Posted on | January 19, 2015
Written by | W. Blake Gray
While it sounds counterintuitive, good ol’ Burgundy has emerged as a go-to region for such merchants. The primary grapes in Burgundy—Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—are household names, making the wines relatively easy to flag with shelf talkers (“Great unoaked French Chardonnay!”) or to recommend without a complicated hand-sell.
According to the BIVB (Burgundy Wine Board), U.S. imports were up 7% in 2013—having increased for the fourth year in a row—and the figures are getting close to the pre-recession high of 2007. Even better, the wines have never had more consistent quality.
Unfortunately, it has also never been more difficult to stock a steady supply of good Burgundies under $25.
It’s easier with white wines than reds. There are more than twice as many bottles of white Burgundy imported to the U.S. than red Burgundy, and price range may be part of the reason. Nearly two-thirds of imported Burgundies traditionally could be expected to fit a bargain category, namely those with the entry-level Bourgogne appellation or the general Mâcon appellation. But many of those wines cost a lot more than they used to.
Bad News, Good News
“For $25 [retail], it’s hard to find much red Burgundy that’s worth drinking,” says Ian Halbert, Burgundy specialist for Gordon’s Fine Wine & Liquors in Waltham, MA.
That was also my experience in preparing for this article, based on a request through the BIVB for samples of wines that retail under $25 in the U.S. I got more whites overall, and more good whites. *[See sidebar.]
With white Burgundy, $25 retail can still buy some village-level wines. But $25 for red Burgundy buys very little beyond the most basic Bourgogne Pinot Noir. I did find one decent village wine, Domaine Faiveley Mercurey, but most village wines are priced beyond that target.
Halbert says many wines like those—smaller producers’ Bourgogne appellation reds—were good values in the past, but now those wines are in such demand that prices have risen out of the bargain category.
“Neil Rosenthal and Kermit Lynch offer a lot of great values from small producers,” Halbert says. “The problem is that they might be importing only four barrels of the wine. There’s not enough to go around. And some of the top producers, their Bourgogne is $40 now.”
The likely main reason is the growing number of U.S. consumers who take an active interest in the wine world. Most wine education classes praise Burgundy as the queen of wine regions. And the greatly improved consistency of Burgundy wines compared to 15 years ago means people are more likely to like what they try first, and go back for more.
Popularity & Quantity Both Factors
“Burgundy used to be the reserve of connoisseurs,” says Halbert. “At this point it’s such a hot category, and everybody is into it.”
Jean-Charles Boisset, who produces and imports several good value Burgundies, says not only should we expect prices to keep rising, we can’t expect availability to improve.
“In Burgundy, there’s no place to plant any more. The size is the size,” says Boisset.
“I recommend that stores that are interested in selling Burgundy, they really plan with people like us from that region. Planning is more important than ever. Because if they don’t, they won’t have all the wines all the time. Demand for Burgundy is growing and we have some short vintages. It’s becoming much more of an allocation business than ever before.”
Perhaps because of his interests in California, where he owns brands including Buena Vista, DeLoach and Raymond, Boisset has a more global perspective than most Burgundians. He believes it’s important for Burgundy to keep making wines at entry-level prices.
“To think that Burgundy is only a $75 wine, that is the wrong perspective,” Boisset argues. “It’s important to get people into the category of Burgundy, to find wines at $18 or $20 that are very good value if you compare with a Russian River Valley wine.”
That idea of comparison is part of the problem. It’s hard to tell clients that a Pinot Noir from Chile is a good substitute for red Burgundy (even though sometimes it is). And wines from other good Pinot Noir regions, like Oregon or Central Otago or the Sonoma Coast or the Sta. Rita Hills, aren’t cheap.
“Where in the world is there really good Pinot Noir for under $25?” Halbert says. “I don’t think it offers a lot of value in the lower price ranges.”
Halbert believes the best value in Burgundy these days are village-level wines priced from $30 to $50. “Very often the village wines offer the most satisfaction,” Halbert says. “The Premier and Grand Cru wines are too tight to drink right away. The village wines drink well and a lot of them are ageworthy too. A lot of these wines are very good quality, but they just sit there because people don’t want to pay a few dollars more.”
The Holy Grail
If there is a bright spot in the ongoing bargain Burgundy market squeeze for retailers, it is that the arrival of a good $25 Burgundy in the store has become an event worth broadcasting to your customers along with a recommendation to act with urgency.
“The same Bourgogne Pinot Noirs that we used to get 40 or 50 cases of, we’re getting allocated 15 cases now,” Halbert says. “Sometimes I get five cases and I just bring it into the store and whoever gets there first, they buy it.” But that urgency also applies to retailers. “My job is to buy Burgundy,” Halbert says. “I have to buy it when it’s offered to me. If we come up short on a few bottles of Bordeaux, there’s always opportunities. Burgundy, forget it. It’s not possible.”
A few general observations
Chablis, the most respected Burgundy appellation that one can buy under $25 SRP, is easily the best source of value. Some of these wines are terrific, like Domaine Garnier & Fils, imported by Martine’s Wines.
Olivier Leflaive, imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, does nice entry-level Bourgognes in both red and white that are better value than most village-level wines.
Some entry-level wines have the words “Chardonnay” and “Pinot Noir” written very prominently, with Burgundy itself downplayed (only Bourgogne-appellation wines can use these grape variety names on the front label at all). I found those wines among the least appealing. It’s possible they are designed to compete in superstores with varietal wines from South America.
The best reds I had were entry-level Bourgogne appellation wines from smaller producers, Domaine Cyrot-Buthiau (imported by Margate Wine & Spirit Co.) and Louis Max “Beaucharme” (imported by Slocum & Sons).