To Hell with Burgundy," trumpeted the hero of The Vagabond King, and many Americans have consigned the wines of Burgundy to the same fate. "They can sell everything they make, at any price they want," we've sniffed. "They don't care about us." Oh, but they do, and their representatives have been coming through town this fall to tell us, in word and wine, just how much they'd like to be friends again.
Like any squabble, the faults are on both sides. Yet, we want the same thing: good wines at fair prices. The problem is that what's fair to a grower or to a shipper is not necessarily fair to a consumer and so there's been much disloyalty.
Growers skipped shippers and sold direct to consumers. Shippers initially neglected the home market, to court us, but we "cherry-picked" the good vintages and famous names. When we resisted the post-'76 prices, they had to rebuild burnt bridges at home.
The root of the problem is that there really isn't enough good burgundy to go around. So there is something in those stories of quicker vinification and shorter maturation of the pinot noir grapes, with which the 'bourgogne' reds are made? They are making lighter wines? Nobody's denying it, but it's not universal. Most of our visitors preached and practiced traditionalism.
However, if every Burgundian were to ferment his wine for two weeks and to wood-age it for two years, there still wouldn't be enough. The C.ote d'Or and Chablis, Burgundy's finest areas, produce only one-sixth of Bordeaux' best appellations.
The inferior vintages from '73 to '75 aggravated the situation, but the decade ended well. Those '78s already tasted have been deep colored and well-balanced, promising more finesse and subtlety than the harder '76s. The '79s are reported to be variable, the better being supple, elegant and early maturing. Even the prices don't seem too alarming. Perhaps the shippers are keen enough to reestablish this market that they are making the return less painful than it might have been.
Francois Faiveley, sixth generation of estate owners and shippers in Nuits-Saint-Georges and Mercurey, explains the need for a sound home base. "We want 50 percent of our sales to be in France. It's no good having an export reputation if you can't find our wines in the right places there." Lameloise, the three-star restaurant in Chagny, up the road from Mercurey, is one of them
In Washington, the Faiveley reds range from '66 to '78. The bigger ones from the C.ote de Nuits have the fruity richness of traditionally-made pinot noirs. The Mercureys, lighter and quicker maturing, are good value at under $10.
Robert Sarrau S.A., the grower and shipper from Beaujolais, is also part-owner and distributor of the marvellous wines of the Domaines Bertagna from the C.ote de Nuits. Their '78s, such as Vougeot Clos de la Perri,ere ($22) and Vougeot Les Cras ($20), will be fine wines when mature.
Moillard is returning, with '78s and '79s. Leroy, a major force in the C.ote de Beaune, will be releasing '69s, a good opportunity to buy mature burgundies.
It may be self-indulgent, but until there is a pinot noir to rival those of the best burgundies, let's declare a truce to the name-calling and look forward to enjoying the wines.