Burgundy And The Poison Cup

A sort of anyone but Manchester United malaise often seems to hang over Burgundy and Bordeaux these days in the international wine world. It often seems as if everyone is willing them to fail.

Of course it’s their own fault, for decades, maybe even centuries these two regions dominated the wine world, perhaps in a haughty manner.

This seems to bring out that innate desire to see the proud, humbled, that seems genetically encoded in many walks of life. It is alive and well in the wine world.

So, despite the fact that today Bordeaux and Burgundy are producing some of their best, ripest, most delicious and well priced wines this does not seem to fit the now knee jerk prejudice against Bordeaux or Burgundy.

What has been striking over the last six months is that Bordeaux and Burgundy have both been the subject of increasingly novel and unusual attacks.

The attack on Bordeaux has been in its Achilles Heel, the En Primeur Wine campaign.

The attack on Burgundy was not the usual complaints of the wines being over priced, underperforming or fickle. This season they were incredible, very damaging and directed at the heart of the Burgundy region’s openness and microscopic nature.

The Short Sell and The Poisoned Letter

The Bordeaux attack is a financial construction that the entire population has become educated in since the Credit Crunch. Short selling or betting on failure and defaults. In the last couple of weeks, as the wine world waits for Bordeaux’s big chateau to release their prices for this year’s En Primeur wine, the Live-EX, a stock exchange for wine has seen, short selling of Bordeaux’s top wine.

Shorting or Short selling is part of the armoury of futures and derivative speculators that has driven the world’s finances to the state of crisis we are presently experiencing.

Shorting is a way of betting on a bad thing, a bad result. It is not pleasant but it is not illegal and in a way it is a natural outcome of betting. In wine we now, as of this month, have something similar. Marketeers have shorted Chateau Lafite 2009, before its release and before a price has been set.

This could trick chateaux into increasing their prices as they see the prices being thrown around as indicators of what people think is a bargain. Bordeaux it seems is being lured into over pricing by people who have an interest in the prices, not the long term viability of the wine and the chateaux. No where have we heard that before.

Over in Burgundy the attack is more cinematic. The incredible attack, was a tale of extortion, blackmail and poison that seeped out into the light last month, though the tale began last January.

In January this year, in a series of events that sound like a plot for a film, which I am sure someone in France is already putting together, a man who remains anonymous sent a series of letters to Domaine Romanee Conti, maker of regularly the world’s most expensive wine and Domaine Comte Georges de Vogue, a well known estate in Musigny.

In the letters the extortionist apparently stated that he would poison and kill all the ancient vines in the legendary vineyard of Romanee Conti. He would do this he said by secretly applying poison to the vines.

As proof of his seriousness he included a detailed map of each vine and row, and identified two vines that he had already applied the poison to.

Payment of €1 million euro from each Domaine would said the blackmailer save the vineyards and of course their respective businesses.

Burgundy wineries especially vulnerable to this kind of attack. This is because Burgundy wineries are made up in the majority of two basic kinds, the first are tiny small holdings owned usually by a single family that are farmed and wine made from a single small village house with adjacent outbuildings which serve as the winery. The vineyards occupy the land between the villages, the smallholder does not live on his or her land. They live in the village and ‘go out’ each day to the fields.

This is a very ancient form of land use common to most medieval land owning structures. The English feudal village grew up on this idea of the workers in the village and their lands spread around often in a rough circle. It maximises land use and gives security in the village. Of course it was often enforced on the land workers by some lord or religious entity who distributed the land. In Burgundy it was a similar evolution.

Keeping the Chateau or winery off the best vineyard land leaves more to be farmed. It means though that you rarely get an Estate as you do in Bordeaux for example. Though religious orders tended to erect small walls or Clos, around their plots, but these were more virtual than anything else and in Burgundy you can see this virtual idea today in the odd, doorway, usually just two pillars and an arch with no door but a name carved into the lintel. They look like film sets, a fake door onto a field, with no walls to either side.

This avoidance of land use in the vineyards applies equally to the second class of wineries, the famous and expensive ones. These are in Burgundy invariably also, family owned and just like their unknown and impoverished neighbour run from a small village house, though much better fitted out and small outbuildings which are crammed with the best of every winemaking tool.

They key thing is that both famous or near amateur winemaking is done in the same way by and large, everyone is crammed into the tightly packed villages and the vineyards are unencumbered by development.

This all stands in stark contrast to the generic Bordeaux Chateau and more modern styles of winery. This is a castle or if contemporary, a feature architectural building surrounded by the estate, many parts of which can be walled off and of course the large winery and cellars.

While estate style winery operations still have large areas open to the road, particularly in Bordeaux, they are quite often overlooked by the estate and the watchful eyes of its owner and employees. In increasing numbers of estates this is accompanied by CCTV and fences.

