Christian Ciamos, commercial director of Burgundy’s historic négociant house, Albert Bichot, was in Bangalore last week. His task: to introduce the latest to add on to the list of wines Bichot is already importing into India. Adding a zing to the interaction was the lively, impromptu history and geography session he imparted in the process.
Albert Bichot is still a family run maison, now headed by Albéric Bichot, 6th generation member in the family wine trade which began with Bernard Bichot in 1831. Bichot has a long association with India, dating back to 1920. Ciamos calls it “a long love story” with the country. Which is why, unlike many big names, they are prepared to be patient about India and wait it out – for the authorities to reduce the taxes which are so vexatious to exporters like him. Ciamos believes that there is a worthwhile wine market in India. “It began in 1920 with our wines being exported into Mumbai. In fact the first Bichot wines probably came to India about the same time as we started exporting to New York and Japan.”
The Bordeaux/Burgundy comparisons that follow are inevitable in these days of intense competition for the Asian market. China, he believes was initially impressed by the grand chateaux of Bordeaux, and the idea of buying en primeur, but then they heard of Domaine Romanée Conti and other Burgundy estates, and the wonderful Pinot Noir, a very different grape from what they tasted earlier. Burgundy, he says, unlike Bordeaux, will not “make the mistake of selling its wines en primeur. Even if you have the money to offer, we will not do it. It is sheer speculation. We prefer to chose our customers. There is no ‘curtain’ between us and the customer, and that is how we prefer it.”
Burgundy’s 2000 years of history with wine is unrivalled in the world, he adds, compared to Bordeaux’s mere four to five centuries. “Terroir is a word which was created by the monks of Burgundy who started making wines here centuries ago. They would pick up a fistful of soil and taste it to understand which grapes would grow best there. So simple and accurate! In 1935 when the Burgundy Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) was established by the authorities, 99% of the classification created by the monks thousands of years ago was retained.”
Ciamos goes on to describe how the undulating geography of the region gave rise to the complexities in terroir. “For instance, Côte de Beaune was once filled by the sea, there are remains of marine sediment like seashells to be found in the soil even today. This gives our wines their exquisite finesse and elegance. In Côte de Nuits, which is higher, away from the sea, the acidic red soil is perfect for growing the splendid Pinot Noir Burgundy is famous for, with its notes of cassis and cherry,” he explains.
Burgundy is the one region in the world not known primarily by its grapes, but the specifications of its complex terroir. “The same Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, grown sometimes just a few kilometres apart, gives such different and unique flavours. This is what typifies our Old World wines. In the New World, it’s all about the grape, with little connection to terroir.” He points to the labels on the wine bottles. “In our Burgundy wines, every label specifies the place and thus the geology. It is like a passport, you might say. It mentions the wine’s place of birth, family name and location. We don’t blend – we want to respect each vineyard for the wine it gives.”
Another point was that terroir ruled vintage, said Ciamos. “The basic character of a Vosne-Romanée will not change. It is only weather differences between vintages that create subtle changes. In 2003, it was a bright sunny year, and the wine opens quickly in the glass. In 2008, it rained a lot more, so the wine took its time to open up – it is drinking beautifully now.”
The maison has the rare distinction of having five properties in five Burgundy domaines, with each domaine having its own team, winery, winemaker. ” The rationale for this is simple: “The grapes have to reach the winery in less than an hour.” This diversity creates a complexity of knowledge which attracts the world’s top wine writers to Albert Bichot time and again. “There is so much to see, to experience each time.”
On India: “I see a big evolution in wine in India. There are so many people who want to be educated about wine, so keen to learn.” With Maison Albert Bichot turning its attention to Asia, the prospect of growth is exciting. Though Ciamos says “We do not want to be big. We just want to be great.”
Ciamos introduced the Château de Varennes Beaujolais Villages 2010 (Rs 1867 in Bangalore) with its fruit forward notes and mild tannins. This would be perfect with Indian food, he said. The Domaine Long-Depaquit Chablis (Rs 2824) combines generic minerality with notes of fresh apple and citrus fruit and a good finish.