The name alone is enough to conjure up images of the finer things in life – good wine, good food, journeys through quaint villages surrounded by sprawling vineyards. Burgundy’s reputation is the result of being at the forefront of the wine world for centuries. The thirst for its wines has grown exponentially in the last decade, however, perhaps best evidenced by the record-breaking sale of a bottle of 1945 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti by Sotheby’s in New York last October. The bottle was sold to a collector for a mind-boggling US$558,000, the highest price ever paid for a bottle of wine at auction.
But what really makes Burgundy – or Bourgogne as it’s known in France – so special? According to Vincent Bottreau, régisseur (or director) of Domaine d’Ardhuy, it’s a mix of the land and its people. “This territory has constructed its centuries-old reputation on a patchwork of climats. Created by man and nature, hand in hand, the climats are more than 1,000 individual plots that are precisely delimited and classified into a hierarchy, gathered around the region’s various wine growing villages,” he says of the Unesco World Heritage-listed vineyards.
“The unique character of the climats, their position in the hierarchy of Premiers and Grands Crus, and the culture and history of the Bourgogne winegrowing region make this a territory of outstanding universal value. Any change to them would be a major loss for humanity,” Bottreau says, adding that with just two grape varieties grown in them – one red (Pinot Noir) and one white (Chardonnay) – the geological diversity of these climats is also key.
Véronique Drouhin, head winemaker of Maison Joseph Drouhin, believes that it is the “remarkable elegance” of Burgundy’s wines that sets them apart. “Both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay express themselves in the most refined way on the extraordinary variety of soils in Burgundy,” she says.
The buyer of the aforementioned Romanée-Conti wine hails from Asia, a detail that’s emblematic of the continent’s love for Burgundy. So how did Asia end up falling head over heels for the region? “When it comes to wine, Burgundy is the birthplace of nuance,” says Bottreau. “It’s the perfect match for Asian food. Asian markets are also becoming more and more mature markets of connoisseurs, and Burgundy wines fit well in this [process of] building knowledge of wine’s crafted and unique terroirs.”
This view is shared by Drouhin, who adds that Burgundy’s heritage is another top draw. “I think Asian people have a very refined palate. Their food is delicate, and with that kind of food you want to associate elegant wines,” she says. “I also believe that when you drink a bottle of wine it is not just the wine you are drinking but also the story behind it, and Burgundy is all about history – of the region and of the families making the wine. Friends from Asia that I have been lucky to make over the years love the history of our region, and it is a pleasure to share it with them.”
With so many appellations to get acquainted with, beginning an odyssey into Burgundy’s wine can seem a little daunting, but Bottreau has some helpful tips. “I would recommend [that you] start with regional appellations such as Bourgogne red or Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune white, and progressively move to village appellations,” he says. “Here at Domaine d’Ardhuy, we produce wines for every budget and would be thrilled to organise such a journey! Tasting is really important [for you] to be able to slowly build your palate on the different styles of each climat and vintage in order to find the wines you love best.”
And don’t be dissuaded by those record auction prices – while they’ll always make the news, Drouhin shares that “there is a large range of delicious wines at affordable prices that needs to be discovered by the public, such as our Pouilly-Vinzelles”. She also adds, “Our family company has always been producing a fairly large range of wines from all of Burgundy going from Chablis in the north all the way to the Mâconnais region in the south with, of course, a focus on the Côte d’Or where my great-grandfather, Joseph, started the company in 1880. We made it possible for customers to find in our collection wines fitting their budget.”
To start you on your journey, here are 10 names to look out for:
A large négociant (the name for wine merchants who purchase grapes or wine from smaller producers and handle the bottling and sale of the finished product), Albert Bichot has been in business since 1831, though the family traces its roots in Burgundy as far back as 1350. The six estates of Albert Bichot, spread north to south across Burgundy from Chablis to Moulin-à-Vent, are now under the watchful eye of Albéric Bichot, who represents the sixth generation of his family.
Bouchard Père & Fils
Since 1731, nine generations of the Bouchard family have helmed this négociant. Bouchard Père & Fils’ cellars are located at the magnificent Château de Beaune, built in the 15th century for King Louis XI, where wines from their 130 hectares of vines (including 12 hectares of top-tier Grand Cru and 74 hectares of second-highest-tier Premier Cru vineyards) age under optimum conditions.
