One of the world’s most sought-after experts on Burgundy and author of Inside Burgundy, Jasper Morris MW has experience across the industry as a buyer, critic and writer. In this interview from Jasper’s home in Beaune, Amanda Barnes asks him about how he sees key changes in Burgundy playing out and what other wine regions make him tick.
How did you first get into wine?
It came about through not wanting to do any of the obvious, sort of standard professions. Our family have always been lawyers, and I knew I didn’t want to do that, and so I learnt about wine.
I actually had a housemaster at school, who liked wine and occasionally shared a few tastes. Then, at university, there was a wine tasting society that my sister [Arabella Woodrow MW] ran, so that’s what kicked it all off.
I was at a loose end, having done my finals, and hadn’t really got organised to do anything much, when a friend called and said there was a new wine shop opening in London, and that they were looking around for people. I got the details, gave them a call and got the job. That was a little shop called Birley and Goedhuis. Birley, was Mark Birley, who owned Annabel’s. Goedhuis was Johnny Goedhuis, whose own company still exists. That took me from the end of summer 79 through to February 81, when I started my own business.
You’re very well known as the expert on Burgundy. Did any other region have a look in before you deep-dived into Burgundy?
Sure, I had no idea that it was going to be Burgundy. We did know that we were going to import almost entirely from France. It would probably have stayed France, except that I discovered incredible Californian wine, and later on from New Zealand, Spain and various other places. Our first logo was a picture of a map of France, coloured in blue, with what was fortuitously a Burgundy-shaped bottle in the middle of it.
In that first year I drove at various different times of year around France and found some amazing things in the Loire, one or two things in the Rhône. Bordeaux wasn’t really convenient for us, because: (a) we didn’t have the money to make any significant purchases, and (b) it was already really well done in the UK, so there was nothing we could have added.
But [with] Burgundy, I met this extraordinary lady, Becky Wasserman, our next-door neighbour since we came here in 91. I met her in 81 and she introduced me to up and coming domaine-bottled burgundy, which hardly existed in the marketplace in England.
There were people who could talk with such enthusiasm about what they were doing – and not enthusiasm trying to sell you their wine, because at the end of the day, they’d probably tell you they’d have nothing to sell. But it was the enthusiasm about what they were doing and how they were doing it that was completely captivating and I hadn’t seen it anywhere else in France.
What do you think are the greatest challenges that Burgundy faces today?
Obviously the climate, it’s the same everywhere, but the Pinot Noir grape is particularly sensitive to heat. Chardonnay is a bit more forgiving, and there’s also an alternative in whites, in Aligoté, which is becoming a lot more interesting and serious. People are trying really hard and reflecting on what they need to do in viticulture, but you’re making a guess as these are unknown circumstances. If the guess is how do I replant, then you’re making a decision that [spans] 30 or 50 years, and you might not get it right first time.
The other thing is how to live with success. For the first 20 years of me trying to sell wine and becoming a specialist in Burgundy, it was still a struggle to get people interested in Burgundy, apart from as an afterthought. Of course, that’s changed, and you could say 2005 was a turning point, but it was happening before then and it’s accelerated since.
Every market in the world is now interested in it, and everybody can see everybody’s prices. There’s not much volume anyway, so it only needs somebody to put on a website somewhere a totally unrealistic high price, and people seem to think that’s the market price… You can’t do that with Bordeaux, as people will look around and see they can buy it cheaper elsewhere. That’s not true in Burgundy. The wines are now ludicrously expensive, and it doesn’t make the growers happy – most of them.
There are a few who like it, and are really benefiting from it, and plenty who don’t like it but are still probably benefiting from it. It is upsetting in a way if you’re a grower and you really charge a very good price for your wine, and the day after you send your prices out, you can see someone charging ten times or 15 times that amount for it.
Do you see anything in progress that might change that status quo?
They’re looking at different channels. They’re looking at some direct selling, but either then they take the whole of this ludicrous new price, or if they don’t take that, then the person they’re selling it to may easily flip it.
They’re trying to protect themselves by numbering the bottles and having those security tags on them that not only guarantees authenticity, but if it turns up at auction, you can trace back how it got there. But it’s all quite hard work and it’s not a guarantee.
I’ve been saying that it requires some sort of major political upheaval to derail it. We’ve just had Covid, and [now there’s] the Ukraine War and various political upheavals – Trump tax, China-Hong Kong politics, Brexit, and none of it’s had any affect at all… So, I just don’t know.
What do you think are the greatest opportunities here in Burgundy at the moment?
There’s no real space to plant new vines, not in the more famous villages. Every so often you can see a little bit of forest that’s been nibbled back. You can go up into the Haut-Côtes, there’s still land there and you can buy existing land more cheaply, villages like Saint-Romain, Auxey-Duresses etc, which were possibly a bit on the cool side. Now the climate suits them better.
Down in the Mâconnais, there’s still a lot of scope – not so much in the famous appellations like Pouilly-Fuissé, but a lot of the Mâcon villages – there’s plenty you can do there.
Beyond Burgundy, what are the regions that captivate you in terms of Pinot Noir, around the world?
What intrigues me is – are the rules of Burgundy that we have learnt here important for Pinot outside France, or not? Does it have to be limestone soil? Not necessarily but often that can be a bonus. You can get different sorts of weather conditions, although clearly heat is not ideal.
I don’t think it comes down to regions or countries as a whole, but locations in certain places and specific producers. We think of New Zealand and Oregon, but there are loads of possibilities in California as well, in the cooler places like the Central Coast, with some really nice wines coming from there. The cooler bits of Australia, [like] Tasmania.
What are you plans since moving full-time to Burgundy?
Last year, I got the second edition of my book sorted and out. There’s plenty more still to come in that area. I keep having to do reprints, which is very good.
I also have my website now, which is a subscription website, on which I put all the tasting notes. A big lot will come out right at the end of the year, right before the new Burgundy selling season, so people can see who I think have done really well in the new vintage. Plus [there are] all sorts of other reports for the rest of the year. That takes up a huge amount of my time, because at least from the point of content, it’s a one-man business.
I work also with the Hospices de Beaune, which has been enormously interesting and challenging. There’s an amazing person called Ludivine Griveau, the general manager/winemaker. She’s produced some really consistent and good wines over the last few years, and she’s a great communicator as well. [We] taste the wines very young. It’s already difficult to taste the wines in barrel one year after the harvest, but to taste them two weeks after the harvest was another challenge. I was surprised that actually you can do it, although there’s still at lot going on. We liaise with all the potential buyers to get stimulated for the third Sunday of November auction.
I’ve been doing a fair amount of work with 67 Pall Mall TV. They’re about to have a sort of clubhouse in Beaune with a film studio, which will be good.
So I would say I’m looking at longer hours, and working harder, than I’ve ever done before!
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