IT WAS splendidly sunny in the Burgundy vineyards last week. Normally taciturn farmers were smiling and affable as they went about their tasks. Even taxi drivers in Beaune volunteered enthusiastic predictions about the coming harvest.It's far too early to judge whether 1979 will be a great year for the wines of Burgundy, but it should be a fine one and even more important, barring a cruel stroke of bad weather, there should be a copious amount produced.
A light breeze plays over the curved hillside that produces the world's supply of the great white wine Corton Charlemagne. A chardonnay grape, still small but in perfect condition, tastes more acid than did a red pinot noir sampled in another vineyard. The reds, explains Louis Latour, already have reached the equivalent of 10.3 degrees alcohol. When the harvest begins just after the first of the month, they should be over 12 degrees and ferment into the luscious, round wines for which Burgundy is famous.
A bright golden haze hangs over the valley below. The beautifully tended vineyards, some centuries old, stretch out toward Beaune. Pommard and Meursault, names hallowed by generations of wine connoisseurs, lie beyond.
It's almost impossible to be angry with Burgundy on such a day. But American wine drinkers and merchants are angry and Latour doesn't pretend he is unaware of the rift. He directs the affairs of his family's winery, located just down the hill, and is a forthright young man with a sophisticated perception of the wine business. That may seem only logical, considering the presence of the Latour name on wine lists from Paris to Tokyo. But worldliness is not a common virtue in this stubbornly rural and conservative area still dominated by artisans who pass on their small parcels of precious vineyard land from generation to generation.
"I do not believe prices will go down substantially," he said, directing himself to the first of America's complaints: that Burgundian wine merchants are the most active band of highway robbers since the days of Robin Hood. Prices here have risen at least 300 percent since the early days of the current decade. "There is strong demand and stocks [reserves from earlier vintages] are not very high," he said. "Perhaps if there had been two or three abundant vintages recently, but this is the first in six years. Americans have become the most cost-conscious wine drinkers in the world, but the importance of America is much less than it was."
Jacques d'Angerville of Volney put it even more strongly the evening before. "American dominance of the export market is finished," he said."After the war only Americans had the money to be volume consumers for deluxe products. Now Switzerland and Belgium, countries with a total population of only 12 million, buy more wine from the Cote d'Or than does the U.S."
D'Angerville is a distinguished wineman, head of the council of Burgundy merchants. Both he and the Latour family have had long and fruitful relations with importers in this country. The Burgundy they represent is not, as some U.S. merchants fear, "through with America." But they are impatient with us for what they consider our refusal to recognize economic reality and are irritated at bitter comments on this side of the Atlantic that accuse Burgundy growers of greed, lack of commitment to quality and even dishonesty.
The supply problem is fairly straightforward. Inflation has driven up the price of producing wine. There just isn't much made in Burgundy, particularly from the most famous vineyards, and a lot of people want some of it. The export market has grown enormously.Restaurants have been selling a significant amount more of the top wines to tourists and to the increasingly affluent French. A good deal of wine is sold directly by the producer to tourists and to French consumers, though those in the trade say the amount is less than has been rumored and claim that it is seldom of top quality.
There is no question that the Burgundians have not been shy in asking high prices. But, with that patented Gallic shrug, they say the wines have sold at those prices, so they must be fair. (A few instances of selling older vintages of red Burgundy below market value have been reported recently. It is not yet a trend, however. "A special promotion," one firm called its price cutting.) The also claim that few if any of the griping merchants along the distribution chain, or restaurateurs, have reduced the percentage of their own markups to help keep retail prices down.
As expensive as Burgundy seems to Americans, who have seen the cost of favorite wines climb 300 percent or more during the 1970s, it is not overpriced on the world market. That, the Burgundians say, is what we must understand. Latour criticized our "stock exchange complex" about wine prices and pointed out that the American market, more than any other, is responsible for the inflated price of Pouilly Fuisse, a relatively minor appellation in the Macon area to the south. As a matter of pride, Cote d'Or merchants are not going to sell their Meursault and Montrachet wines for less than Pouilly Fuisse or the wines of their rival region to the northwest, Chablis. Furthermore, Latour said, depressed prices would drive young people from work in the vineyards.
