Expertise

Burgundy and its competitors

Burgundy buyer Toby Morrhall takes a look at how pinot noir and chardonnay from the old world and the new are challenging this iconic region and where to find the best value.

Vineyard in Burgundy

Are the new and old worlds challenging Burgundy? If so, why or why not?

I think the new and old worlds have had mixed success in challenging Burgundy.

Chardonnay

It is with chardonnay that I think there has been the best challenge to Burgundy. There are still few wines that compare with a mineral style of Chablis, but there are some very good barrel-fermented wines from cool regions in the new and old worlds that are making excellent wines.

Leeuwin Estate in Western Australia, Kumeu River in New Zealand, Freycinet in Tasmania, Kooyong in Mornington Peninsula (Australia), Concha y Toro and their Maycas wines from Limarí, Chile, Au Bon Climat, Swan, Littorai etc. from California are some which spring to mind.

Kumeu River in New Zealand
Kumeu River in New Zealand

Complexity of barrel fermentation and maturation; diminishing use of new oak

I think what all of the above wines have in common is that they are situated in cool regions, some with limestone soils, and they are stylistically very elegant. It took a bit of time for producers to understand that oak, and especially new oak flavour, was one of the least important aspects of fermenting and maturing wine in oak barrels. Most producers using the traditional Burgundian 228-litre pièce tend now to use a mix of barrels which are renewed over three or four years. Many think the best barrels are the second-fill barrels. The first year, when the barrels are young, there can be too much oak flavour and the wines fermented in third-year barrels can perhaps be a little drier. The second-year barrels seem to be the happy medium.

Some chardonnays produced in the new world are challenging the quality of white wines from Burgundy. The common success factors are that they are situated in cool regions, some with limestone soils, and they are stylistically very elegant.
Some chardonnays produced in the new world are challenging the quality of white wines from Burgundy. The common success factors are that they are situated in cool regions, some with limestone soils, and they are stylistically very elegant.

Chardonnay has little or no varietal flavour. It reflects where it is grown and its flavour is significantly influenced by the small amounts of oxygen it absorbs during maturation. What has now been understood is that there is a complex relationship between the oxygen that comes in through the barrels' staves and the bung and develops the flavours and the lees, which are mostly dead yeast cells, that consume oxygen and contribute oatmealy flavours from the yeast autolysis (degradation of the yeast cells). Bâtonnage, or rousing the yeast cells at the bottom of the barrel, contributes more richness but reduces elegance and allows some of the protective carbon dioxide in the wine generated by the fermentation to escape, which loses a little freshness. In warmer climates, wines are rich enough so bâtonnage is rarely needed.

Indeed, as global warming produces riper wines with less acidity there is a need to conserve freshness. There has been a move to larger barrels from 300 to 600 litres, and some people going back to large foudres of 2,000-2,500 litres. The bigger the size, the less oxygen ingress, so the wines remain tighter. This, combined with more use of screwcaps, has led to some wines becoming more reductive, that is they are aromatically closed and are firmer and tauter on the palate. When too reductive they can smell of a struck match because less oxygen is producing more H2S (rotten eggs) rather than the fairly odourless SO2. This is a fault but it's normally reversible by decanting. Adding in more oxygen corrects it and lets the fruit return.

The grand view over the vines of Château de Beauregard to Solutré and Vergison in the background
The grand view over the vines of Château de Beauregard to Solutré and Vergison in the background

Value for money

Although red Burgundy is expensive (because pinot noir yields are low) there is plenty of good-value white Burgundy (because chardonnay yields are higher). Particularly in the Mâconnais, between £10-20, there are plenty of world beaters from Jacques Saumaize, Château de Beauregard, André Bonhomme, Christophe Cordier, etc. Indeed, where children have inherited old vineyards, which produce less but better fruit, cellars and equipment, they can easily compete with new world start-ups who have the capital costs of vineyards and wineries to pay for. It takes about 20-30 years to get your money back on these.

There is no financial imperative to avoid white Burgundy. For me it stacks up and can be better value than some new world chardonnays. There is virtually no white Burgundy priced below £10 – just The Society's White Burgundy on our List at the time of writing, and which is of course recommended.

Looking at the best origin at certain price points per bottle I suggest

Chardonnay below £10

The Society's White Burgundy 2020

France Chardonnay
Ripe and round yet with a broad, appley palate and fresh finish. For good rea...
Price:£9.95 Bottle
Price:£119.00 Case of 12

Chardonnay £10-20

Chardonnay £20-50

Chardonnay over £50

Pinot Noir

At the moment I think red Burgundy and pinot noirs from the old and the new Worlds are different animals. Red Burgundy has more structure in terms of tannins and acid, which contribute to a range of textures and depth of flavour on the palate that one rarely finds in other pinot noirs.

Burgundy is less attractive below £25 a bottle than wines from elsewhere

I think up to £25 a bottle one can argue that the simple, pure and but deliciously aromatic and fruity wines from Germany, Chile (pictured), New Zealand and USA make better drinking than lesser Burgundies.
I think up to £25 a bottle one can argue that the simple, pure and but deliciously aromatic and fruity wines from Germany, Chile (pictured), New Zealand and USA make better drinking than lesser Burgundies.

