As an outstanding single-owner cellar featuring an array of top-quality Burgundies comes to auction, Michelle Chan, Head of Wine, Asia Pacific, explains why the region’s wines are so sought after, and picks her personal favourites from the sale
How long has Burgundy been making wine?
Michelle Chan: A long time! The history of Burgundy wine dates back to at least the sixth century: as the British wine writer Jancis Robinson notes in The Oxford Companion to Wine, Gregory of Tours wrote in his History of the Franks that ‘the hills to the west of Dijon produce a noble wine that is like Falernian’ — the favourite wine of ancient Rome.
Are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay the only grapes used?
MC: Actually, no. There are four grape varieties in Burgundy — the other two are Gamay and Aligoté. But only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are used for the top-tier wines.
Pinot Noir is difficult to grow as it is thin-skinned and prone to disease. It requires a northern climate to express its full complexity, and it thrives in the limestone soils. Chardonnay is grown in many wine regions but is at its best in the Côte de Beaune, the southern part of the Côte d’Or.
Does the terroir vary greatly across the region?
MC: Most of the soils contain a mix of limestone, clay, gravel and sand. Chardonnay does especially well in limestone-dominant soil, while Pinot Noir likes marl — a mixture of limestone and clay.
Where are the best vineyards?
MC: It’s hard to say as every village has its own characteristics. My personal favourites are Vosne-Romanée and Gevrey-Chambertin in the Côte de Nuits for the reds; Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault in the Côte de Beaune for the whites.
Why are the wines so rare?
MC: In Burgundy, the focus is very much on individual vineyards as well as on the producer; the value of a wine is dictated by the quality and reputation of those vineyards, in addition to the producer’s skill set.
Moreover, a single vineyard might have more than 70 owners, with some owners controlling only two or three rows of vines. Some producers can therefore only produce a hundred cases or even fewer per year, as opposed to the 20,000 cases produced annually by, say, Château Lafite Rothschild in Bordeaux.
For some of the Burgundy Grand Crus, only a few hundred bottles are released in a year. One wine is not even made for sale: while the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is best known for its Grand Cru reds and white Montrachet, it also owns a tiny section of Bâtard-Montrachet, which is only for family and friends to enjoy.
How do production methods vary among the renowned producers?
MC: The Domaine Armand Rousseau favours a traditionally Burgundian process, focusing on old vines and low yields to produce wines of great concentration and subtlety. The grapes are de-stemmed and cooled before being fermented in stainless steel, and the wines are aged in barrel with, typically, the same percentage of new oak each year. (The exception is Clos Saint-Jacques, where the percentage can vary.)
Chambertin and Clos de Bèze, for instance, are aged in 100 per cent new oak, the other Grand Crus in 100 per cent one-year-old wood — although little new oak is now used for Clos des Ruchottes. These wines are the embodiment of elegant and delicate Pinot Noir, and they age fantastically well, developing multilayered complexity in the bottle.
Domaine Leroy on the other hand, takes a determinedly biodynamic approach, eschewing all weed killers, pesticides, fungicides, insecticides and artificial fertilisers. A combination of old vines, careful training, pruning and crop-thinning, and strict selection at harvest, results in exceedingly low yields and superbly concentrated and expressive wines.
Do all Burgundy wines improve with age?
MC: Generally speaking, the Village wines are supposed to be drunk young, between three and five years old. Premier Cru Burgundies are at their best between five and 15 years of age, while Grand Cru wines can keep on improving for up to 50.
How do auction prices compare with those for other sought-after wines?
MC: They are considerably higher. Take DRC’s Grand Cru Romanée-Conti 2005, one of the most prestigious Burgundies out there. In 2009, the average global hammer price was around HK$58,000 (£5,374) per bottle, according to the Wine Market Journal. By 2019, this had soared to HK$120,000 (£11,118), compared to around HKD$30,000 (£2,780) for an outstanding vintage of a top Bordeaux wine such as Château Pétrus.
Prices have continued to rise despite Covid-19: to HK$130,000 (£12,045) in 2020, and HK$150,000 (£13,899) in 2021. The pandemic hasn’t affected the big spenders. Asian buyers tend to go for the best of the best — as status symbols and investments, but also to drink. I’m often surprised how much of this wine is drunk.
Michelle’s top 5 Burgundy wines and tasting notes
Armand Rousseau, Chambertin-Clos de Bèze 2005
Domaine Armand Rousseau was founded in the early 20th century and is now run by the founder’s grandson Eric and great-granddaughter Cyrielle. It owns more than 15 hectares of vineyards and is world-renowned for its top three wines: Chambertin, Chambertin-Clos de Bèze and Gevrey-Chambertin Clos Saint Jacques.
‘Chambertin is considered the “King of Burgundy” and generally needs a very long time (up to 20 years!) before it’s ready to drink, as it’s super-concentrated and intense,’ says Chan. ‘While I age my Chambertin, I would open a Clos de Bèze slightly sooner as it’s more approachable.’
Tasting notes: ‘Still with a lot of reserve. Clearly more depth and structure than the 06 and 07. Fresh bright acidity. Great future ahead. Tasted May 2013’ — Edwin Vos, Christie’s International Head of Wines
Domaine Leroy, Musigny 2007
Domaine Leroy was founded in 1988, when Lalou Bize-Leroy purchased the Domaine Charles Nöellat in Vosne-Romanée and renamed it. She now owns parcels in nine Grand Crus.
‘This Musigny is very rare; only a few hundred bottles are produced each year,’ says Chan. ‘It’s aromatic and velvety, yet powerful.’
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Assortment 1999
Burgundy’s most famous wine estate dates back to the 13th century and gets the second part of its name from a fierce bidding war that took place in 1760 between Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of King Louis XV, and the King’s cousin the Prince de Conti — which the Prince won.
Today, it owns the most famous Grands Crus in the Côte d’Or: a total 28 hectares of vineyards, including 1.81 hectares of Romanée-Conti and 6.06 hectares of La Tâche.
The domaine has adopted a biodynamic approach, making complex, long-lasting, ethereal wines. Michael Broadbent MW described them as having ‘a fist of iron in a velvet glove’ with a ‘peacock’s tail’ of a finish — meaning that the flavours and aromas open up with time in the mouth.
Chan highly recommends the 1999 Assortment: ‘It gives you all six Grand Cru of reds in one case, and 1999 was one of the best vintages.’
Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé, Musigny Blanc 2015
The de Vogüé estate dates back to the 15th century and is now owned by two sisters, Claire and Marie de Ladaucette. It owns 12 hectares of vineyards concentrated in Musigny and Bonnes Mares.
‘De Vogüé is the only producer in Musigny to make a white wine from the Grand Cru site,’ says Chan. ‘The vineyard underwent replanting in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and as the average age of the wines was relatively young — below 25 years old — Comte Georges de Vogüé decided to declassify the estate’s Musigny Blanc to Bourgogne Blanc between 1994 and 2014. Musigny Blanc 2015 was the first Grand Cru produced since 1993.’
Tasting notes: ‘Intense floral nose, some raspberries and peppers. Fresh crispy start of grapey flavours, creamy final, impressive strength. Very well balanced with good energy and quinsy aftertaste. Very good potential. Tasted October 2017’ — Edwin Vos
Domaine Leflaive, Montrachet 2002
This estate has 5.1 hectares in Puligny-Montrachet, and converted to biodynamic winemaking in 1994.
‘Leflaive is one of the best producers of Burgundy white,’ says Chan. ‘Of all the Grand Cru whites by different producers, Montrachet by Domaine Leflaive is probably the most difficult to find.’
The Ultimate Private Collection Featuring The Greatest Burgundies takes place on 20 May at Christie’s Hong Kong. More sought-after wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy will be offered in our Finest and Rarest Wines and Spirits sale, 28 May-8 June, Online.