groffier and a 1985 Corton Clos du Roy by Antonin Guyon.

Beware the big-ticket Grands Crus from Montrachet. A Lost Vine test of the world’s most-expensive white Burgundies revealed the price to be the only significant thing about them, particularly among the lower-priced Grand Cru labels.

Sherry Taste

DRC’s Le Montrachet brand -- a refreshing flower-and-honey tipple at 4,000 euros a bottle for the 1996 vintage and 3,000 euros a bottle for the 1988 vintage -- remain king of the hill above Puligny-Montrachet, though a few glasses poured from a 240 euro bottle of Domaine Blain-Gagnard’s lower slope 2002 Batard proved too caramelized and kicking with the aftertaste of sherry.

Still, Larminie says he savors the caramel-infused terroir of Batard and Chevalier Montrachets.

“No doubt the difference between honey and caramel can be oppressive to the uninitiated,” Larminie says. “Le Montrachets are exceptionally expensive and consumable pieces of art for people who don’t need to look at how much money is in their wallet.”

Larminie fills his glass with Batard and tells a story. “Batard is the wine Frenchmen use to woo beautiful young women,” he says. “For us, this is a reasonably priced wine with the aroma and flavor of the perfect perfume.”

To contact the writer on the story: Craig Copetas in Paris at ccopetas@bloomberg.net.

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