Great burgundy is becoming impossibly expensive and elusive. F&W’s Ray Isle tells how to outsmart the collectors and find bottles that deliver pleasure instead of pain.

By Ray Isle
Updated May 23, 2017

Great burgundy is becoming impossibly expensive and elusive. F&W’s Ray Isle tells how to outsmart the collectors and find bottles that deliver pleasure instead of pain.

Sometimes, when I think about Burgundy and my love for this wonderful and frustrating wine, I’m tempted to do one of those pro and con charts—the kind that high school students in difficult relationships sometimes sketch out in notebooks while weeping. Pro: There are still some good Burgundy values out there. Con: The Burgundies I love cost a fortune these days. Pro: When Burgundy is good, it’s so good. Con: When Burgundy is bad, it’s just depressing.

Burgundy is like that—it has the mysterious ability to provoke an emotional response. Many great wines make you think, taste, enjoy; Burgundy also makes you feel. At its best, it has a seductive quality—its aromas and flavors change in the glass more fluidly than other wines’. It also tells you secrets about itself: In Burgundy, Pinot Noir reflects the place it comes from more transparently than it does anywhere else; Chardonnay, the grape of white Burgundy, does the same.

Unfortunately, Burgundy also loves to betray you. This is the wine that whispers promises to you in bed and then moves to L.A. the next day with a model (male, female—take your pick). Even simple Burgundy can be delightful, full of crisp red fruit, light yet intensely flavorful all at once. But I’ve opened more bottles of Burgundy that I was deeply looking forward to, only to have them be drab, or weedy, or just not worth what I paid for them, than I have of any other wine. And yet, I keep coming back.

Lately, Burgundy lovers like me have been experiencing a particularly tough time, as prices keep rising while availability keeps thinning. One culprit is the weather. Burgundy, located in north-central France, has the definition of a capricious climate. For every year with ideal harvest conditions, there seem to be two or three plagued by frost, hail or torrential rain.

The most recent four vintages have been exceptionally difficult. Violent hailstorms in the Côte de Beaune were catastrophically destructive. In 2014, some winemakers lost more than 90 percent of their crop, and many lost 30 to 40 percent. Blair Pethel of Domaine Dublère recalls: “If you tried to go out into it, you’d certainly end up in a hospital—it smashed car windshields. In 2013, it hailed like that for half an hour. In 2014, the storm was shorter, but it was like someone turned a machine gun on.”

Areas not hit by hail had other problems. Cold, wet spring weather in 2010 and 2013, for instance, resulted in meager harvests of grapes. Erwan Faiveley of Domaine Faiveley says: “If you take the four vintages from 2010 to 2013, Burgundy produced roughly the same amount of wine it usually does in three. They were very challenging years for everyone.”

At the same time, demand around the world for Burgundy has risen enormously. At the high end, starting around 2005, a string of impressive vintages and a growing awareness that top Burgundies were far scarcer than top Bordeaux drew wealthy collectors; plus, the region as a whole has become ever more beloved by sommeliers, whose wine lists influence diners around the world. “Just in the past few years, I’ve started selling wine in Thailand, Korea, Indonesia,” says Olivier Leflaive in Puligny-Montrachet. “I have demand in Ukraine, in Poland, in Estonia. These are all new countries. And they want the wine even if the price goes up.”

That problem is acute with the region’s most legendary wines, which have become record-breakingly expensive. Last October, a collection of older vintages of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti sold at an auction in Hong Kong for roughly $14,000 a bottle—that’s the equivalent of $2,800 per glass. Six magnums of Henri Jayer 1990 Cros-Parantoux sold at the same auction for almost $25,000 each. A magnum is the same as two regular bottles, so I suppose you could consider that a kind of demented two-for-one special, but still.

Thankfully, the fact that rich lunatics will pay the same amount for a glass of DRC as the average person in Pakistan makes in a year doesn’t mean that all Burgundy is priced similarly (whether it means you should be appalled is another question). DRC has always been extremely expensive. The trouble is that prices at many of Burgundy’s other top domaines, wines that were relatively affordable 10 years ago, have shot up, too. Jeremy Noye of New York City’s Morrell & Company says, “There are 20 or so producers that everyone wants desperately to have on their wine list or in their cellar,” citing names like Roumier, Rousseau, Ponsot and Dujac. “The problem is that as the prices of those wines go up, they pull the whole region up, too.” (In a Morrell catalog from 2004, Roumier’s Bonnes-Mares Grand Cru sold for $110. The current vintage runs about $3,500.)

Finding those wines can be tough as well. I love Coche-Dury’s gorgeous Meursaults, but when I asked David Keck, the wine director of Camerata wine bar in Houston, what would happen if he asked the importer for some Coche, he laughed and said, “Well, the response—if I was lucky—would be, ‘Outstanding! We’d love to sell you a couple of bottles of Coche-Dury. But we’ll need you to buy a pallet of this other wine, too.’ ” A pallet equals 56 cases; in other words, if Keck won’t also purchase a massive amount of less expensive wine, he can kiss the Coche good-bye.

This brings up the question: Amid the hail and the rot and the tiny amounts of wine, the seemingly ever-diminishing numbers of bottles to be had and the spiraling prices, what’s a Burgundy lover to do?

First, don’t call it off with Burgundy (even if your shrink seems to think you should). And second, don’t despair. Instead, consider the following:

Forget the top 20 names. Let millionaire collectors have them. There are more than 3,900 other estates making wine in Burgundy, and far more than 20 of them make wonderful, collectible wines (I mean wines that will benefit from being put in a cellar over the years; if your goal is to turn a profit on the auction market, that’s a different story). “Take Meursault,” says Noye. “People look at Coche and Roulot, but there are other great producers. Arnaud Ente is wonderful; Henri Germain makes great wines. People get caught up looking for the most famous names.”

It is true that most Burgundies are more expensive than they used to be. At the same time, good village-level Burgundies, especially from somewhat overlooked locations like Savigny-lès-Beaune, Pernand-Vergelesses and Mercurey, can be had for around the same price as good Russian River Valley Pinot Noir from Sonoma (about $45, let’s say). For premier crus, look to up-and-coming producers like Domaine Dublère; its lovely 2011 Beaune Premier Cru Les Blanches Fleurs is a steal at $50 or so. Also, thanks to the recent skimpy vintages, many producers are releasing older wines from their cellars. Keck says: “I recently bought some ’07 Bourgogne Blanc from Albert Grivault. It’s drinking spectacularly. I had it on my list for $45.”

Finally, in one of the kinks that makes Burgundy so perverse and so fascinating, while recent vintages were both tiny and troubled, they were also—particularly 2010 and 2012—superb. Finding the specific bottle or sleeper value you want may take some doing, but as they say: Good relationships always require a little work.

5 Great Burgundies to Buy:
2012 Vincent & Sophie Morey Santenay Rouge Premier Cru Les Gravières ($42)
2012 Domaine Faiveley Mercurey Rouge La Framboisière ($44)
2011 Domaine Dublère Beaune Premier Cru Les Blanches Fleurs ($49)
2011 Olivier Leflaive Saint-Aubin Premier Cru Sentier du Clou ($51)
2011 Taupenot-Merme Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru La Combe d’Orveau ($124)