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Finding Burgundy Bargains as Prices Surge: Elin McCoy

Domaine de la Romanee Conti
Glasses of the Domaine de la Romanee Conti's eight red Burgundies and one white from the 2009 vintage at the Domaine's annual preview tasting at the Palace hotel in New York. The 2009 vintage was textbook perfect, and the reds are plush and ripe. Photographer: Elin McCoy/Bloomberg

Sipping samples of Louis Jadot’s superb 2010 Burgundies downstairs at New York’s Bar Boulud, I breathe a sigh of relief. It looks like I can still afford to buy a few of the region’s seductive bottles at reasonable prices.

Why had I been worried? Because Burgundy has been on a hot streak. New Chinese buyers are falling in love with the region’s “grands crus.” At Hart David Hart’s March 24 Burgundy auction, some lots went for double their high estimates.

Liv-ex’s March report says demand has surged in the last six months, and two back-to-back excellent vintages in 2009 and 2010 are now goosing sales.

Oh, and reports have surfaced of alleged fakes turning up at auctions, usually an indication that the clamoring for these wines is pushing prices to ridiculous levels.

All are ominous signs that Burgundy will get even more expensive than it is now.

Picking wines from this complicated French region has never been easy. A 60-kilometer (37 mile) strip of the Cote d’Or, running from Dijon to the north to Santenay in the south, it is made up of a mosaic of individual “climats.”

The Burgundian term refers to plots or a group of plots of vines that have been known under the same name for several centuries. There are 1,247 of them. Only 33 are designated as grands crus.

Search Strategy

One good strategy when tacking this huge array of choices is to seek out bottles from negociants Maison Louis Jadot and Maison Joseph Drouhin.

The two historic firms are always reliable and often underrated. They own and control sections of many premiers and grands crus vineyards and their quality has never been higher. Drouhin’s vineyards are certified organic from the 2009 vintage.

Yet their grands crus often cost half the price of more sought-after producers like Rousseau and Roumier.

Another strategy is to buy 2010 Burgundies now, before they arrive in shops. I’ve been previewing samples of the 2010 vintage at New York tastings since early February, and both whites and reds are outstanding, displaying amazing purity, freshness, and elegance. Still, I’d give a slight edge to the reds.

“In Burgundy we like 2010 because it has a difficult story with a happy ending,” says tall, lanky Jadot winemaker Frederic Barnier, as we savor plates of wild striped bass over a few stellar older vintages at Bar Boulud.

Crop Destroyed

Terrible winter frosts at the end of 2009 killed off some of the vines, followed by a rainy and cold late spring while July and August were cooler than usual. A hailstorm destroyed 50 percent of the Jadot crop in Santenay. Still, ideal September weather saved the remaining vines.

The resulting small crop means continued upward pressure on prices. Jadot harvested 30 to 50 percent less than usual for their reds.

“2009 was perfect for rich reds, but some whites are too ripe,” Barnier says. “I prefer the 2010s - they have lower alcohol, more precise flavors, and their delicacy opens the window onto terroir.”

That’s not entirely marketing speak. Subtle differences of aroma and taste in wines from different patches of soil are worshipped by Burgundy vintners and prized by collectors.

One outstanding 2010 from Jadot is the graceful and complex Gevrey-Chambertin Clos Saint-Jacques premier cru ($150). While that’s not cheap, I’m not the only critic one who thinks this prized red plot deserves to be classified as a grand cru.

Bargain Budgets

For the more budget minded, Jadot’s fresh, intense Pernand-Vergelesses Clos de la Croix de Pierre red, a premier cru, is a bargain at $36.

A top buy from Drouhin is the 2010 Beaune Clos des Mouches blanc, a premier cru boasting a laser-like focus. A New York merchant was offering it last week for the pre-arrival price of $83. Its silky red twin, the 2010 Beaune Clos des Mouches rouge, all cherries and beetroot, was on sale for $75.

Still, let’s not forget the great 2009s. One well-priced example is Jadot’s Beaune premier cru. Elegant and delicious with a special 150th anniversary label, it costs just $35 a bottle.

The Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, which only previews its wines just before bottles are released, held its annual tasting at the New York Palace Hotel, in a large room where the Pope once stayed.

Beautiful Grapes

“The red grapes we saw on the sorting table in 2009 were beautiful,” said DRC co-director Aubert de Villaine, with a small smile at the tasting.

He compares the vintage’s style to the rich, lavish 1959s, but with more density. Pure seduction characterizes the entire range, which for many justifies the ransom-level prices the DRC always commands.

To me, though, the Domaine’s most fascinating wine was its first Corton 2009, made from a patch of vines at the heart of this grand cru vineyard leased from the Prince Florent de Merode family. This deep, earthy and lingering red costs $300 to $350 a bottle. Compared to other DRC wines costing up to $4,500, the price-tag seems almost consumer-friendly.

De Villaine said that starting with the 2009 vintage, the Domaine will no longer bottle wines in formats larger than magnums.

“Ninety five percent ended up at auction,” he explained. “We want people to drink our wines.”

I can’t help thinking this decision is also a reaction to the alleged fakes of DRC, de Vogue, and Ponsot pulled from auctions of older Burgundies recently.

The DRC has made more serious efforts than most producers to ensure the authenticity of its wines. Distribution is tightly controlled and after press tastings the importer’s staff use black indelible ink to scribble over labels and then smash the empty bottles.

Fortunately, nobody seems to be rushing to fake Jadot and Drouhin bottles -- yet.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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