Saturday, January 19, 2013

On Négoçiants


From time to time I get criticized by Burgoblog readers for my refusal to taste wines from the Côte Chalonnaise and also for the lack of tasting notes on wines from the big négoçiants. One of the best feelings in the world is the feeling of being vindicated and that was certainly how I felt when news of the biggest wine fraud in the history of Burgundy was announced in June 2012. Only in Burgundy could two old duffers in their eighties be rumbled for pretty much the full range of deceptions in labelling and volumizing. I have never bought any Labouré-Roi wines unlike people travelling first class in All Nippon Airways who no doubt enjoyed their Corton-Charlemagne. How excellent that the high quality British newspaper the Daily Mail found "Nuits St George was not in on the scam"! Imagine, the entire town could have been perpetrating fraud....

At present I would summarize my view on the wines from Burgundy négoçiants as follows. Over the last 20 years family-owned domaines in Burgundy have made huge strides in producing high quality wines and many have stopped selling their grapes and finished wines to the négoçiants. Since 1995, the easy life for the négoçiants has been over since they could no longer just sell the etiquette. As a result the négoçiants have split into two groups: the high quality producers like Olivier Leflaive, Maison Joseph Drouhin and Vincent Girardin who still have excellent vineyard holdings and a genuine commitment to quality and the others like Labouré-Roi who have neither the capital, know how or zeal for quality to compete with the successful family domaines. This is probably why poor old Armand and Louis Cottin ended up switching labels. Their website tells us all we need to know about their marketing prowess.

I do have concerns about the overall philosophy of négoçiants in Burgundy. Where the top 50 family domaines try and make wines that express the terroir and the vintage. I always feel that most négoçiants balance this with a desire to achieve a very high level of consistent style between vintages. Like the big champagne houses. From my perspective this eliminates one of the most fascinating features of Burgundy wines: vintage variation. We want consistent quality not consistent style between vintages. My other concern with buying wine from the négoçiants is the premium they charge because they typically spend much more on marketing than the family domaines. Ceteris paribus, a Gevrey-Chambertin from a négoçiant costs more than from a family domaine offering wine of equal quality. Do you want to pay 10% to 15% more for the same quality of wine?

Ultimately the only genuine test of quality and value is blind-tasting. Equating quality with price is for the oenologically dumb.

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