Burgundy – a victim of its own success or opportunity knocks?

Who is not seduced by the picturesque village of Pernand-Vergelesses and the majestic curve of the hill of Corton with its grand cru vines. If Charlemagne was among the first, the latest is US entrepreneur and football club owner Enos Stanley Kroenke, who snapped up Domaine Bonneau du Martray in January for a rumoured E100 mill.

When I last saw Jean-Charles Le Bault de la Morinière in October he encouraged me to admire the beautifully restored church roof, tiled in stone in the traditional manner and financed by the village. Civic pride is high. The medieval village is looking pretty spruce, but there is a sense of timelessness, the rhythm of the season progressing, the slow progression of history….who would have thought that Bonneau du Martray’s 11 hectares of grand cru would fall prey to the keen appetite of international investment in January. It follows in the wake of other grand crus, for example Clos de Lambray enveloped by LVMH luxury goods in 2014.

Previous Burgundy Briefings have explored the consequences of inflated land prices and swingeing taxes on the vigneron, making it difficult to pass down vineyards to sons and daughters.

The organisation Safer goes some way to stabilising agricultural land prices and when the land transaction is within a company structure, the effect of E10mill a hectare maybe offset, but as some of the choicest parcels of land slip out of Burgundian ownership and the price of land becomes further removed from the revenue it generates, the natural balance of viticulture on the Côte d’Or is upset. This happened in Bordeaux, where many Châteaux are now in corporate ownership. With international spotlight trained on the Côte d’Or, change is inevitable.

But it’s not all gloom. Never has there been such demand for premium Côte d’Or wine. Prices are high and quality has never been better. There are alternative routes for the wily Burgundian to expand their land holding. Domaines are buying vineyards in less acutely fashionable areas, trading on their high reputation in the Côte d’Or as a route to market. The land is cheaper and the wine comes in at a lower price point, spot on to satisfy the more everyday drinking of committed followers and to target a new audience.

Location, location, location.

Most popular is the Beaujolais. Increasingly I turn up to taste a flight of Côte d’Or wine and find it chased up with a little flutter of Beaujolais. This is a great way for a wine family to give the next generation some elbow room. Marc-Antonin son of Jean-Marc Blain in Chassagne, makes a few Chassagne wines, courtesy of his grandmother, but complements these whites with a vineyard on the Côte de Brouilly in a venture with his sister Lucie. There are 5.5 hectares of old vine Gamay in a strip from the bottom to the top of the hill. The first vintage was in 2014. I like the smooth, elegant Beaujolais, Côte de Brouilly, Les Jumeaux.

The path down to the Mâconnais was paved by Côte de Beaune royalty. Dominique Lafon pinned his colours to the Mâcon mast in way back in 1999 when he began to purchase parcels for Les Héritiers du Comtes Lafon based in Milly-Lamartine. Domaine Leflaive followed suit with Macon Verzé where they now have an impressive 17 hectares and a smidgen of Macon Solutré, Saint Veran and Pouilly-Fuisse. In the current climate even the grandest domaines can find it difficult to expand on the Côte d’Or, but this is good for the profile of the Maconnais.

Let’s not forget the Chalonnais – there’s plenty of scope here to follow the lead of Aubert de Villaine who put Bouzeron Aligoté on the map. His nephew Pierre de Benoist continues his work at Domaine A et P Villaine coaxing the best from regional land and turning out a red and white from Mercurey and Rully respectively. Rully can be a little lean, but a hot vintage such as 2015 shows them to their advantage. Head East from Beaune and you’ll hit the Jura, traditionally renowned for its delicious sherry-like Vin Jaune aged for six years under flor. Leading the way for family domaines is Domaine Marquis d’Angerville with Domaine du Pélican. Régisseur François Duvivier, a native Jurassien, is in his element producing stunning crisp and mineral Chardonnay and Savagnin and some pretty, floral reds from Poulsard and a blend of local varieties.

Of course if you cannot beat ‘em – join ‘em. Bag the outside investment and use this to create or extend your domaine. A sleeping partner may inject necessary cash into the business. For the younger generation, who are not going to inherit a domaine, this may be the only viable option. A wealthy investor enabled young couple Fabrice and Sophie Larandge to establish Terre de Velles in Auxey-Duresses with some interesting parcels in Meursault, Puligny, Chassagne, Monthelie and Auxey itself. They are doing a great job and I’d love to see more new ventures like this on the Côte d’Or. Try their Monthelie, Les Sous-Roches a keen mineral wine from a steep, limestone parcel.

Outside investment has brought a certain dynamism and opportunity. The double edged consequences are limited/concentrated in the top villages on the Côte d’Or. Take Domaine Faiveley – they snuggled up with Pierre Chen CEO of Yageo Corporation in 2016. The Taiwanese businessman and Burgundy lover provided the substantial ‘readies’ to buy a sliver – 0.1 hectares – of Grand Cru Musigny to be made by Faiveley.

Over the 10 years Erwan Faiveley has been in charge of Faiveley, he has strategically moved the family company from negociant to become a domaine with a substantial and impressive portfolio of top climats. With Erwan at the helm and the highly talented Jerome Flous making the wine, this domaine is – to coin a phrase from my 11 year old son “where it’s at.”

In the film below I asked Erwan Faiveley about the sale of Bonneau du Martray. His view is, of course, that there is nothing to fear from wealthy foreign investors with a real passion for Burgundy. Erwan argues they bring something to Burgundy, while taking nothing away. The land stays put. He draws a parallel with someone buying an apartment in Paris..the investor “does not take it to Dubai.” And the vineyards in Burgundy “will be farmed by people living nearby.”

No place stands still – Burgundy included. Despite the pessimism over land prices, my impression is of domains moving with the times, whatever their strategy. Some batten down the hatches and keep it in the family, maybe diversifying to include Beaujolais or even Oregon, while others open the door when opportunity comes knocking.