WINE: A New Outlook in Burgundy

International Herald Tribune

November 14-15, 1981

Becky Wasserman knows more about the wines of Burgundy than any other American or any foreigner. She probably knows more about them than any Burgundian, with the possible exception of Lalou Bize-Leroy, head of the Leroy wine firm at Auxey-Duresses in the Côte de Beaune. Both of them, it should be noted in passing, are women in this most male-dominated of French wine regions.

While many people have begun to despair of Burgundy's once-grand wines in recent years because of overhigh prices, overproduction, oversugaring and overeverything but taste and quality, Wasserman expects a renaissance.

She sees a whole new generation of young growers in their 30s who are going back to the old ways, making wines that taste of their appellations the way they are supposed to, and who are bottling their own produce instead of selling it off for blending into the shippers' often-nondescript wines.

Wasserman has gained her knowledge of Burgundy by living there for the last 13 years and first developing a formidable palate as an amateur. In 1975 she created a barrel-exporting business to the United States that rapidly grew to include wines she hunted down among the growers. She deals only with growers who bottle their own wines.

She says: "Burgundy is in transition. You can no longer go by what any recent wine books say about it. The biggest change is among young growers who no longer sell to the négociants (dealers).

"At Gevrey-Chambertin there's Joseph Roty. He started sending his wines to the annual judgings at the Paris Salon International de l'Agriculture and the Mâcon Foire Nationale des Vins. He encouraged fellow growers such as Philippe Rossignol at Gevrey and Jean-François Coche-Dury at Meursault to do the same.

"These young growers have taken it on themselves to revert to criteria that were considered primordial in the past. Perhaps the most important is to make wine from old vines, at least 15 years old."

Old vines give a low yield, sometimes only half the authorized amount for a grand cru appellation, 30 hectoliters to the hectare, but they give a richly concentrated juice that brings out all the characteristics of the soil of each appellation.

This is a difficult decision in today's world of cashflow and double-digit inflation. What with aging the wine for up to two years in expensive oak barrels and then bottling it, the grower may not sell his wine until three years after the harvest. He can get his money a few weeks after harvesting if he is willing to sell his wine in bulk to a négociant.

Wasserman says with these young growers it's more a question of honor and self-respect to make the best possible wine than to make as much money as fast as possible.

She also says there are many different styles of winemaking: "Some 'encourage' the secondary malolactic fermentation by opening their cellar doors when the weather is warm, or even by heating the cellars, and they make beautiful wines.

"Others are against this and wait until summer arrives and the malolactic fermentation begins by itself. Their wines are just as good.

"In fact, theories of winemaking don't mean anything anymore. What counts is the knowledge that the vines must be of a certain age to show off their terroir" – the microsoil, microclimate and exposure that give the appellation its specific taste.

"These growers use sugar to raise the alcohol content entirely according to the characteristics of the vintage itself." The usual practice is to sugar to the authorized maximum whether the wine needs it or not. As Wasserman says, "Too much sugar makes the wines anonymous. They just taste more or less like Burgundy but they don't have the character of their cru.

"Those who vinify well don't do it to any particular taste – American, Belgian, German or whatever – they make their wine according to their own understanding of their particular appellation d'origine contrôlée.

"They don't hide their terroirs but bring them out with all the Byzantine nuances possible in Burgundy.

"None of these people is categoric about winemaking. They are constantly experimenting, which is what makes them so interesting. Especially in details such as whether to stem the grapes or not, or in what proportion. Some of them orchestrate aging in barrels like Toscanini."

Living in Burgundy as she does, Wasserman has seen these changes take place. Many good wines of 10 years ago are now poor. Others that were poor then are excellent now. She works entirely by terroir and winemaker, following her nose.

She finds living in Burgundy a "fabulous advantage" because she has become part of the scenery herself. But it took her five years to interest the buying public in growers' wines, especially growers no one ever heard of before. "It shatters idols," she says.

"Burgundies are like phoenixes rising anew from their ashes. You never know when it will happen. The terroirs don't change. It's the growers who are good or bad."