How to Find Value in Burgundy

Value is relative, especially in Burgundy. Wines from Burgundy are pricey, and there are no winds of change. Not even the relatively recent surge of the dollar helped.

Understanding the Expense

Why are these wines expensive? High demand and relative scarcity play a significant role. Burgundy’s wines are made in small quantities, mostly by wine domaines (93% of production) that are often very small and usually family owned. Some grand crus are made in barrels half or even quarter the size of the traditional Burgundian 228-liter barrels. Though Burgundy maintains sizeable territory in our thinking and conversing about wine, it accounts for only 3% of all French wine production and a mere 0.4% of global production. The 100 individual appellations in Burgundy are mostly small, and the most prestigious ones have no more plantable surface area.

Compounding the issue of scarcity is the fact that since 2011, crop yields have been cruelly low, mostly due to hail. The Côte de Beaune has been ravaged. Chablis has been speckled with hail, too, and the southwestern corner of the appellation (600 hectares, approximately 13% of the appellation) was entirely decimated in 2016. Many growers there didn’t harvest a grape. Moreover, when there is hail, sorting follows, which eliminates more juice.

Due to Burgundy’s popularity, importers, distributors, stores, and restaurants sometimes catapult prices into the stratosphere, even when growers release them at reasonable prices. I recently saw a magnum of Petit Chablis at my local wine store for $270. Knowing the price the producer released it at, I was utterly dismayed.

It’s also important to note that Pinot Noir is a notoriously finicky grape and a low-yielder. The grape accounts for just 28% of Burgundy’s production. (Ten percent is Crémant and the rest is white. Rosé is produced in droplets.)

And finally, Burgundy is no longer a secret. More and more markets are tuning in. The US remains the top export market, buying 20% of Burgundy’s exports. The UK buys 19%, but the next closest market, Japan, takes only 10%.

Nonetheless, values remain! About half of Burgundy’s wine falls into a category defined by prices that are hesitation provoking up to seriously elevated, including the grand crus and premier crus (which account for only one-third of production). The other half is “regional” wine, even if some in that category can still make you sweat.

While we’re in rather pricey territory regardless, we are no longer stepping carefully through the landmines of our grandparents’ and parents’ generations. No more of that adage that only one out of every three bottles in a case of Burgundy is good! Of course, as in every wine region, there are delicious bottles and there are dogs, but Burgundy producers are increasingly recognizing that Brettanomyces is not terroir. That relatively new problem of premature oxidation is now being understood (overly protective oxygen exclusion early in winemaking is not all positive), and many winemakers are changing their steps to avoid it. Producers have more training and understanding of viticulture and vinification than ever before, and they’re making better and better choices with each passing vintage. Years like 2007, 2008, and 2011 that would have been dismissed even 10 or 15 years ago can now be finessed into perfectly charming wines. Most of the young, up-and-coming generation has worked in wine elsewhere in the world, and this experience is reflected in the wines.

Négociant Wines

As we’ll explore, most of the value in Burgundy comes from specific villages, or from Chablis. There’s one other spotlight on value, however: négociant wines from domaine producers. Some producers make négociant grand cru, of course, but it mostly works in the other direction, with producers looking to add something affable and early or earlier-drinking to their lineup. These négociant bottlings are usually less expensive while still representative of the style of the domaine bottlings (though there are some exceptions where growing and production are not under the fingertips of the producer). There are also négociants who own little-to-no land and started their businesses partially to offer value-driven wines that are better than just “good.” Alas, with the recent short crops, their prices are becoming less enticing as the cost of grapes soars.

Chablis Over-Delivers

Chablis is the killer value category in Burgundy. There are, after all, basic Côte d’Or Bourgogne Rouge bottlings from high-end names that cost more than a bottle of Grand Cru Chablis—hovering in the $40 to 60 range! Ratchet down the scale, and you’ll find sub-$15, tremendously zingy Chablis and Petit Chablis. Furthermore, if you think Chablis is all oyster shells and razor-like acidity, think again. Sure, it’s mostly lean Chardonnay, but there is enormous diversity in the Chablis palette thanks to the multitude of hills and valleys of the region. The local cooperative, La Chablisienne, calls its Petit Chablis wine Pas Si Petit, which translates as “not so little,” and indeed, when quality is the focus, these “small” wines shine particularly bright.

Value Villages from North to South

Neighboring Chablis, there are two red wine appellations that deserve note: Irancy and Coteaux Bourguignons. While Pinot Noir is the focus, both regions can add a dash of the local and feisty César, and Coteaux Bourguignons can also pop in some Gamay. What’s even more interesting about these regions is that they tend to release their wines later, especially Irancy. Not surprisingly, the wines tend to be sturdier expressions of Pinot Noir. They are closer to the limit of ripeness, and they show a bit of attitude about that. This is an excellent attribute, as Pinot Noir is a study in versatility. If you love it, appreciate it in all its forms!

