2002 Red Burgundies: Catch Them While You Can

Although they may lack the cachet of wines from small growers, such as Lafarge or Mongeard-Mugneret, the Burgundies made by négociants, especially in 2002, are not to be missed. Négociants are companies, either large or small, that buy grapes or newly made wines in bulk from growers. If they purchase grapes, the négociant vinifies the wine. If they buy newly made wine, they age and finish them in their cellars, bottle them under their label and market them.

On the label of Drouhin’s Domaine wines it says “Recolte du Domaine” under the name of the wine; those wines that are not Domaine wines will have “mise en bouteille par Joseph Drouhin.” near the bottom. Drouhin feel that all their wines – whether they be Domaine or négociant wines – are equally fine, and therefore they do not try to highlight the Domaine aspect.
Many négociant firms, such as Maison Louis Jadot, Bouchard Père et Fils, Joseph Drouhin, and Maison Louis Latour, own substantial amounts of vineyards themselves, giving them the opportunity to combine their grapes with ones they purchase. Others, like Nicholas Potel or Alex Gambal, own very little–Potel has less than 4 acres–or none at all. A big advantage of négociants is that they produce reasonable–at least by Burgundy standards–amounts of wine that are available on retailers’ shelves.
Négociants have always dominated the Burgundy wine trade. Fifty years ago, it was a rare grower or domaine, such as the Domaine de la Romanée- Conti, that bottled and marketed the wine themselves. For the most part, the entire production went through négociants. Pressured in part by American importers, such as Alexis Lichine and Frank Schoonmaker, small growers started bottling their own wines in the 1950s and the era of the grower began. In the 1970s, négociants actually encouraged growers to bottle because adverse economic pressures prevented them from buying as much wine as the growers wished to sell. Some in the trade feel the development of the French highway system did much to stimulate growers to bottle themselves, as direct sales to visiting consumers became commonplace. In 1970, the négociants controlled about 70% of the market according to Jean Charles Boisset, a leading négociant. Even today, with growers continuing to shift toward bottling and marketing their own wines, négociants still control about 64% of the business, according to Boisset.

Though the total volume lost by négociants to growers over the last three decades seems small, much of the loss was from top-notch growers who owned prized parcels in premier or grand cru vineyards. Faced with the prospect of losing the cream of crop in terms of supply, négociants like Maison Louis Jadot responded by buying additional vineyards as they became available. Négociants have always owned property themselves–Jadot and Drouhin each own or control about 150 acres–in addition to the wines they purchase. Typically, though not invariably, they bottle the wines from their individual vineyards separately, but only subtle differences on the label identify this point to the consumer. The only difference between Louis Latour’s domaine and non-domaine label is the disc on the neck that says either Domaine Louis Latour or Maison Louis Latour, with the latter utilized for the négociant wines.

In my experience, the négociants’ domaine bottlings always have a little extra pizzazz because they have complete control of the grapes from start to finish. But weighing in on the other side is none other than the very straight talking Pierre-Henri Gagey, President of Maison Louis Jadot, who has remarked to me on several occasions that some of the best wines Jadot has made came from vineyards owned by someone other than Maison Jadot.

The 2002 vintage was superb for both reds and whites. Many winemakers told me that the extraordinarily healthy grapes allowed them to conduct an unhurried vinification to extract pure flavors. The recommendations below focus on the reds because I–along with many producers–believe they are more exciting, in the same league as the great 1985s and 1990s. The 2002 reds are immediately charming (as were the 1985s), yet they have plenty of stuffing for protracted aging and development. I am betting that the 2002s, like the 1985s, will evolve beautifully and have stashed many cases in my cellar.

Many 2002s are still available at the retail level and will remain after the microscopic amounts of the much more inconsistent 2003 vintage have disappeared from the shelves. The 2002s also have the advantage of having been purchased with a far stronger dollar, and are bargains compared to their 2003 counterparts. While I’m sure there are many fabulous 2003s–Jadot’s Bonnes Mares springs to mind–the 2002 is a far more consistent vintage and a safer bet for long term cellaring.

2002 vintage reds from five leading Burgundy negotiants are reviewed below, with the negotiant houses appearing in alphabetical order:

Bouchard Père & Fils

Joseph Henriot, of Champagne fame, rapidly reinvigorated this venerable Burgundy firm after he acquired it in 1995. Henriot proved that dramatic changes in the cellars could improve the quality instantaneously and buy time while the necessarily slower improvements in the vineyards took hold. Bouchard Père & Fils, the largest landowner in the Côte d’Or (or “Golden Slope,” the heart of Burgundy), with over 225 acres, had failed to keep pace with the times, but Henriot changed that seemingly overnight.