I think up to £25 a bottle one can argue that the simple, pure and deliciously aromatic and fruity wines from Germany, Chile, New Zealand and USA make better drinking than lesser Burgundies.

Burgundy at this level often has quite a lot of structure and a modicum of fruit and comes across as quite austere and firm, and sometimes dry. Many Burgundy lovers understand this type of wine, and if you like this restraint and freshness, and especially if you drink this with food, there are attractive wines between £10 and £20 from some co-operatives and the Hautes Côtes, especially in the warmer years which are now all the more common. Just to be clear. These wines are for Burgundy lovers who like this style.

However, in my view the best relative value for money comes in red Burgundy above £25 a bottle. You need low yields in Burgundy to make good wine, so it is necessarily expensive. It has always been a rich person's sport. Expecting to find great Burgundy below £25 a bottle is like searching for the Holy Grail. You will spend your life looking and not finding, you will waste money on a lot of cheap wine and be forever disappointed. Get real! Spend the money on more expensive Burgundy or buy pinot from elsewhere! Again, Burgundy lovers who like austere wines with a little more structure than fruit are excepted from this.

Why is there so little good Burgundy below £25 a bottle

The reason for the lack of general success at this level is that there is relatively little good vineyard land at Bourgogne level in the Côte d'Or. For example, we get an allocation of more village Chambolle-Musigny from Ghislaine Barthod than we get of her Bourgogne rouge (which is now about £25 a bottle).

Most Bourgogne from La Côte d'Or comes from land to the east of the N974 road. In Burgundy, pinot noir needs to come from yields under about 45hl/ha to make good wine. Over this there is a catastrophic drop in quality. This is unusual. Most wines like cabernet sauvignon, syrah, chardonnay etc. produce good wines up to 100hl/ha offering good value for money as higher yields enable the wine to be sold for lower prices.

Also, much of the land classified as Bourgogne rouge is flat land at the bottom of the slope, it is often high in clay which fatally retains water, so is cold and so rarely ripens; it is more fertile so it promotes yield which further delays ripening. Such cold soils actually need lower yields than the best soils situated mid slope, the premiers crus and grands crus, to ripen properly. Clay soils often contribute more tannin and these remain green and astringent if not ripe. But because it sells for less money it is not economic to lower the yields so it ripens because the price would be very high. It's also situated in a frost pocket. This wine is caught in a vicious circle. It is uneconomic to produce good wine here.

Burgundy above £25 a bottle

As soon as you get a good village or a premier cru vineyard in the middle of the slope of La Côte d'Or they are situated on sloping land facing east or south east and intercept more sun than flat land, increasing the ripening potential. The soil is a nice mixture of clay and limestone. This gives a finer texture to the wine, more silky or velvety than wine from a cold clay soil. It is also well drained, so dry and so warm. This further helps ripening. The slope protects it from frosts and westerly winds. It can ripen moderate yields every year to a high level of ripeness, and it is less prone to frost. The quality is high and it can be sold for more money, which in turn means the grower can afford to keep yields low because they can charge more for the quality. They can keep the wine in barrel for say 18 months instead of a year to develop aroma and flavour, and round out the tannins. Such a vineyard is situated in a virtuous circle. In Burgundy one also has quite a lot of old vines which, if the genetic material is good, and not all is, then one gets an old-vine texture of natural, graceful concentration, and the silkiest texture of all.

Pinot noir growing in Burgundy
Pinot noir growing in Burgundy

A well-placed premier cru is capable of an intense perfume and a long palate which may be fresh, subtle and mineral from the lesser areas with more limestone, or rich and velvety in the best Côte de Nuits vineyards. The textural delights of Burgundy is one of its great pleasures. Its weight, density, and the quality of its tannins produce many and varied tactile sensations which give rise to the silky grace of a Chambolle or the velvety opulence of a Vosne-Romanée, or the all-round satisfaction of a Gevrey. These wines which have a certain structure and a low pH stand up to food better than fruit bombs.

Pinot Noir up to £25 a bottle

The new world and Germany offer lovely pinots below £25 a bottle. For me, these have delicious pinot perfumes of cherries when young. Many are most attractive in their youth. They have sweet fruit on the palate, fresh acidity and light tannins. The best are capable of development and will give forest-floor aromas when matured. Most wines have a beginning and an end, but perhaps lack good mid-palate length. They have pretty textures but lack textural interest and are more one-dimensional. They are delicious without food. Some light wines with low tannins go well with fish. The better ones are lovely chilled with poultry.

I recommend the following origins for pinot noir at varying prices

Below £10 (red Burgundy starts at £10)

Pinot Noir £10-25

Pinot Noir £25-40

Pinot Noir £40+

Toby Morrhall

Society Buyer

Toby Morrhall

Toby has been a Wine Society buyer since 1992, and covers Burgundy, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.

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