Burgundy "Yields" to Bordeaux
By Per-Henrik Mansson, senior editor
Life isn't fair. There is always some lucky chap who is just more talented, monied and connected than you. Try as hard as you can to make the right moves, the gods seem to smile on the other fellow. Know the feeling?
Just take Burgundy and Bordeaux, for instance. Bordeaux has got it, Burgundy doesn't. I mean, how unfair: A vine can easily make twice as much wine in Bordeaux than in Burgundy. Does it hurt quality? Apparently not.
If you were a producer, wouldn't you just love to make wine in Bordeaux, where you can get rave reviews for a wine that comes from vineyards producing 60 hectoliters per hectare (4.4 tons per acre)? It sure beats the life of a Burgundian.
In Burgundy, you'd make terrible Pinot Noir at 60 h/h (4.4 t/a). The wine might get decent at 45 h/h (3.3 t/a). It starts getting good under 40 h/h (2.9 t/a). And to have a serious chance of making great red Burgundy, a vigneron in the Cote d'Or must shoot for 30 h/h (2.2 t/a), or half the yields common at the big chateaus in the Medoc in some excellent years.
In Burgundy, producers are constantly scrutinized for high yields. Their crop declarations are routinely reviewed by snoopy reporters like this correspondent. In Bordeaux, they make their wines from 60 h/h (4.4 t/a) and get outstanding or classic ratings from the wine writers. As I said, life sucks when your neighborhood happens to be on the wrong side of the tracks.
That thought came to mind a few days ago as I had dinner with Corinne Mentzelopoulos. The co-owner and director of the first-growth Chateau Margaux had flown to Geneva from Paris to attend an event organized by Swiss Bank Corp., the other half of the future new superbank, United Bank of Switzerland. The bank had bought several vintages to pour for important clients at a tasting and a dinner. The wines consisted of Chateau Margaux (1994, 1993, 1989, 1986, 1985, 1966), the second wine Pavillon Rouge du Chateau Margaux (1990, 1982) and also Pavillon Blanc du Chateau Margaux (1996, 1989).
We had a nice meal, enjoying the wonderful, youthful and delicious 1985 (much better than the drying 1966), when I turned to Mentzelopoulos and popped the question.
Why not emulate the Burgundians and keep your yields low? I asked Mentzelopoulos. Lower yields can make for more concentrated wines.
"We have different terroir than Burgundy and different varieties," she said. "And I don't think I can do better by cutting [down the yields] more. Look at the notes we get. Wine Spectator has rated our '95 a perfect 100 points and [Robert] Parker has given our '96 also 100 points."
Like many other Bordeaux chateaus, Margaux would have even higher yields if it hadn't engaged in a "green harvest" during the summer, a technique consisting of cutting part of the fruit off the vine in July or August to keep the crop lower. Margaux has done this since 1986.
But surely, I asked Mentzelopoulos, you could make a greater wine if you lowered the yields to, say, 30 h/h (2.2 t/a)? Wouldn't the final wine be more concentrated if you pruned severely in the vinyards, eliminating more grape clusters?
"Who cares to make 30 h/h (2.2 t/a)? For three centuries this terroir is here and has proven it can make great wine with the yields we have. If I can make a top wine with 56 h/h (4.1 t/a) and get 100 points from Wine Spectator and Parker, why cut the yields?"
Then Mentzelopoulos, a successful businesswoman, cleverly argued, "We have real volume, unlike Burgundy. We can make 200,000 bottles of our first wine. If the wine is of high quality, why deprive the markets by cutting the yields and making, say, only 30,000 bottles?"
She has a point there. The wine is terrific, and it's widely distributed. Why try to make an even better wine by cutting production?
But some are trying to do better by lowering yields. One of the most famous is Chateau de Valandraud, the rising star in St.-Emilion. Jean-Luc Thunevin founded this tiny, 6-acre estate in the 1990s with the goal of making the most concentrated wine he can make from minuscule yields (by Bordeaux standards, not Burgundy ones). The markets have reacted with great enthusiasm, and Valandraud gets some of the highest prices in Bordeaux for its wine.
"I have never imagined that I can make great wines with high yields because I happen to have a terroir of pretty average quality," said Thunevin. "Margaux has a great terroir, and it can make great wine at 55 h/h (4 t/a). If I were in Corinne Mentzelopoulos' shoes, I'd think the same as she does. But I have sand and some gravel in my vineyards, and that's why I have yields of 36 to 37 h/h (2.6 to 2.7 t/a)."
True, some Burgundians, like white specialist Jean-Marie Guffens of Verget and Domaine Guffens in the Maconnais, laugh at the Bordelais' relatively high yields and complain of all the diluted wines coming out of Bordeaux. "But we also find many bad wines coming out of Burgundy," said Thunevin. "As in Burgundy, five percent of the producers make great wines in Bordeaux. And I think the yield for making really great Bordeaux is 45 h/h (3.3 t/a), not 55 h/h (4 t/a)."
But Thunevin made an interesting observation. "Corinne Mentzelopoulos is right: Her wine is great now. But if her competition in the Medoc worked as well as I do--trying to do wine from 38 h/h (2.8 t/a)--Margaux would have to lower its yields to stay on top," said Thunevin.
In Burgundy, true competition sparked by the likes of Lalou Bize-Leroy at Domaine Leroy (average yields 15 to 25 h/h [1.1 to 1.8 t/a] depending on the vintage) has pushed other estates to make some of the best wines in decades, partly by lowering their yields. With the likes of Thunevin, Bordeaux may soon do the same, if his gospel spreads.
But it's clear that compared to Burgundy, Bordeaux remains the lucky one. Why? Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the two workhorse varieties in Bordeaux, tolerate higher yields much better. To make extracted, concentrated, age-worthy and deep-colored Pinot Noir, yields must average 30 to 40 h/h (2.2 to 2.9 t/a). By comparison, Bordeaux produced its highly touted 1982s from the highest yields of the century.
It's a tough world for Burgundy. A peachy one for Bordeaux. At least for the time being.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from senior editor Per-Henrik Mansson. To read past Unfined, Unfiltered columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.
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