Bouchard Père & Fils, Santenay (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($24, Clicquot, Inc.): Luc Bouchard told me that he finds the wines from Santenay unappealing in difficult vintages and that Bouchard won’t buy in those years. However, in a year like 2002, Bouchard purchased heavily, the equivalent of just over 3,000 cases. With the appealing characteristic rusticity of Santenay, Bouchard’s 2002 is unexpectedly charming and graceful. It’s a great introduction to Burgundy. 88

Bouchard Père & Fils, Monthélie 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Les Duresses 2002 ($30, Clicquot, Inc.): A domaine bottling, this wine is amazingly intense for a Monthélie. A great perfume, coupled with a long, sweet finish and supple tannins, means it’s delightful now. 90

Bouchard Père & Fils, Beaune 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Beaune du Châteaux 2002 ($40, Clicquot, Inc.): This wine, which has been sold widely in France, made its first US appearance in 2002. A blend made exclusively from up to 16 of Bouchard’s 1er Cru vineyards in Beaune which are not bottled separately, such as Beaune Marconnets or Beaune Grèves, it’s a great buy. The grapes from the small plots Bouchard owns are harvested and vinified separately and then blended to create Beaune du Châteaux. A pure fruit nose, gives way to up front fresh red fruit flavors, great delicacy and length. 91

Bouchard Père & Fils, Volnay 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Caillerets Ancienne Cuvée Carnot 2002 ($55, Clicquot, Inc.): As Clos des Ursules is Jadot’s flagship from Beaune, this is Bouchard’s standard bearer from Volnay. This portion of the Caillerets vineyard, Bouchard’s first acquisition in 1775, was subsequently acquired by others through inheritance. A marriage to a member of the Carnot family brought it back to Bouchard and explains its elongated name, Ancienne Cuvée Carnot. A vertical tasting of it back to the 1964 in Bouchard’s cellars in 2000 showed how beautifully this wine ages and evolves. Its fabulously floral nose screams Volnay. But its combination of power and delicacy coupled with extraordinary length make it special. Mild to moderate tannins are ripe, not intrusive, and assure a lovely evolution. 95

Maison Joseph Drouhin

Drouhin, one of the great négociants located in Beaune, produced a stunning line of village wines in 2002, perhaps in part because Drouhin’s winemaker, Laurence Jobard, the first woman winemaker in Burgundy, has been with the firm for over three decades. This house, like all négociants, maintains that all their wines–whether they be domaine or négociant wines–are equally fine, and therefore it does not try to highlight the domaine aspect. On the label of Drouhin’s domaine wines it says “Récolte du Domaine” under the name of the wine, whereas negotiant bottlings will have “mis en bouteille par Joseph Drouhin” near the bottom.

Maison Drouhin, Chorey lès Beaune (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($25, Dreyfus Ashby): Wines from Chorey les Beaune, the only village in the Côte d’Or without a premier cru vineyard, offer great value when they are crafted by a talented producer like Drouhin. With pure fresh red fruit flavors, this one is uncomplicated and charming now. An excellent buy. 86

Maison Drouhin, Côte de Beaune, (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($25, Dreyfus Ashby): The Côte de Beaune appellation, less well known in the US than Côte de Beaune Villages, ranks between Beaune and the Beaune 1er Cru in stature, acording to Véronique Drouhin. Primarily made from wines from the young vines of Drouhin’s flagship property, Beaune Clos des Mouches, it has forward, pure ripe fruit flavors, little tannin, and good acid. It is a fine example of Beaune–as good as many producers’ Beaune 1er Cru–and represents an excellent value. 88

Maison Drouhin, Pommard (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($43, Dreyfus Ashby): The denser, spicier, black fruit component makes this a delicious village wine and highlights the difference between it and the more delicate, red fruit-dominated wines of Beaune. 90

Maison Drouhin, Bonnes Mares Grand Cru (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($200, Dreyfus Ashby): A domaine bottling, this Bonnes Mares is staggeringly good, plush and balanced, with a seemingly endless finish. 96

Maison Drouhin, Griotte-Chambertin Grand Cru (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($175, Dreyfus Ashby): Sometimes wines from Grand Cru vineyards are disappointing. Not this domaine bottling. It has a magical combination of power and elegance and the extra umph that should characterize a Grand Cru. 95

Maison Louis Jadot

Jadot indicates a domaine wine, for example, Bonnes Mares, by inserting the domaine name in the small rectangle at the bottom of the label. Label of negociant wines lack the rectangle and say “. . .mis en bouteille par Louis Jadot.”  The Jadot wines from Beaune, where the firm is based, are stunning across the board and–by Burgundy or even California Pinot Noir standards–reasonably priced. The are probably the finest array of Beaune 1er cru I have tasted, which explains why I bought a case of each for my cellar. The three recommended below are just a sampling. If you run across others, don’t pass them up.

