Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Fast Route To The Soul Of Burgundy

Jeanne Marie de Champs and a few of her Burgundy wines
Jeanne Marie de Champs holds the key to the cellar door. It's a small key, but it easily opens the way for wine enthusiasts to discover the perplexing yet enthralling world of Burgundy.

In theory, Burgundian wines should be the easiest on the planet to grasp. By and large, there are just two of them, a white made from the green grape chardonnay and a red made from the black grape pinot noir. Sure, variations in terroir and vintage, as well as the aesthetic goals of individual winemakers, complicate the wines with a rich range of interpretations.

On top of that, there's Burgundy's intricate network of appellations, the fractured ownership of vineyards, and its ancient and elaborate system of nomenclature, all of which give the Burgundian wine label a wealth of information for those who have the time and patience to master it.

For those who don't, there's Jeanne Marie de Champs and her key, a tiny and finely drawn family crest alongside the words "Shipped By: Jeanne Marie de Champs, Beaune," which appear on the back label of each bottle of Burgundian wine she sends to the United States and elsewhere.

In tasting through 30 of her current releases a couple of weeks ago, I came to look upon that simple crest as the guarantee of character and value that the front labels in all their tradition and busyness strive to assure.

As a wine merchant, Jeanne Marie de Champs breaks from the historic Burgundian mold. She isn't a grower, winemaker or negotiant. She's a kind of broker, exporter and distributor, but not in any customary sense. Her quarters aren't in one of Beaune's medieval stone structures or in the dark and musty caves that snake under the city. Instead, she occupies a bright, spacious and abidingly practical and modern warehouse in a small industrial park on the outskirts of Beaune. She's created a singular niche for her business, which she calls Domaines et Saveurs Collection.

Her business plan is as contemporary and direct as her office: She finds wines she likes, buys them and then resells them in her many export markets. She doesn't represent estates so much as she represents her own astute palate, whose tastebuds run to wines profound in their clarity and symmetry. She seeks fruit and elegance, and settles for nothing less than those expressions at their most vocal and harmonious. Other than that, no single thread ties her wines together.

"I look for good farmers, mostly in Burgundy, mostly organic, who use natural yeast to get the terroir, with the wines non-fined and non-filtered," she explains at the outset of the tasting. She buys from some 70 growers, selling about 800,000 bottles yearly in the United States alone.

Without digging into a file cabinet or calling up technical sheets on a computer screen, she easily recalls the detailed pedigree of virtually every wine she opens. "This vineyard is in the middle of nowhere, all the musque clone of chardonnay, with the vines on their own roots, not grafted. This wine would be great with sole or bass," she remarks of the rich yet minerally Domaine Bart 2009 Les Favieres Marsannay. "Acidity was very high in 2008. As baby wines they are good for your cheese," she says of the Chateau de la Maltroye 2008 La Dent de Chien Premier Cru Chassagne-Montrachet. "This grower brings in 50 pickers so he can harvest his grapes in less than two hours and sort the fruit in the vineyard, avoiding oxidation and rot," she remarks over tastes of the jammy and complex Chateau de la Maltroye 2008 Santenay La Comme.

When she isn't pulling a cork or pouring a wine, she's apt to be dashing to a large and exact map of Burgundy on one wall, showing the precise site or sites that yielded the grapes that produced the wine being tasted. She believes in terroir, indicating that a wine first should reflect the nature of the source of the grapes. So eager is she to draw the connection between site and wine that she often includes on the back label of her wines a map to show the precise location of the vineyard that produced the grapes for the wine in the bottle.

She's been in the wine trade since 1983, when she joined her husband in a wine-distribution business he'd started in 1972. In 1993, she went out on her own, creating Domaines et Saveurs Collection. Her daughters were 8 and 6 at the time, and while she could have gone to work for any number of distributors or importers she didn't want to be away from home much. She figured that having her own business would give her the latitude to set her own schedule. "When you work for a big company you are on the street a lot, too much for someone with little kids."

Her own company has become fairly substantial by now, and she's on the road frequently, including trips to the United States. She enjoys dealing with Americans - "Americans want excellence. They are open and looking for new things. That's what I love about America," she says. While in California, she indulges her affection for zinfandel. "Nobody understands why I love zinfandel. It's different. It ages well, and when old can be rich and complex. I just love good wines," she remarks. "Zinfandel has its own personality and structure." She's mystified that not even many Californians are as infatuated with zinfandel.

As we taste through the wines, she offers frank and concise commentary on a range of matters:

- Of the organic farming of wine grapes in Burgundy, she says it is widespread, but not many farmers seek to get their vineyards officially certified as organic. Mildew and rot are major concerns among growers, so they want to be free to use whatever methods are available to deal with it should the need arise, and not all those methods are organically sanctioned.

- Of mixed early reaction to the quality of the 2010 wines in Burgundy, she calls the vintage "very difficult," with poor flowering in the spring and cool and damp weather in the early fall resulting in a small crop whose nature is likely to vary sharply from grower to grower. "You had to be a very good farmer this year," she says.

- Of the emerging wine market in China, and the early preference among Chinese for the wines of  arch-rival Bordeaux over Burgundy, she notes that Bordeaux produces much more inexpensive wine than Burgundy, with low prices rather than stature accounting for the disparity in popularity.

Through the tasting, the individuality of her wines seemed to become more pronounced as another cork was pulled. Each had something to say, and said it with assurance. The lip-smacking Paul Pernot 2008 Premier Cru Clos de la Garenne Puligny-Montrachet was almost feral in its attack, richness, grip and length, coming off much more complex and brazen than how a white wine customarily reveals itself. All on its own, the Domaine Gabriel Billard 2008 Pommard Premier Cru Les Charmots, from vines more than 75 years old, in a vineyard still plowed only with horses to better aerate and enrich the soil, defined the seductive charm of Burgundy, its color light but its smell and flavor deep and dense, ranging from mushrooms and truffles to the sunny fruitiness of wild strawberries at their summer peak. The Domaine Francois Lamarche 2003 Vosnee-Romanee La Croix Rameau was a veritable galaxy yet to be discovered by a long-distance spacecraft, ever expanding in its smell and flavor, from the lightness of delicate wildflowers to the mystery and grandeur of some gothic monument, draped with history and tradition.

More power to anyone who wants to study and learn Burgundy's involved hierarchy and history as outlined on its labels, but for a shortcut to character and value, turn that bottle around and look for the crest of Jeanne Marie de Champs.


  1. She's a great lady, and the one of the best ambassadors Burgundy has ever had.

  2. Excellent article, and inspiring story behind the wines of Burgundy she choses.