Moving down to the Côte d’Or past Dijon, Marsannay is the first major village on the D974. Despite hosting several primo vineyards, the village boasts no premier crus, not that producers haven't been working on changing this for over a dozen years. Until—and if—INAO gets around to passing down a decision, the top wines will continue to sell for less than they would with a premier cru appellation.

Following down the Côte, there is also Fixin. Like Marsannay, Fixin makes lively and fresh wines that tend to be best early on. Still, some wines age tremendously well, and the best can easily take on a decade. Many producers are based in Marsannay or Gevrey-Chambertin and own or farm bits of neighboring Fixin.

Because the Côte de Nuits has almost no “inlets” into the escarpment of the Côte, there are fewer value-oriented wines there. The hard, steep, east-facing series of hills is rather brusque and doesn’t offer many valleys of more modest expression. There is Hautes-Côtes de Nuits villages, but to feel comfortable buying the wines here, the coolest part of a very cool region, it is important to know the producer and vintage. The wines can be bitingly lean—perhaps welcome when expected, but expectation is everything. The same goes for the Haute-Côtes de Beaune villages.

Within the Côte d’Or, wines from more value-oriented villages tend to be leaner. This often makes Chardonnay, a grape happy and ready to take on fat in the cellar, a better option than Pinot Noir.

Nuits-Saint-Georges is the first break in the string of cliffs in the Côte d’Or, and that is precisely where things start to change. In part, this is because Nuits-Saint-Georges is one of the historic négociant towns, trading in grapes, juice, and wine as well as owning vineyards that produce wine. Because Nuits-Saint-Georges is a commune that makes a high volume of wine for the Côte de Nuits, wines from this appellation can look advantageously priced. However, the price-to-value ratio can be deceiving, so proceed with caution.

From here south, lesser-known villages—and value—really begin to crop up. Hitting the border of the Côte de Beaune, unsung villages are abundant. The head of the Côte de Beaune is the grand cru hill of Corton. All around this hill are villages making wines worthy of recognition that are overshadowed, often literally, by the hill of Corton. Pernand-Vergelesses and Savigny-Lès-Beaune are the two top contenders, but as always producers can trump site.

Moving down the Côte de Beaune, Monthélie, one of the prettiest villages of Burgundy along with Santenay, is a Volnay look-a-like, at least in cooler years. Just to the south, Auxey-Duresses shouldn’t be overlooked either.

My personal favorite “value” Côte de Beaune appellation has, in the last 10 years, already seen its value eroded. Nonetheless, Saint-Aubin is brilliant for Chardonnay, including in the premier cru vineyard named “Sur Gamay,” where the wines are often not red.

Before slipping over the border from the Côte de Beaune into Côte Chalonnaise is Rully. With wind currents whipping around it, this area produces seriously chiseled Chardonnay.

Givry and Mercurey serve up some tremendous Pinot Noir. You have to dial in to the producer level to find the best examples, but because hail is rarely an issue here and ripening is easier, producers are usually sitting prettier, harvest-wise, than those further north. Especially in Givry, you can even find premier cru wines that can age for a decade or so, like Les Croichots or En Sazenay.

A bit further south, the Mâconnais is slightly better known for whites. This is the home of Pouilly-Fuissé, Saint Véran, Viré-Clessé, and a smattering of villages whose names follow the regional wine name Mâcon, as in Mâcon-Milly-Lamartine. All of these appended-name villages show highly defined terroir, and terroir purists are reviving these areas. Saint Véran tends to be the priciest, but with Pouilly-Fuissé’s first premier cru designations expected to go into effect this year, that may soon change.    

Crémant de Bourgogne

Last and hardly least comes the Crémant de Bourgogne category. These wines are crafted in the traditional, Champagne style and made mostly from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Gamay can also be included) grown on a good portion of limestone. Easily half the price of non-vintage Brut Champagne, they are grown on similar soils. This is a thriving category that deserves attention. In the last decade, Crémant de Bourgogne has risen from one to eight percent of Burgundy's production!

Know Your Producer

Whatever the appellation, whatever the vintage, there is still nothing like knowing the producer. With that knowledge in hand, it’s possible to find value at $18 and at $180. Between the financial outlay and the rewards of a bit of research (and in Burgundy the research is mostly pleasurable if you appreciate more restrained wine styles), there is plenty of value to be found in Burgundy.