Louis Jadot, Beaune 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Theurons 2002 ($36, Kobrand): A bottling from a vineyard owned by the heirs of the Jadot family–Domaine des Héritiers Louis Jadot–this is a concentrated wine, rather big for a Beaune, with great texture and length. 92

Louis Jadot, Beaune 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Boucherottes 2002 ($36, Kobrand): This more muscular wine, also from a family owned vineyard on the border with Pommard, has great color and concentration without being overdone. Exceptionally long, it’s even bigger, but not necessarily better, than the Theurons. 92

Louis Jadot, Beaune 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Clos des Ursules 2002 ($48, Kobrand): Jadot’s flagship Beaune from a portion of the Vignes Franches vineyard, the Clos des Ursules is always a winner. The 2002 is no exception. With more structure than their other Beaune 1er Cru, it should turn out very well. A wonderfully balanced wine. 94

Louis Jadot, Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Petit Chapelle 2002 ($55, Kobrand): From purchased grapes, Jacques Lardière, Jadot’s exceptionally talented winemaker, has produced a very good, earthy, surprisingly big wine from a lesser known premier cru. 90

Louis Jadot, Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($100, Kobrand): Also from purchased grapes, this Charmes Chambertin attests to the validity of the appellation contrôllée system. It has more of everything–complexity, length, and power–than the Petite Chapelle. 94

Louis Jadot, Bonnes Mares Grand Cru (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($125, Kobrand): Always my favorite, Jadot’s Bonnes Mares, a domaine wine, is suave, long, layered, and luxurious. The tannins and structure are there, but unobtrusive, and bode well for development. 97

Maison Louis Latour

Always known for their superlative white Burgundies–it’s hard to find a better Corton Charlemagne–Latour has made substantial improvement in their reds starting with the 1999 vintage.

Maison Louis Latour, Marsannay (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($17, Louis Latour, Inc.): Latour has fashioned a remarkable value with this simple Marsannay, a town not known for producing engaging red wines. Its bright fruit makes for a charming, easy to drink wine. Not to be missed. 88

Maison Louis Latour, Chambolle Musigny (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($48, Louis Latour, Inc.): Here is a great village wine, fleshy and plump, with unexpected length. Delicious now. 90

Maison Louis Latour, Volnay 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) En Chevrets 2002 ($34, Louis Latour, Inc.): This has the quintessential Burgundy character of loads of flavor without heaviness. Impeccably balanced, it is unusual to see premier cru wines at this price. 90

Domaine Louis Latour, Beaune 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Vignes Franches 2002 ($46, Louis Latour, Inc.): Latour owns about a third–over 7 acres–in this prized vineyard from which he makes consistently excellent wine. The 2002 is glorious, concentrated and well structured. I would drink his Volnay En Chevrets while waiting for this one to evolve. This is another one that went into my cellar. 93

Maison Louis Latour, Pommard 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Epenots 2002 ($50, Louis Latour, Inc.): Latour owns a small portion of this vineyard and combines his grapes with others to make this appealing wine. Plumper than his Beaune Vignes Franches–in keeping with the character of Pommard–it’s juicy and supple. 90

Maison Nicolas Potel

Nicolas Potel is a new breed of Burgundy négociant. He and his father, Gerard, the highly regarded manager of Domaine Pousse d’Or (a high-quality estate specializing in wines from Volnay and adjacent towns), started a small negociant business in the mid 1990s. When Gerard died suddenly in 1997, Nicolas focused on the négociant business, Maison Nicolas Potel, which was recently purchased by Cottin Frères (a company that controls a larger Burgundy négociant, Labouré Roi). Armand Cottin, President of Labouré Roi, told me he intends to keep Maison Nicholas Potel entirely separate to allow Nicholas to work his magic with the necessary financial support behind him.

Nicolas Potel, Bourgogne Maison Dieu (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($19, Frederick Wildman): Potel owns just one small, four-acre, vineyard called Maison Dieu between the towns of Beaune and Pommard, on the “wrong side of the tracks.” The wine doesn’t even qualify for a town name, but must be sold under Burgundy’s least prestigious appellation, Bourgogne. Despite its lack of pedigree, it’s a lovely wine, silky and rich, without heaviness. It surprises with layers of flavors expected only in wines from grander locales. (Starting with the 2003 vintage, Potel will label this wine as Cuvée Gerard Potel to honor his father.) A great buy. 88

Nicolas Potel, Beaune 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Clos des Vignes Franches 2002 ($36, Frederick Wildman): The pure cherry-like fruit is packaged here in Potel’s signature silky suaveness. Tightly wound at this stage, I expect it will blossom beautifully over the next five years. I also put this one in my cellar. 90

Nicolas Potel, Pommard 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Pezerolles 2002 ($55, Frederick Wildman): Explosively rich, lush and long, it’s hard not to drink this one now. But I’m sure that cellaring it will pay dividends in the future. 92

August 1, 2005.