Burgundy test shows Bouchard's worth tasting

VINTAGE POINT

February 27, 1994|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Give Jean-Francois Bouchard credit for guts.

The managing director of the large Burgundy shipping firm Bouchard Pere & Fils breezed into Baltimore this month with a boatload of Burgundy -- not just his own but those of his fellow producers.

He was ready to take on all comers in a blind tasting, and the rivals he chose were no mere sparring partners. They were the heavyweights of Burgundy -- renowned small producers such as Armand Girardin and Henri Jayer, highly respected fellow shippers such as Louis Jadot and Joseph Drouhin and even the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, the region's most famous estate.

Bouchard, by contrast, is a huge regional producer with a checkered reputation. For decades it produced nondescript wines from vineyards that should have yielded nectar. "Bouchard was not getting that much respect in America," said Mr. Bouchard.

Recent reports in the wine press, most notably the Wine Advocate, have pointed to a turnaround in the quality emanating from the 263-year-old negociant (a firm that primarily buys grapes grown by others to make wines that are shipped under its label).

Still, when Mr. Bouchard visited Baltimore, his dinner guest was in a "show me" frame of mind. Fine Burgundy, after all, is expensive wine, and in past years buyers of Bouchard wines were not getting their money's worth.

It would be heartwarming to report that the affable Mr. Bouchard's wines blew away those of his famous competitors. But they didn't. In no flight did the Bouchard wine come in first in my scoring. Perhaps he was just being polite, but Mr. Bouchard seemed to agree.

That isn't what was important, however. What was significant was that Bouchard's wines belonged in each of the six flights. They were edged, but not put to shame by their rivals -- most of which bear far weightier price tags.

Setting up such a comparative tasting and inviting the press to take part also sends a clear message of Bouchard's aspirations. It isn't the best negociant house in Burgundy at this moment, but now it's trying. A few years ago, the Bouchards didn't seem to really care.

What has happened at Bouchard is a story that's been told all around the world, from the Napa Valley to the Rhone to Italy. A new generation comes of age, more cosmopolitan than the one that came before. The torch passes and the wine improves.

Mr. Bouchard, 41, became managing director last year, but his influence has clearly been at work for the last several years. After years of traveling the globe representing the family business, he was acutely aware of the firm's faltering reputation.

Turning point

The turnaround began in the mid-1980s with the construction of new winemaking facilities. But it takes time for change to work its way through to the finished product, and American wine consumers are only beginning to see Bouchard's efforts begin to bear fruit. Mr. Bouchard points to the 1989 vintage as a turning point.

The key to the Bouchard turnaround is simple -- lower yields. In 1989, for the first time, Bouchard conducted a "green harvest" in its portion of the famous Montrachet vineyard -- dumping some of the most precious grapes in the world on the ground so the resulting wine would have more concentration. Traditionalists in the village were amazed, Mr. Bouchard said.

But tradition is no longer sacred at the family's winery in Beaune, Mr. Bouchard said. In recent years, the family has changed its approach to fermentation (slower) and filtration (less) while aiming to make a wine that takes less time to become a pleasure to drink.

"I don't want to do something grandfather and great-grandfather did automatically because grandfather and great-grandfather did it," Mr. Bouchard said.

Unlike many vintners, Mr. Bouchard openly acknowledges the positive role played by wine critics in spurring improvements. He named Maryland's Robert M. Parker Jr., the English writer Clive Coates and the French critic Michel Bettane as three who influenced the changes at Bouchard.

Apart from demonstrating his family's improved winemaking, Mr. Bouchard also put on a convincing demonstration that there's more good news out of Burgundy recently than the classic 1990 vintage. Two flights of 1991 reds showed quite well, and a flight of 1989 Echezeaux reds showed beautifully for current consumption.

The two flights of 1990s, red Nuits St.-Georges and white Chevalier Montrachet, were stunning, however, especially for Bouchard. The 1990 Nuits St.-Georges "Clos St.-Marc" was the finest Bouchard red served that evening, while the 1990 Bouchard Chevalier Montrachet was a luxury wine of staggering proportions. Bouchard also distinguished itself with a very fine 1989 Echezeaux.

For what it's worth, on my score sheet Bouchard placed fourth of four in the 1991 Pommards; second of two in the 1991 Volnays; second of four in the 1990 Nuits St.-Georges; third of four in the 1989 Echezeaux; third of four in the 1991 Meursaults; and third of four in the 1990 Chevalier Montrachets.

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