On the Trail with Jeanne-Marie de Champs

On our recent trip to Burgundy we met with a number of brokers, negotiants, exporters, and regional experts with whom we work on the ground in France to help us navigate some of the ins and outs of appointments and direct ordering. Many of these folks act as portfolio managers for the small properties in Burgundy who don't have the means or the ability to market their wines directly to retailers like us. Without a doubt there was one such person this past week who I enjoyed tasting with above all others: Jeanne-Marie de Champs. Whereas Burgundy suppliers can sometimes border on pedantic, Jeanne-Marie exudes nothing more than a quiet confidence. She is old school Français. She likes to let the wine do the talking, and in the case of her outstanding selections, the wines say more than enough. Having spent the last three and a half decades working in Burgundy, there are few who know it as well as she does. It's through Jeanne-Marie and her company Domaine et Saveurs that we began working with a number of customer favorites like Domaine Bart, Domaine Parent, and Paul Pernot—easily three of the most popular Burgundy labels we carry that we likely would not have discovered without her help. I enjoyed both her company and her subtle charm as we tasted through a number of different cellars. She's a rather intimidating and imposing force at first, but underneath all that I get the impression she's winking at you with a sly smirk. 

I caught up with Jeanne-Marie earlier this week for a little discussion about Burgundy and the wine trade. Our conversation is below:

David: How did you start working in the Burgundy wine business?

Jeanne-Marie: By marriage. My husband Henry was working in wine business and, first coming to Burgundy in 1980, I learned about wine in Paris (from Steve Spurier) and eventually here when I was receiving guests. I created a marketing company with a “friend” who eventually left with the money and I had to close the business. During this time I worked in my husband's company and helped develop the US market. I was also meeting a lot of growers who took the time to show me the vineyards, taste with me in their cellars, and show me older vintages to get a better reference. I was lucky. But In my family, we are farmers also—wheat, corn, Charolais cows, and oak trees. I was able to understand their concerns (despite the fact their vineyards had been planted for 60 to 100 years). Experience counts for a lot. Not only with tasting, but also in understanding the influence of the weather and how it coordinates with the wines.

David: I feel like you have a very firm grasp on Burgundy's many intricacies, yet you're very gentle in how you educate, which I particularly appreciated. How did you first approach Burgundy when learning about it?  

Jeanne-Marie: Meeting growers and negociants, visiting, learning, reading history and maps, much of the time on the spot. Climats (vineyards) and terroirs are like a big family: there's a lot of kids, but they're all different and each of them is uniquely influenced by the touch of the winemaker. Bourgogne wines are mono grape. There are no blends of varietals; it's usually just chardonnay, or pinot noir, or gamay. You have no compensation of flavors between grapes; it has to be the singular expression of the quality of the varietals in relation with the work done in vineyards, along with mother nature, the vinification, and the elevage (the maturation). It's impossible to standardize that process.

David: How do you generally approach explaining the concepts of Burgundy to others? What do you think are the most important things to know starting out?  

Jeanne-Marie: Bourgogne is a magic spot on earth where mother nature gave a special combination of attributes: the terroirs (sub soil/soil), the various slopes, the limestone and clay, and the weather. Our ancestors—being farmers—discovered it over time and being smart they slowly adapted the vines to it. Production evolved from there. They also discovered that some places, certain vineyards and terroirs, had a specific influence on quality, taste, the skins of the grapes, and how they matured. When I read old books or references, I find it fascinating to discover how much they already knew back them. We cannot forget that Burgundy is a region full of paths with many saints and monks having once travelled through the area. They were educated people who came back with new views and experiences from Italy, Spain, Greece, and Germany. They ultimately influenced that development.

David: What do you look for in a good red or white Burgundy? What are the characteristics you most enjoy?

Jeanne-Marie: I like balance—a natural equilibrium of the vintage and the terroir, the acidity, the fruit, and its purity. I like respect for the vintage and I don't like high levels of alcohol except for when it happens naturally. The color is not an issue for me.

David: How do you think the business will evolve over the next decade? Do you see younger people continuing to learn about Burgundy and enjoy its complexities?

Jeanne-Marie: On one side, the wine business—as many other industries—has evolved with a concentration of companies, some of them giant, looking for larger volume, which will in turn create standardized wines to answer that demand. The power of these brands along with social media and the internet, and the images they project (ego, part of a social class, etc) supplies an immediate pleasure. On other side, I believe in the younger generation, which has started to become concerned about sustainability both for them and their kids, and who want to be educated on everything, including organic wines and wines in general. Today they have access to wines from all over the world and many retailers like you help to educate them, give them a chance to taste, and then to discover more. They have to taste and discover enough to form their own opinion and find the definition of their own tastes and pleasures. Of course, with the price points where they are for the top wines, I just hope Burgundy will not lose a large part of this generation. We have some nice standard Bourgogne appellations, but I want them to discover the climats and mother nature, along with her influence of weather conditions, rain, sun, and maturity.

David: Burgundy is a small place. There's not always enough wine to go around unfortunately. That's why I'm so excited to work with you. You're bringing us fantastic, terroir-driven wines that are both delicious and often affordable.

Jeanne-Marie: We are a small region in the world of wine, with small vineyards, which in relation to the rest of the wine world are tiny. Some regions are consistent from year to year, but each vintage of Burgundy brings new aspects to consider including acidity and potential of aging. Sometimes I am sad that some of our wines are not being consumed, but instead are an investment that can appreciate and become more valuable. 

David: Do you think the complexities of understanding Burgundy with its many terroirs act as a barrier to new consumers? How do you think we should talk about Burgundy to newcomers who may be intimidated by all that there is to know?

Jeanne-Marie: It is not a barrier, but rather a complexity that gives you only more challenges and increased moments of happiness. We will not convince everyone out there. People don’t need to know everything there is to know, but just to understand slowly why this wine is like this and not like that, and ultimately derive pleasure by drinking with food and friends. Some will eventually go further than others.          

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll