On the Irrelevance of Burgundy

by Robert Millman

The reader may wonder what I could possibly mean by this provocative title. Isn’t the demand for Burgundy—as reflected in astronomical prices and extremely limited availability–at an all time high with no significant signs of abating? The problem seems not to be how much Grand Cru Burgundies cost but finding the wines at any cost. Buying clubs have formed which in effect scarf up the cult and nest cult wines and then parcel then out to members on a contributory basis. It seems to me that this path has gone from appreciating to collecting to hoarding top shelf Burgundies thus in effect removing them from those who are most likely to love these wines for themselves not their rarity and inaccessibility. This whole process started perhaps with the 2005 vintage, was disrupted by the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and has resumed with a vengeance starting again with the 2015s. The short crops of 2016, 19, 20 and 2021 certainly played into this exclusivity/hoarding mentality. The fairly large crops in 2022 and 2023 do not seem to have made a dent in the issue of price and availability.

I find that young people with disposable income are nowadays increasingly not looking to Burgundy when starting to taste and then one day possibly collecting. I fear this will turn into lifelong indifference to Burgundy while focusing on wines from everywhere else. I could say that this is exactly how markets are supposed to work. Much more first-rate Portuguese, Greek, southern Italian, Spanish Garnachas, biodynamic wines from Alsace and cooler climate California wines provide new wine enthusiasts with plenty to drink at prices that are much below most Burgundy. And there is a plethora of medium priced Bordeaux, made better than ever before, on the market. Smart retailers can off er 3rd, 4th and 5th growth Bordeaux well below the prices of village Burgundies. Of course, restaurants in wealthy cities will continue to collect very expensive Burgundies to impress reviewers and rich customers—very often as vinous ornaments rather than tempting possibilities.

Is there any light at the heart of Burgundian darkness? Actually there is: A vital association of Aligoté growers has sprung up to market and offer the many superbly crafted wines currently being made from this once ignored grape. More and more wines from the Haut-Côte de Beaune and Nuits are now available and have never tasted so good. The responsible growers, caught up in this hoarding world of highly classified Burgundies, are now making Bourgogne Rouges and Blancs with a devotion to quality that is inspiring. The white wines from the Maconnais and Côte Chalonnaise have also benefited from this dedication to quality and availability as never before. But for those of us who used to be able to afford and share Prermier and Grand Cru Burgundy, the situation is not likely to improve. There are still affordable Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits wines, but they often get lost among the more famous wines which received extravagantly high scores. I do fear that the exaggerated status, nose-bleed high prices and unavailability of Burgundy’s glamour wines will continue to drive the potential audience for Burgundy into wines from any and everywhere else. To be clear, I do regard this as something of a tragedy.

Robert Millman

Robert Millman’s wine career began in the early 1980s, when he began working from Morrell & Company, one of the USA’s top wine retailers. During that time, he co-founded Executive Wine Seminars (EWS) with Howard Kaplan, which over the years became one of NYC’s most highly regarded wine events companies. EWS organized and conducted over 1000 wine events during its prestigious thirty-three year history. High points included Robert Parker being a regular guest presenter at the tastings, and through 2011, the results of the tastings were published on the Wine Advocate website. Having reached an age where taking a step back from the wear and tear of life in the wine fast lane made sense, Millman currently enjoys being a taster and wine writer for Grapes the Wine Company, an excellent, leading e-retailer based in Westchester (NY). 

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Robert Millman