The story of Domaine d’Ardhuy begins with a romance during the harvest of 1947. That was when Gabriel d’Ardhuy met his wife, Eliane, a winegrower’s daughter. The couple would go on to have seven daughters, two of whom continue to run the family’s vineyards in Burgundy and the Rhône Valley. In contrast to the large négociants, Domaine d’Ardhuy is a small producer with just two vineyards, but as director Vincent Bottreau shares, that’s a good thing. “Domaine d’Ardhuy’s success may be [attributed to] our commitment to quality – of our wines and of our relationships with our partners, clients [and] providers – but also to our employees and, above all, to our soils and vines,” he says.
Domaine de Montille
Behind Domaine de Montille is a saga about rising, falling and rising again. Originally owning 12 hectares of vineyards in what would become some of Burgundy’s most prestigious appellations, the de Montille family’s holdings had been cut to just three hectares in Volnay by the time Hubert de Montille entered the fray. Over the years, the visionary transformed Domaine de Montille into an independent producer, with his respect for the terroir turning the family’s fortunes around. Today, Hubert’s children preserve his legacy – son Étienne managing the red wines and daughter Alix taking care of the white wines – with 20 hectares of vines in their hands as of 2011, 75% of which are classed Premier or Grand Cru.
Maison Joseph Drouhin
One of the biggest names in Burgundy (that record-breaking Romanée-Conti was from the private cellar of its former head, Robert Drouhin), Maison Joseph Drouhin accounts for nearly 90 appellations, allowing you to explore the diversity of the region under a single label. Now managed by the fourth generation of the Drouhin family, the maison’s heritage is built upon a commitment to natural and biodynamic principles which they’ve kept since the mid-1980s. “Consistency in quality and style of the wines [they] produce” has been essential to their success spanning nearly 140 years, according to Véronique Drouhin. “My great-grandfather, grandfather and father all would say that there was no other direction than quality and dedication to the extraordinary variety of soils of Burgundy,” she says. “With my brothers and our team, we continue with the same values and philosophy.”
Founded in 1825 and based in Nuits-Saint-Georges, with access to some of Burgundy’s finest climats, Domaine Faiveley is committed to the balance of tradition and modernity. They are precise in their vinification techniques, they respect their terroir and they see the environment as a chief concern. Natural fertilizer, manual harvesting, manual sorting, indigenous yeasts and traditional ageing are very much the order of the day here.
While many of Burgundy’s great houses have roots that go deep into the soil of the region, Benjamin Leroux proved that one can still start from scratch there in modern times. Beginning his journey into winemaking at 13, with no family connections to the business, Leroux started his own label in 2007 after close to a decade of making a name for himself. His focus is on distinctive and underrated terroirs, and he works with growers who commit to organic and biodynamic practices.
A maison with a unique Canadian connection, Marchand-Tawse was founded at the start of the decade by Pascal Marchand, who first arrived in Burgundy from Quebec in 1983, and Moray Tawse, who hails from the province of Ontario – the home of Tawse Winery. Another house based in Nuits-Saint-Georges, their wines run the gamut from bottles for everyday drinking to Grands Crus from Chambertin and Échezeaux.
The Girardin family has been making wine in Burgundy for over 300 years, but Vincent Girardin decided to chart his own course back in 1980, when he was just 19. Starting out with two hectares of vines that he inherited from his parents, the maison that bears his name today has wines from the venerated Bâtard-Montrachet, Corton and Le Montrachet in its portfolio – all produced as naturally as possible by current winemaker Eric Germain.
Firmly entrenched in Chablis, Domaine Laroche produces four Grands Crus and 10 Premiers Crus that will show you all you need to know about the Chardonnay side of Burgundy – from the intense Côte de Léchet to the minerality-driven Les Clos. Sustainability and environmentally friendly viticulture are at the heart of this operation, and they also make it a point to reduce power and water consumption.
You can sample wines from all 10 of these producers aboard selected Singapore Airlines flights, where the biggest Burgundy cellar in the sky exists with 47 labels – 60% of which are exclusive to the airline.
All photos provided by Maison Joseph Drouhin unless otherwise stated