Tuesday, 11 February 2014

A Peek Inside Burgundy with Jasper Morris MW

Those who have been following the wine news would have realised that it is not Bordeaux that has been hogging the headlines of late but it’s distinctively different cousin Burgundy. While the Liv-ex Fine Wine 50 Index (which tracks the prices of the five Bordeaux first growths) has been steadily falling since its peak in mid-2011, prices of grand cru Burgundy have been shattering auction highs. At the Hospices de Beaune auction last year, a record 6.3 million euros was raised. Interest has been particularly keen from Asia, and Romanée-Conti is now seen as the top wine brand in China.

So it was with great interest that I joined in a lunch with Jasper Morris MW, a specialist on Burgundian wines who spends the majority of his time shuttling between the UK and Burgundy. Jasper is the Burgundy buyer for Berry Bros & Rudd, Britain’s oldest wine and spirits merchant, to whom he sold his wine import business to in 2003. He also wrote the Burgundian entries for the Oxford Companion to Wine and has published his own book on the region, Inside Burgundy (available both in print and digital editions). Nicholas Pegna, who manages the Singapore office of BBR and is also the Director for South-East Asia, said that Jasper’s contribution to BBR has been “absolutely transformational”, allowing BBR to buy not only the great names of Burgundy but also to identify those on the ground who will be the next superstar.

Yet this Master of Wine, who has successfully navigated the morass of appellations and vineyards that is Burgundy, is exceedingly humble and engaging conversationally. In his spare time, he tends to his garden and four cats (one of which is an exceptionally well-mannered stray). Perhaps this is why he gravitates more towards the hardworking and fame-eschewing region of Burgundy rather than the mercantile court of Bordeaux. Jasper himself says, “I love Burgundy because the people there are totally committed to what they are doing. They are much more interested in talking about their product because they made it themselves.”

In terms of grape varieties, Burgundy is easy to understand. Pinot Noir for red wines, and Chardonnay for the whites (Gamay, while used in Beaujolais in Southern Burgundy, is planted on such different soils that the region is considered more akin to the Rhone Valley). In terms of producers, vineyards and appellations, the situation could not be more complex. Most vineyards in Burgundy are divided between several growers, and thanks to the Napoleonic Code which mandated equal inheritance, the size of individual holdings has shrunk over the years. All this means that the highest rated wines from top producers are available only in miniscule amounts.

In a twist of irony, just as Asia has developed a thirst for Burgundy, supply has dwindled even further due to a series of poor vintages in which the vines were battered by hail and disease. This has caused prices to rise to stratospheric levels, a situation which may please merchants, but according to Jasper the people who make the wine are much less enthused. “The average Burgundy grower has not subscribed to the accumulation of wealth program,” he says. With a wry smile, Jasper adds that “after spending twenty five years persuading people to like Burgundy, I’m now asking them to slow down.”

Recent cases of fraudulent Burgundies which left a stain on the reputation of some wine auction houses have spurred BBR to take steps to ensure the authenticity of their wine. Not only are the bottles equipped with smart tags, BBR staff are also sent for fraud training to identify signs that point to a fake wine. Nicholas says, “People understand the value of well-stored older bottles and wine with impeccable provenance. We take on the accusation that sometimes we are comparatively more expensive with the reply that we are fanatical to ensure provenance. No bottle is worth more than our reputation.”

Nicholas also notes that it is difficult to base the price of fine Burgundies on historical data due to the scarcity of it. Limited quantities mean that a single enthusiastic collector may distort the price of a wine by bidding extravagantly on it. However, Jasper is quick to point out that bargains do remain in Burgundy, such as the Domaine Joliet Fixin Premier Cru “Clos de la Perrière” 2009 which retails for SGD80. Displaying a clean, precise nose with heady floral, spice and raspberry notes, the wine has been receiving much interest after sixth-generation winemaker Bénigne Joliet took over with the express intention of having it recognised as a grand cru.

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