Revered globally as one of France’s most highly regarded wine regions, there’s something almost mystical about the 2,000-year-old region of Burgundy (or “Bourgogne” in French) located in east-central France. The relative volume of wine it produces is small given that it’s a relatively narrow strip of land running 230km north to south, from which around 29,000 hectares of precious soil produce only 183 million bottles of wine annually. Making up just 0.5% of the world’s total wine production and 6% of the total wine sales in France*, it’s no wonder that wines from this region are in such high demand.
While there’s an arguably cultish following for Burgundy’s Grand Cru and Premier Cru given their limited production, even those who aren’t as familiar with the region recognise the demand for its wines. Home to mainly two varietals, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Burgundy wines have traditionally been made only from one single grape, which is why one often hears the words “purity” and “expression” when describing its wines because they reflect the unique chemistry between the grapes, nature’s elements (e.g., weather, soil and vineyard) and the winegrower’s technique and experience. Given the lack of blending, Mother Nature plays a huge part in each of the vintages, and with the region’s notoriously unpredictable weather, it can take a lot of patience to be a winemaker in Burgundy.
This all presents a challenge to winemakers to make good wine yet offers a more interesting experience for consumers. Winemaking aside, and for those of us who just want to drink the stuff, learning to approach Burgundy wines also requires patience. Encompassing 84 AOCs (appellations d’origine contrôlée), the appellations are broken down by Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Village and Regional and consist of five major wine-growing areas (from north to south:) Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais.
While Burgundy’s complexity may be a turn-off for some, it can also present an adventure in tasting, requiring a bit of persistence, patience and willingness to try new wines from different AOCs in order to get a feel for the terroir. For those who like to travel through wine, there’s much to explore given that the more modestly priced Village and Regional appellations respectively make up 37% and 52% of the total annual production.
The best way to really learn about a region’s wines is, of course, to taste them. Fortunately, events like the recent annual Bourgogne Week wine tasting at the Renaissance Hong Kong Harbour View Hotel gave us a preview into the latest vintage releases. A staple on the UK wine calendar, Bourgogne Week is now in its 10th year in Hong Kong and will also see a launch in Japan next year.
Organised by the Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB), the tasting featured 25 importers and more than 140 wines from Burgundy. We were also on hand to discover some lesser-known (and value-for-money) appellations that have been highlighted in the showcase of the latest 2016 and 2015 vintages. According to BIVB President François Labet, lesser-known Bourgogne appellations are “now better than ever”, including Irancy, Chorey-lès-Beaune, Givry and Viré-Clessé. ”They make fine alternatives to the currently more limited – or more expensive – wines,” says Labet.
To get a better understanding of Burgundy and how to approach this complex region’s wines, we spoke to a native Burgundian whose family has owned vineyards in Mercurey since the 12th century, Amaury Devillard. Passionate about his home region and its wines, Amaury is a BIVB spokesperson, winemaker and owner of Château de Chamirey, Domaine de la Ferté and Domaine des Perdrix.
What’s the purpose of Bourgogne Week in Hong Kong?
As the fifth-largest market for Burgundy that’s decidedly upscale, Hong Kong is important to Bourgogne. While Grand Cru makes up only 1.5% of the production of Burgundy wines, there are many other wines from the regions and villages to discover and rediscover that offer a tremendous price-quality ratio such as the Côte Chalonnaise region in Mercurey, Givry, Montagny and Rully. There’s also Mâconnais, with wines from Mâcon-Villages such as Pouilly-Fuissé and Santenay.
These wines are bringing new emotions to the different expressions amongst the regions of Côte d’Or, Mâconnais and Côte Chalonnaise. In addition to having the trade taste the latest vintages, our goal is to offer more dedicated training, with those who trained in Bourgogne educating local trade (e.g., wine shops and restaurant teams), who can then educate their customers and make them feel more comfortable with Bourgogne wines.
Given the shortage of wine from 2016 and the high prices for 2015, what are some takeaways for these vintages that entry-level drinkers and wine enthusiasts should look for when buying wine to drink today or to invest in for tomorrow?
The 2015 vintage is more solid, with the fruit very up front. It’s a beautiful vintage; the press talked a lot about 2015 and the wines are perfect to enjoy now. The balance is interesting, and I wouldn’t keep them too long. 2016 is much fresher in that it reflects the terroir effect; there’s much more purity, more opportunity to match food and wine, more acidity and more ageing potential in the bottle.
How is the region of Bourgogne evolving and what can we expect to see in the future from the region’s wines?
We are seeing a younger generation of winemakers trained at school who travel and return to Bourgogne with a vision to produce the best wines they can. In the past 25 years, the quality of evolution of Bourgogne wines has been unbelievable.
“Don’t do everything, but do it properly” – that’s our motto in Bourgogne. Mother Nature doesn’t duplicate things, which makes things interesting. Other wine regions are trying to match the wine market by predicting the market; for us, we need to be close to nature to see how it evolves and keep this tradition to produce pure, precise wines. For example, the impact of pruning and soil to get the roots deeper and the need to be more precise on the day of picking to ensure that the grapes are really ripe.
Winemaking oenology has made different evolutions; for example, many estates don’t use select yeast anymore and use natural yeast for the purest expression. With organic and biodynamic wines, the world is evolving, and we’re definitely already following the logic. In our own domaines, we have made our own compost the past 10 years and incorporate this into the vineyards. If it’s good for the planet and the purity of the wine, there’s no reason to be against the logic and evolution.
Burgundy has not produced a lot, as Mother Nature has been tricky since the 2010 vintage and impacted the availability of dry wine, so it’s also important to have a larger and broader offering. An example is the quality sparkling wine known as Crémant de Bourgogne, which now represents 10% of Burgundy wine sales, with some known to beat champagnes in blind tastings. The market in Hong Kong is evolving slowly, with Crémant consisting of only 0.5% of Bourgogne wines imported to the market, yet it presents beautiful opportunities for buyers and consumers.
How should those who are new to Burgundy wines approach them when either consuming tonight or investing for tomorrow?
The 2013 is a vintage to enjoy now after some age in the bottle. Most show a beautiful balance – just pull the cork and enjoy. The 2014 vintage is more fresh; I really enjoy it because it is beautiful with precision, expression of terroir and is a good vintage to match with food.
For the 2016 and 2015 vintages we are showcasing this week, I would start with Chablis. It’s very pure and mineral, with a salty finish. It goes with seafood and is a good aperitif before dinner to open up the appetite. I’d then move on to Côte Chalonnaise, Givry, Rully and Montagny and on to Mâconnais wines from Maçon-Villages.
What would you classify as a good wine?
A bottle that I would love to share with a loved one: my best friend, wife and good friends – that’s a good bottle of wine. The best wines are those that have an emotion, where you want to taste more and want to retry or one that you don’t have enough of to share with your friends, which is why you need that magnum!
What are your favourite wines for a school night or last supper?
For everyday drinking, I can’t help it, but I would drink my own wine – a Château de Chamirey white from Mercurey, which is crisp and balanced. For a last supper, a bottle of Musigny 1990 – or a magnum to revive me, so maybe not my last supper!
Any wines that you’re dying to try?
A bottle of 1969 Romanée-Conti, which is my birth year and a good year for Burgundy. Romanée-Conti is mystical for us. An estate there represents the top of the pyramid of Bourgogne and all of Burgundy in one bottle.
For those looking to discover more about the regions and wines of Burgundy, check out the BIVB virtual tour and online module at www.bourgogne-wines.com.*all data from BIVB
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