A scotch whisky distiller, when asked recently if he made any blends, was gloriously sniffy and dismissive of blended whisky. It would have been interesting to see and hear what he would have made of the Johnnie Walker Directors Blends, which I got to taste last Thursday (November 28) in London.
A rebirth of the now defunct Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire appellation, AOC Coteaux Bourguignon is a new entry-point Burgundy that can be sourced from anywhere in the Grande Bourgogne region, from Auxerrois in the north, where Chablis is produced, to the southern tip of Beaujolais.
Beaujolais is likely to contribute much of the volume to the appellation, particularly benefiting producers in the sizable but less marketable southern appellations of Beaujolais (17% of total production) and Beaujolais Villages (16%).
Contrary to the successes of the ten Beaujolais crus in the north of the region (which now constitutes 36% of production), many southern producers have struggled to be profitable.
The long-standing decline of Beaujolais Nouveau, also a product of the south, has hit revenue streams in the last ten years, dropping from 50% to 31% of the region’s production.
Jean Bourjade, general manager of Inter Beaujolais explained that while the idea hatched in Burgundy, his own region could stand to benefit. “In the southern half of Beaujolais producers suffer from people mixing up Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages with Beaujolais Nouveau, so Coteaux Bourguignon is an opportunity to extend the range of wines they offer to market. Along with red, white, crémant and rosé, it is another option of a diversification strategy.”
Favourably, Coteaux Bourguignon permits an increased yield to Beaujolais appellations (65 hl/ha, not 52 hl/ha) and the flexibility to use Pinot Noir, its relative Gamay and Chardonnay.
The rules also permit carbonic or traditional maceration and the use of oak chips.
According to Xavier Barbet, president of Inter-Beaujolais, producers outside of the ten cru have been hampered by regulation in the past but the new appellation provides an opportunity. “We have wonderful terroir but it’s been a long time since we’ve been able to meet the market’s needs,” he said.
Dominique Vrigneau, buying director of UK wine importers Thierry’s, has voiced his support for Coteaux Bourguignon, describing it as an example of how appellations can be innovative and flexible to meet market needs. “My [first] fear was that it was just a change in the name from Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire to Coteaux Bourguignon, but now I believe the wines will be better. Instead of having a fixed appellation there is a choice for producers. The new rules open things up and allow them to do things differently.”
In some quarters, the move has been seen as the signal of a loss of confidence in the Beaujolais region and a danger to its long-term future.
Georges Duboeuf, of his eponymous brand – which sold 32m bottles in 2011 – has said the move will “only help the people of Burgundy”.
The brand’s export director Bernard Georges echoed the point: “If you sell wine without your name you lose the face of your wine. This will not help the guy from Beaujolais, it will help the guy from Burgundy.”
Gregory Large, director general of one of the region’s négociants, Mommessin, conceded that if the appellation develops it could eventually see a scaling down of Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages production but that the move is a positive step for consumers. “If Coteaux Bourguignon develops, Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages in the south will be the main source. The appellation could be the flagship of Mommessin wines and a good wine for consumers – it provides value. It has a big opportunity because it is an appellation of liberty.”
Inter Beaujolais’ Bourjade has also urged caution. “We hope it develops but it’s about diversification - we don’t want it to be too big or too small. We’ve been there with Beaujolais Nouveau – we’ve done it and paid for it. Too much of something is not always good.”