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Will The Burgundy Balloon Burst?

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: February 29, 2000

Will The Burgundy Balloon Burst?

By Per-Henrik Mansson, senior editor

Rain, big yields, record prices: With the enormous 1999 vintage, it may be time for Burgundy to call in the bomb squad to defuse an explosive situation.

"We're sitting on a keg of dynamite," said Jean-Yves Bizot, a grower from Vosne-Romanee.

The problem is excess, of grapes and money. Take a quick look at the dry facts about a watery vintage. Just before the 1999 harvest began, the growers of the Côte d'Or requested authorization to legally harvest 30 percent more grapes than the basic crop load, or "rendement de base," the official level considered reasonable for making good Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Burgundy.

Higher yields can lead to weak wines, and the the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine Controlée des Vins (INAO),the governmental regulating agency in charge, wanted assurances that a big crop wouldn't dilute quality. But after debate, INAO granted permission.

The plea was made -- and permission given -- before heavy rains fell during picking. Seeing bloated grapes at harvest, the growers returned, hat in hand, and asked for an extra 10 percent over the already-upped 30 percent raise for the village and premiers crus vineyard. They got that, too.

"It kills me to see that they asked for 40 percent," said Jean-Nicolas Méo of Domaine Méo-Camuzet.(The grands crus saw an allowable increase of 30 percent.) Méo said yields in his Pinot Noir vineyards averaged around 40 hectoliters per hectare (or 2.2 tons per acre, which is the traditional norm for village and premiers crus), compared to the 56 hectoliters per hectare (4.1 tons per acre) that were authorized in 1999.

Méo saw the coming grape tidal wave and thinned his crop long before harvest. A few other producers who put quality first did the same thing. Some wineries - Jacques Prieur, Dugat-Py, Hospices de Beaune -- spent hundreds of man-hours doing a green harvest. Those domaines - Daniel Rion, Bizot -- that farm organically had reasonable yields. As usual, Domaine Leroy reported a fraction of the authorized yields, with just 23 hectoliters per hectare (1.7 tons per acre).

But Méo belongs to a minority. That much became clear when the growers took a hand vote, and more than 70 percent voted for the higher yields.

"Is it plausible that Burgundy creates higher yields than the Languedoc-Roussillon?" asked Jean-Marc Boillot of Pommard, who also made wine in Languedoc in '99. He joins the ranks of several top winemakers from the Cote d'Or who have started satellite operations elsewhere, hedging their bets.

"Burgundy is going off the deep end," commented Jean-Marie Guffens of top shipper Verget. "Commercially we can't justify wines as expensive as ours with yields that high," noted Bizot.

Most Burgundians call the high yields an accident of nature. Nothing could be done, they said, to stem the growth of the vines. Besides the grapes ripened well despite the monster yields, they argued. The wines will be wonderful.

And even if they werent wonderful, argues the growers trade organization, the small vignerons couldn't afford crop thinning and the extra cost it requires in manpower. Not everyone, the argument goes, can charge as much for their Burgundies as the Leroys and Méos. These stars can cover the costs it takes to make the right moves in the vineyards.

This argument would be more convincing if it weren't for one not-so-small matter: Burgundy's prices are at an historical high. And we're not talking about cheap wines to begin with. In 1999, winemakers stand to double their income, at least, since their crop may be that much larger.

Surely they could reduce their prices without suffering significant pain. But that is apparently not in the cards. At the Hospices de Beaune auction, which is the first, somewhat symbolic, hint of where Burgundy might head this year, prices didn't come down.

"We are farmers, and we live with nature," said Guffens. "There is nothing wrong [with] big yields, but we have to admit it. And now [with the Hospices] we missed an occasion to give an opportunity to everyone to drink our wines. We missed an opportunity to make ourselves loved. Now they can only criticize us."

Somehow, Burgundy has entered a vicious circle that infers quality directly from prices. Producers now seem to believe that if they lower prices, they are admitting that quality is lower, too. And that their pride will not allow.

But sometimes, quality is lower. And most consumers would argue that lower quality must accept lower prices. Now the real question is this: when the growers set their prices this spring, will they take their cue from the unexpectedly high Hospices de Beaune bids? Or will they seek a more balanced feel for the world market?

Personally, I'm not holding my breath waiting for the Burgundians to take a voluntary pay cut. Would you? In a global free-market economy fueled by an increasing number of eager consumers, demand has driven prices sky-high and the Hospices de Beaune auction sends a good-times-are-still-here message.

The official line bills '99 as a top vintage. You'll soon hear more about comparisons between '99 and the excellent, high-yield '96 - when the crop ranged from 20 to 30 percent above normal.

I hope they are right in this comparison between these two big harvest years. Time and tasting will tell. If they're wrong, even Burgundy's fans will - at these prices, anyway - finally pop Burgundy's price balloon. Critics and consumers alike will cry, "Look Ma, this time the Emperor really has no clothes." What they'll be seeing is naked greed.

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This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Tuesday by a different Wine Spectator editor. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.

(And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)

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