Wine opinion: Burgundy chateau flourishes under its Chinese owner
The village of Gevrey-Chambertin lies just above Morey-St-Denis, the last of the big stars on the Route des Grands Crus before it slides into the outskirts of Dijon. As if it needed it, the appellation got an unexpected shot of publicity last year when Louis Ng Chi-sing, chief operating officer at SJM Holdings in Macau, was revealed as the new owner of Chateau de Gevrey-Chambertin.
Ng reportedly paid €8 million (HK$85 million) for the two-hectare estate, or double what it was "officially" worth - and much more than the €5 million a group of local winemakers had gathered to keep it in French hands. The wines of the chateau - it counts a tiny slice of grand cru Charmes-Chambertin and barely a drop more of premier cru Lavaux St Jacques among them - were little known before the purchase, with most consumed by tourists who regularly visit one of the key photo stops in the old village centre.
Owned by the same family since the 19th century, the 1,000-year-old building is the oldest on the entire Côtes de Nuits, and has been on the official registry of historic Burgundy monuments since 1993.
But even so, the outcry that was prompted by, in the words of several newspapers at the time, the "loss of France's heritage", was almost hysterical.
But Ng listened and released a statement through lawyers saying that he was a long-time wine lover who had the utmost respect for tradition, that the winemaking would remain in French hands, and that a French architect, Christian Laporte, would renovate the property.
One year on, the winemakers of Gevrey seem to have learned to live with their new neighbour, if the crowds and buzz at the annual Le Roi Chambertin tasting were anything to go by. This was a recent highlight of the wine-tasting year in Burgundy, where 44 of the village's producers showcase around 120 wines from the 2012 vintage.
Tasters were able to get an overview of all nine grand crus, 26 premier crus and many village wines a year into their ageing process - marking Gevrey out from other villages that show their new wines a few months after harvest.
"Gevrey-Chambertin has the highest number of grand crus of any Burgundy appellation, and they are built for long ageing. It made no sense to show them at a few months old," says Nicolas Rossignol of Rossignol-Trapet.
Rossignol's Chambertin Grand Cru 2012 was tightly guarding its dark-berried fruit, and his supple, smoke-dusted 2002 Latricières Chambertin Grand Cru was my favourite wine after a week in the region.
Gevrey is the largest wine-producing village on the Côtes de Nuits, and both prices and styles vary far more than a smaller appellation such as Chambolle.
It's why these kind of wide-ranging tastings are so helpful, although it was ironically the wine of another foreigner that brought the point about long ageing home most clearly.
One of my favourite old-style wines of Gevrey has been Domaine Maume, which was bought by Moray Tawse of Tawse Winery in Niagara, Canada, in 2011. It was widely announced at first that Bertrand Maume, who had been converting the estate to biodynamic farming, would stay on as winemaker.
But I wondered about a change of style in the Premier Cru Champeaux 2012. I was not surprised to learn that Bertrand Maume has, in fact, stepped back. Today, fellow Canadian and long-term Burgundy resident Pascal Marchand is making taut wines that suit the idea of Gevrey as masculine long-livers.
Over at Chateau de Gevrey-Chambertin, life is busy. Celebrated local winemaker Eric Rousseau of Domaine Armand Rousseau is farming the vines. He is working on the Gevrey-Chambertin village vines around the chateau, plus parcels of Lavaux and Charmes. Rousseau looks after the vines and makes the wine. The results are shared in a "confidential arrangement", sales director Frédéric Robert tells me.
Laporte, who specialises in historical architectural restoration, is busy working on the monastery Saint-Vivant de Vergy, also on the Côte-d'Or (to which Ng has made donations), and hasn't yet started on the restoration in Gevrey. Rossignol was one of the consortium of winemakers which had moved to buy Chateau de Gevrey-Chambertin, "to secure it as a communal project for the village".
"We hoped to keep it as a treasure for Gevrey, for important tastings such as Le Roi Chambertin, and to turn the historic building into a symbol of our wines," he says.
"But we were faced with a price that we couldn't beat, and the town hall didn't support us, even though French law gave them the right to step in.
"It didn't matter if the buyer was Chinese, American, Russian or French. It's not about nationality today, but about money," Rossignol says. Jane Anson is a wine writer based in Bordeaux