1985 Burgundy by Clive Coates / The 1985 vintage represents a watershed in the vinous history of Burgundy. Prior to this date, by and large, growers made wine, merchants bought it, assembled several parcels, where appropriate, and sold it. Subsequently, more and more domaines started to mature, bottle and market the wines themselves. Meanwhile many merchants had seized the opportunity to increase their own estates, so that, particularly at the top end, they were more or less self-sufficient. Back in the 1970s, and earlier, there were barely a couple of dozen growers or so – one thinks of Rousseau, Dujac, the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Gouges, Lafarge and Leflaive - who did not sell in bulk. Many of today's super-stars only bottled a token quantity, and were unknown even to the most perspicacious merchant or journalist.
The emergence of these new domaines transformed Burgundy. Within a very short space of time almost everyone who had grand cru and many who had good premier cru was bottling as much as they could themselves. There was the question of cash-flow of course. If you sold to a merchant you were paid in full by the time of the subsequent vintage. If you sold in bottle you did not receive the money until some two and a half years later, after bottling 18 months after the harvest and eventual shipping in the winter after that. So one could not, unless otherwise financed, move from selling in bulk to selling in bottle over-night. I remember the late, lamented Philippe Engel explaining to me that the transformation chez lui had taken ten years.
The process was encouraged by the locals on the spot. Burgundy is a generous wine region. Most growers are on very good terms with their neighbours and only too happy to help out if there is a problem. Naturally, the very best have a queue of potential buyers waiting to step in if one of the regular customers falls by the way-side. What could be more natural for the much-solicited important domaine proprietor than to recommend a hitherto unknown young neighbour who was looking for business. If he or she was a cousin or an in-law so much the better.
Moreover, quality was improving, and by leaps and bounds. The best growers had been to the Viti in Beaune and subsequently to the University at Dijon. Many went off to do a stage in California or Australia, or somewhere else in France. Tasting each others' wines with your neighbours became common-place. Firstly the fact of selling your wine under your own label compelled you not to cut corners, which you might have been tempted to do if you were merely selling off in bulk. Tasting your wine alongside those of your friends and reading a critique of it in some wine review would soon teach you if you were producing top quality or not. Secondly techniques of viticulture and viniculture had become more and more sophisticated. There was a return to ploughing and the elimination of herbicides and pesticides. There was rather more consideration to the size of the crop. And lastly the introduction of the sorting table: the greatest contribution to the rise of quality of all. Today everyone has aa sorting table. The first I saw was a the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti when I was making a video in 1987. Finally, after a disappointing run of vintages in the 1970s and early 1980s, 1985 ushered in a series of high quality years which has continued to this day. Burgundy has not had a bad vintage since 1984. Thirty years.
The consequence of all this is that it is increasingly difficult for everyone, not just the outside journalist, to keep pace. Every year there are new domaines, worthy of investigation, and waiting to be discovered. In 1985 I visited some six domaines in Gevry, four in Morey and Chambolle and perhaps eight in Vosne. Today I'd have to visit 25 in Gevrey, and so on. A marathon I no longer have the energy for. I am very lucky to have been on the spot at the time and to have lived through what was an exciting time in Burgundy. Now, with some relief, I am more or less retired.
But back to 1985. The 1985 growing season began with a bout of really savage frost. Fears were raised, particularly in Chablis, that the crop would be negligible as a result. Happily these proved groundless (in fact Chablis produced more in 1985 than in 1984). There was nevertheless some damage, and in Gevrey and other villages of the Côte d'Or as well as in Chablis, ensuring that in some cases several premiers crus would eventually have to be vinified together as there was not enough potential wine for them to be attended to separately.
Following the cold winter the spring and early summer passed without mishap. The flowering was a little late, but on those vines not affected by the frost a perfectly satisfactory crop of flowers set into fruit. May, June and july were avearge, but then from the beginning of August a perfect fin de saison set in. August and September were almost entirely dry, and if the earlier month was only averagely warm, the latter month was really quite hot. This transformed the vintage from something uneven, behind-hand and unpromising to something ripe, uniform, healthy and concentrated.
The collection of the fruit began in the last week of September. It was an easy harvest: no rain, no vinification problems, and no lack, it seemed, of either bunches of fruit or juice. At the Domaine Armand Rousseau in Gevrey-Chambertin 25 pickers were employed for six days. In 1986 it would requite 50 for 12.
Despite the fears at the beginning of the year, the size of the crop turned out quite substantial: 220,000 hectolitres in the Côte d'Or (excluding generics); similar to 1983, less than the prolific 1982, but much more than the short 1984.