The road to Burgundy: an excerpt
Author: Jasper Morris MW
Ahead of the release of the second edition of Inside Burgundy, Jasper Morris MW shares an excerpt from the book, explaining why Burgundy remains a singular source of magic.
I did not grow up in a Burgundy-drinking family, but it became clear during my undergraduate years, theoretically pursuing the study of medieval history, that I should much more enjoy a career in wine than in our family’s usual profession of the law.
With my soon-to-be brother-in-law, Tony Verdin, we started a small importing business, Morris & Verdin, in 1981, planning to buy wines from France. We bought our fair share of wines from throughout the country, but an introduction to Becky Wasserman allowed us to join in the breaking story of the emergence of fine domaine-bottled Burgundy. We were, of course, not alone in this but we had the chance to establish our own niche.
Becky has played an immense role in the development of Burgundy’s Golden Age. Emerging producers, fledgling journalists and naïve but enthusiastic importers all owe so much to Becky, who has helped us to develop them (and me) into established figures in our particular frames of reference.
What I found in Burgundy was a spirit that I had not stumbled across in other regions: a passion to express the difference between one site and another, combined with the potential to produce some of the greatest wines on earth. As I wrote before about the producers I met, “time and again in Burgundy, I found that their focus was on how they could make the best possible wine. Every tasting was suffused by their huge enthusiasm for what they were doing”.
Working with Becky at this time was Dominique Lafon, before he took up responsibilities at Domaine des Comtes Lafon. Part of his job was to prospect for new growers on the scene, several of whom became our suppliers. A generation later, many of these newly established domaines became household names, but at this point, they were exporting for the first time. It was a moment of wonderful opportunities, including some which sadly I failed to take up. We did not have much financial backing and I did not have much experience.
Nonetheless, the company established its credentials as Burgundy specialists. Though other interests continued to expand – not least the exploration of California wines, thanks to Becky giving me a glass of 1985 Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir to taste blind (I guessed Volnay!). In 2003, our business was sold to Berry Bros. & Rudd, at that time very strong in Bordeaux but lighter in Burgundy. My prime role here was to maintain and then develop the portfolio of Burgundy producers, with permission to base myself as much in Burgundy as in Hampshire.
I have often thought that there may be a link between growing up close to the chalk downs of Hampshire and happily re-rooting, many years later, in the clay limestone landscape of Burgundy.
The changing faces of Burgundy
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose? Maybe, maybe not. There have been some key changes within Burgundy or affecting Burgundy in the last 10 years – some predictable, others less so.
Climate change was clearly going to be a factor and we still do not know how far this will go. We could easily predict rising temperatures, with the stress of excessive heat spikes and drought. Harder to predict was the return of serious frost threats (2016, 2017, 2019, 2021).
Constraints on production – only 2017 and 2018 have produced anything like a full crop in the last ten years – have been offset by significant improvements in ecological management. While there have been many more producers certifying as organic or biodynamic, those that do not wish to take that road have nonetheless taken important steps down the sustainable road. Herbicide and pesticide salesmen are looking as gloomy as sugar merchants are now at harvest time.
Moving to the commercial aspects, we knew that rising prices were a reality in the modern world of instant communications and a hugely expanded global market. Many would have predicted a bursting of the price bubble at some point over the last decade – but it has not happened. Demand continues to outstrip supply, especially at the upper end, and they are not producing any more vineyard land, at least within the Côte d’Or. We may yet see further expansion in the Mâconnais and Auxerrois.
The narrative has been running that the day of the small producer is over, and that land will concentrate only in the hands of the wealthiest. It is certainly true that many established domaines have grown in size over the last two decades, but that is not the only strand to the story. Just recently there has been a surge in the number of embryonic small producers, usually working with purchased grapes to begin with but thereafter starting to purchase vineyards in less expensive appellations.
Burgundy: still a source of magic?
It is for me. These last few years have been challenging for Burgundy in so many ways. I thought there might have been more of a kick-back against the lack of affordable wines. What has stopped that has been the rise of beautiful wines made from more lowly appellations. A particular case in point would be Aligoté, as championed by the group called Les Aligoteurs. Not only is this grape coming into its own with enhanced ripeness, but it is lending itself to a myriad of different – and mostly exciting – interpretations.
The point is this: certainly, we may get an additional thrill when our kind and generous host serves a great bottle of a top vineyard from a blue-chip producer – I am fortunate that this still happens to me! But what really matters is that feeling, sometimes even from the first moment of sniffing the wine, that it could not have been better made.
It fills its boots, whether an Aligoté or a Passetoutgrains, a Mâcon Villages or a Bourgogne Epineuil, a lesser or a greater village from the Côte d’Or. Goodness me, I love that. Or discovering a Vézelay that I did not know before. The anticipation is exciting in itself, the delivery a treat that we may only just deserve.
Burgundy is doing this really well at the moment.
Purchase the latest edition of Inside Burgundy here.