To the Burgundians, the American attitude on prices is silly. But our second gripe is truly exasperating to them. We, who, as the whole world knows, worship Coca-Cola above all beverages, have dared to criticize the quality of Burgundy wines.
"Bad compared to what?" asked d'Angerville.
"Many of the people who write against our wines never knew the vintages of the past but feel free to praise them," said Latour. "The proportion of our wines sold abroad was very small in other times and brought enormous prices for the best of the best years. The wines of 1976, 1978 and 1971 are the same style of wine as those famous in the past."
"You can't generalize about Burgundy," added d'Angerville. "We are a multitude of small artisans. Most care very much. They haven't changed their methods of production, but they face great pressures and you never know what tomorrow will bring.
"Some years the winemaker is a sculptor. Some years he has to paint billboards. I think the average quality is up, not down. But compare a 1970 to a 1969 from the same vineyard and you may say, 'What's this?' Frank Schoonmaker [one of the most knowledgeable American importers, now dead] did not buy Burgundy in 1963 or '65, '67 or '68. We make the wine, even in bad years. We cannot leave the grapes on the vines. Now somebody buys every year, even though the wines aren't the same. Vintages never vary as sharply in California as they do here."
Such explanations don't satisfy those who search for the Burgundies -- particularly the red Burgundies -- of story and legend. Many of the wines they try seem light in color, lack bouquet and are badly balanced; thin and almost sweet on the palate.
Overproduction has been one charge. A grower may force his vines and produce more wine than the legal limit. The excess is declassified or sold for distillation, but what is left probably will have less strength and character. Another complaint is that Burgundians rely too much on chaptalization (a legal adding of sugar to the crushed grapes to fuel fermentation and increase the alcohol level).
"I believe the American consumer is not well guided," said Lalou BizeLeroy, the forceful merchant who is co-proprietor of the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. "They read books, but the books they read are too commercial. Don't read.Taste and make your own opinion.
"Today everyone does think of money and perhaps there has been a little lowering of quality," she said. "But in spite of all, there are still magnificent wines to be found. Then price is a problem. But it shouldn't be. It's worth paying much more for a good wine. If you find a good buy that turns out to be a bad wine, it's not a good buy."
In sum, in the midst of the current prosperity, Burgandy's wine trade is standing together. The scandal that flared up last spring involving one merchant, Bernard Grivelet, has been allowed to die down. "He is not a man of our world," Latour said passionately. "He never was." They feel too much is expected of the pinot noir grape; that American ascribe to it qualities more properly associated with the cabernet sauvignon of Bordeaux. "The American buyer is more aware," d'Angerville said, "There is so much attention now to everything that touches gastronomy, so much demand for the best. Before the war, that didn't exist. People lack sympathy for the average wine, even though it is not mediocre."
In Paris, at a safe distance from the charms of the Cote d'Or, the English merchant Steven Spurrier said, "It's an oversimplification to say that Burgundy isn't Burgundy anymore. The whites are unexcelled. Only California's chardonnays can compete with them. The big problem with red Burgundy is that it is totally unreliable. You have to know the right properties and you have to chose the vintages with great care. In Paris we have become very bored with it all. In place of a 70 franc [ $17] red Burgundy you can drink a 50 franc Hermitage or a 40 franc Bordeaux without any sense of loss."
Some burgundy vintage advice -- From Steven Spurrier: Avoid 1975 reds; 1976 whites are high in alcohol but won't offend anyone used to California chardonnays. From Louis Latour on reds: 1978, very fruity, easy to like and should be ready early for drinking; 1977, don't buy; 1976, lots of tannin, should be put away for several years; 1974, a strong year for whites; 1973, very light but pleasant; 1972, some wines have aged well; 1971, so far the best vintage of the decade.