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1985 Burgundy by Clive Coates MW / The 1985 vintage represents a turning point in the wine history of Burgundy. Before this date, on the whole, winegrowers made wine, merchants bought it, assembled several plots, if necessary, and sold it. Subsequently, more and more estates began to mature, bottle and market the wines themselves. In the meantime, many merchants had taken the opportunity to expand their own estates, so that, particularly at the upper end, they were more or less self-sufficient. In the 1970s, and earlier, there were barely around twenty producers – we think of Rousseau, Dujac, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Gouges, Lafarge and Leflaive – who did not sell in bulk. Many of today's super-stars bottled only a token quantity and were unknown to even the most perceptive merchant or journalist.
The emergence of these new areas is transforming Burgundy. In a very short time, almost everyone who had a grand cru and many who had a good premier cru were bottling as much as they could themselves. There was, of course, the question of cash flow. If you sold to a merchant, you were paid in full at the time of the next vintage. If you sold in bottles, you didn't get the money until about two and a half years later, after bottling 18 months after harvest and possible shipping in winter thereafter. We would therefore not be able, unless we were otherwise financed, to move from bulk sales to bottled sales overnight. I remember the late Philippe Engel explaining to me that the transformation for him took ten years.
The process was encouraged by local residents. Burgundy is a generous wine region. Most growers are on very good terms with their neighbors and are only too happy to help if there is a problem. Naturally, the best ones have a queue of potential buyers waiting to step in if one of the regular customers falls through. What could be more natural for the important owner of the much sought-after estate than to recommend a hitherto unknown young neighbor who was looking for business. If he or she was a cousin or in-law, so much the better.
Moreover, the quality was improving, and by leaps and bounds. The best growers went to Viti in Beaune then to the University of Dijon. Many left for a stopover in California or Australia, or elsewhere in France. Tasting each other’s wines with your neighbors has become commonplace. Firstly, selling your wine under your own label required you not to cut corners, which you might have been tempted to do if you were simply selling in bulk. Tasting your wine alongside those of your friends and reading a review of it in a wine magazine will soon tell you whether you are producing superior quality or not. Second, viticulture and viticulture techniques had become increasingly sophisticated. There has been a return to plowing and the elimination of herbicides and pesticides. The size of the harvest was taken into greater account. And finally the introduction of the sorting table: the greatest contribution to increasing quality of all. Today, everyone has a sorting table. The first time I saw it was 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 that continues 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 up. Every year, new areas, worthy of exploration and waiting to be discovered. In 1985, I visited six estates in Gevry, four in Morey and Chambolle and perhaps eight in Vosne. Today I should visit 25 in Gevrey, and so on. A marathon for which I no longer have the energy. I am very lucky to have been there at the time and to have experienced what was an exciting time in Burgundy.