The first place I consciously remember seeing what can only be described as corporate style fortification, was Bodegas Vega Sicilia, producer of Spain’s most famous and expensive wine. I was with Paolo Tullio on that visit and in addition to his renowned skills as a chef, critic and actor, check out the thriller, The Tailor of Panama where he stole the film from star Pierce Brosnan, Paolo has a nose that can weed out pomposity or worse at 50 paces.

The fences, the CCTV and what looked like a private army in open topped jeeps, wearing regulation aviator shades and big fists made for an uncomfortable visit. The wines were superb, the viticulture practice laudable and the onsite cooperage a glorious holistic tailpiece to a fine winery.

Its just that with what I felt was the pompous, securitisation of the winery they had effected the final and for me unsavoury transformation of the winery from a farm making dazzling wine into a facility for making luxury goods.

Open To The World and Criminals

The famous Burgundy vineyard regions like Montrachet, Morey-St-Denis, Gevrey-Chambertin, Corton, Vosne Romanee, Clos de Vougeot or Macon and Macon-Lugny in the south of Burgundy all follow the same completely accessible and open, village and vineyard pattern.

There are endless fields of vines that run from the edge of the small roads that criss cross Burgundy right up to the tree line on the famous south eastern facing hills and slopes of the Cote D’Or.

Any visitor to the region can, and will, stop their car or bike on the side of the road walk in amongst the vines, kneeling down to have a peek a the small, still ripening berries during the peak summer holiday months.

It is something I do every time I am lucky enough to be in a wine region that has open access to their vineyards, especially Burgundy.

Nothing beats having a look at the berries, in person, to get a feel for the upcoming vintage. That of course and standing in the same wine region in the lashing rain and thinking, this is not ideal.

Of course in Bordeaux, such rain is it turns out so often a trick of my mind as on my return home I find that once again, despite my soaked clothes, Bordeaux has experienced a miraculous dry, warm September.

Bordeaux’s miraculous rain aside, the openness of vineyards and vineyard regions has been vital to keeping wine with its feet firmly in nature and not industry.

The attack on Domaine Romanee Conti is therefore more than an passing concern.

In the end, Aubert de Villaine, co-owner and co-director of Domanie Romanee Conti contacted the police and on examining the two identified vines found that one of them was indeed dead.

A vine takes about 5 to 8 years to mature enough to produce any sort of reasonable wine. It takes perhaps another 20 years to settle in and see if it is going to be a source of great wine and for many, from when it truns 40 till its 100th year, as a vieilles vignes, and Old Vine, this is its greatest period.

Killing a vine is an act that could take a farmer or a winery like Domaine Romanee Conti a lifetime to redress.

The police got Aubert de Villaine, who was made Decanter Man of the Year 2010 last month, to write a note saying he would comply and leave a million in a bag beside the graveyard of the AC Chambolle-Musigny late at night. The police then waited and pounced capturing the man, who remains unnamed and his son as they came for the loot. The blackmailer was a recent graduate from the winemaking institute in nearby Dijon, but the local French reports have been quick to point out he came from Champagne originally.

The Domaine Romanee Conti is a 400 year old, multi-million euro business whose main asset is a small open field with plants in it.

The Romanee Conti vineyard is located about a kilometre from the tiny village of Vosne Romanee. The vineyard is 1.8 hectares in size about 4 acres and most of the vines are over 50 years of age. It is open to the boreen that runs beside it protected by a stone cross and for around 20 yard run by a foot high wall that you can sit and have sandwich on.

It is vital that Burgundy does not give into this attack and adopt more modern or international standard, but you can see the temptation to build a suitable fence, electronic or otherwise, to protect their asset.

Wines from Open Unsecure Burgundy Fields
Domaine Nicolas Maillet, AC  Macon Villages 2008 (89) around €14.15
Domaine Nicolas Maillet AC Macon Verze 2008 (90)  around €16.90

Maison Drouhin Rully Blanc 2006 (91) around €21

Moillard Fleurie 2005 (89) €16.00

Brocard Bourgogne Chardonnay Kimmeridgien 2007 (89) around €14.27

Maison Joseph Drouhin, Laforet Bourgogne Chardonnay 2007 (88) around €14.79

Maison Champy Bourgogne Rouge 2007 (89) around €17.50

Bret Brothers, ‘La Martine’, AC Macon Uchizy 2007 (91) around €17.50

Chanson, Montee de Tonnerre, 1er Cru Chablis 2006 (90) around €29.45

Wines are available at selected wine shops and off licences nationwide including Winesdirect.ie, 49 Lough Sheever Corporate Park, Mullingar, Co. Westmeath; Fallon & Byrne, Exchequer Street, Dublin 2; Redmonds Of Ranelagh, Ranelagh, Dublin 6; Karwig Wines, Kilnagleary, Carrigaline, Co. Cork or online at karwigwines.ie; Sweeney’s, 6 Finglas Road, Harts Corner, Glasnevin, Dublin 11; Donnybrook Fair, 89 Morehampton Road, Donnybrook  Dublin, O’Briens Wines nationwide and most good wine shops.