The Burgundian wizards of Oz
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La Revue du Vin de France’s annual Grand Prix awards are a big deal in the wine world – but they rarely make the mainstream press. This year, however, was a little different, thanks to one winner: Burgundy winemaker Jane Eyre. Formerly a hairdresser in one of Melbourne’s top salons, Eyre “fell in love” with Burgundy while doing work experience at a vineyard there in 1998. After retraining as a winemaker back in Australia, she subsequently made Burgundy her home, working first at the famous Domaine des Comtes Lafon and subsequently as assistant winemaker at Domaine Newman. Her own wine label, which she launched in 2011 with a barrel from her boss and a loan of €5,000, was only ever meant to be a side hustle – but it’s one that’s now seeing the 49-year-old Australian hailed as a star.
“My aim is to preserve that aromatic complexity you find in Pinot Noir,” she says from her small rented winery in Bligny-lès-Beaune. “I want elegance and finesse, rather than lots of extraction or tannin or colour.” The Grand Prix judges praised the “handstitched” quality of her wines. “I’ve heard other people describe them as ‘more of an infusion’, which I like.”
Jane Eyre is a micro-négociant, which means she makes wine from small parcels of grapes grown by other people. In a place like Burgundy – where land is almost impossible to come by unless you have family connections or very deep pockets – this is often the only way to get a foot in the door. “There are a lot more of us than when I started out,” says Eyre, “and grape prices have risen hugely – in some cases by 80 per cent.”
In such an overheated market, micro-négociants have to be resourceful – seeking out sites that would normally be passed over by large négociants, or blended away in big cuvées. They’ve raised the profile of formerly unfashionable appellations like Beaujolais, Savigny-lès-Beaune and Chénas, as well as shining a light on some more unusual plots: Eyre’s delicious 2019 Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru “Les Bondues” (£64.60, qwines.co.uk) is made from a small “island” of 90-year-old Pinot Noir vines she tracked down in a vineyard full of Chardonnay.
Eyre may be flavour of the moment – but she is not the only Australian doing great things in Burgundy right now. Micro-négociants Andrew and Emma Nielsen, aka Le Grappin, have also carved out a reputation for making affordable, unpretentious wines with real verve. “Even in these lesser-known villages like Savigny-lès-Beaune, there are wines of terroir to be made,” says Andrew. “And because I don’t have vignes de papa, I’ve got carte blanche to go and find those parcels that tell that story.”
Known locally as “le kangaroo fou” (the crazy kangaroo), Andrew delights in finding plots on the fringes of more illustrious appellations. “Our Monthelie plot is 5m away from Meursault and it’s half the price.” I particularly like Le Grappin’s 2018 Beaune 1er Cru from Boucherottes (“an under-the-radar vineyard – just below the famous Clos des Mouches vineyard and on the borders of Pommard – that usually gets lost in the big cuvées”), with its graceful notes of damson, tea rose and sloe (£57, legrappin.com).
And then there’s Mark Haisma. Formerly a winemaker at Yara Yering in the Yarra Valley, Haisma has been making Burgundy and Rhône wines at his HQ in Gevrey-Chambertin since 2009. He’s no longer a newbie, but cultivating those all-important relationships with growers takes time, he says: “You can stand on a street corner waving the biggest sack of cash and saying, ‘I want to buy some Gevrey-Chambertin!’ – but if they don’t know you, they’ll just drive straight past.”
The 48-year-old is full of twinkly‑eyed banter about rugby and “sucking down tinnies with growers in the vineyards”, but underneath it all he means business. His wines are pure, poised and beautifully structured: no cellar should be without Haisma’s lush 2018 Bourgogne Pinot Noir (£26, vinoteca.co.uk). The taut 2017 Saint-Romain Blanc (£37, stannarywine.com) – which has all the creamy sharpness of a nectarine – is also a winner. “Saint-Romain used to be cheap and people didn’t really dig it,” he says. “Now it’s become quite fancy.”
Haisma recently bought his first plot, a two-hectare organic vineyard in Gevrey-Chambertin. “I’ve been buying grapes from this family domaine since the early days, when I was still sleeping in my van,” he says. “It cost a pretty penny – but the fact they wanted to sell to me feels like a real validation of what I’ve been doing.”
He has put down roots in Burgundy, at last, but is not about to call off the search yet – projects include a two-hectare plot he’s acquiring in the Macon, bringing his holdings in Burgundy to four hectares, a venture in Romania (“heaving with potential”), his ongoing love affair with the Rhône and “a couple of different things around Europe”. “It’s all so exciting,” he winks. “I just can’t help myself.”