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Forbes: The Glorious Burgundies of Olivier Bernstein

Click here to read the full article at Forbes / Author: Tom Hyland


“It’s really all about the viticulture – the choices you make in the vineyard.” – Olivier Bernstein

Olivier Bernstein, 52, is the proprietor of Domaine Olivier Bernstein in Beaune. He currently produces 10 wines from Burgundy: 7 Grand Cru and 3 Premier Cru.

I recently sat down with him in Chicago, and asked him about his work over the years and what his philosophy is. I was also able to taste several of his current 2016 Burgundies.

Tell me a little about your experience as a vintner in Burgundy.

In 2002, I studied for one year in Beaune to get a degree that let me become a farmer, or something like that. But I knew already how to vinify at that time. When I was 35, I decided to buy 8 hectares (20 acres) in Roussillon (in southern France). It was only 5 years later that I opened the business in Burgundy.

I stared collecting some wines. I visited Burgundy and I could get an allocation of wines from the best producers. I stared making wines with some of the growers. My passion, on top of classical music, became wine.

You produce wines from some of the finest vineyards in the Cote d’Or, and your work is highly original. Tell me a little about this.

Today, I make 10 wines: 3 Premier Cru and 7 Grand Cru. We don’t purchase fruit. I rent the plots – it’s very original. I rent the plots and I farm myself all the plots.

The whole concept has been to convince some owners to rent me their plots, or if I can say differently, I pay them every year the amount of money they would get if they made the wines themselves. I tell them, don’t do that. I will pay you. Don’t go in the vineyards. I will go in the vineyards myself, so I farm all the plots.

I work with 15 owners, not growers. I grow the fruit. I am not a negociant, I am a domaine.

We own two plots. I found all the plots the same way. I do everything myself. It is the same plots since the beginning. So I’m not changing every year. To me, the most important thing is the farming. I need to make the berry myself. Vinification becomes very easy afterwards. It’s all about having the right berry, and you can’t have it when you buy the grapes. You don’t know what has happened. I need to control that.

It was difficult at first, but when I talked to them (the growers in Burgundy) in 2007, they saw me as a grower, because I had my estate in the south of France. They never saw me as a negociant. Then, they thought, ‘why not? We can try.

We started with a few rows and then I could convince them that we could have a few more rows the next year. We started with 30 barrels and now we make 80 barrels of Premier Cru and Grand Cru, which is quite a lot, actually. (25 cases to a barrel), We make 4000 cases of 6.

I bought in 2012 Mazis-Chambertin and Gevrey-Chambertin 1er cru “Les Champeaux,” that I was farming since 2007 already. It’s just that I have a contract that says it’s mine. It belongs to the bank – still. For a few decades!

What is your personal philosophy about making Burgundy?

It’s going to sound a little pretentious, but I make better berries than the others. It’s impossible to have great wines without having great berries. It’s really all about viticulture – the choices you make in the vineyard. And one very important thing is I selected vineyards that were planted with very old vines. This is very unique. Most of our plots are 40, 50, 60, 70, even 80 year-old vines.

At that time, the vines were much better planted than the last 30 years. So that’s why it’s very important to is to have small berries. We don’t want the big berries.

It’s all about the raw material.

Is there an emphasis on Pinot Noir clones in Burgundy, as there is in California?

Everything in Burgundy was perfectly planted. It’s just that in the 1970s, there was a move to plant clones that were very productive. The clones produced big berries, and those clones do not produce very interesting wines. It doesn’t matter if you are on the Grand Cru or Premier Cru plot. It’s less interesting. You need to have a certain concentration, a certain ripeness.

I understand that while the quality of the 2016 vintage in Burgundy was extremely high, the quantity was alarmingly small.

2016 was a tiny vintage. Many buds were frozen. It’s a classic vintage, with very well balanced wines. In some vineyards, production was down more than 60%.

We increased our prices by 40%. For me, there was no choice. I pay full price, so for me, my fixed costs are the same, whether I have 20 hectoliters l per hectare or 60 hl per hectare, it’s the same price for me.

We thought there would be a reluctancy in the market (based on the higher prices), but the contrary is true.

Many growers did not increase their prices. But they have fixed costs that is 5 Euro. I have 100 Euro. I need to pay the owner. The others, it’s already paid, as their parents or grandparent paid for the land. So they don’t care, they don’t have to increase the prices.

What percentage of your wines do you export?

99%. Wne we started, we received reviews from Allen Meadows and others, and the US importers came. As for the French importers, they were probably sleeping at the time. So they did not realize that there was a new grower and it could be interesting.

So for the first two or three years, all the importers ordered every bottle they could, so there was nothing available for France!

England is our first customer – they have 25% of the production. America is the second market with 15% (note: Wilson-Daniels is the US importer for Olivier Bernstein wines). I would say Switzerland is very strong with 10%. Japan is also very strong, as is China and then a few other countries in Asia.

Are the Chinese trying to buy everything they can?

Yes, and that is one of the reasons I don’t open the French market, as I know the retailers will ship it all to Asia.

What evidence have you seen of climate change in Burgundy?

I don’t have that much experience in Burgundy, but 2015 was warm, 2017 was warm, 2018 was warm. Usually we don’t have that many vintages that are warm.

In 2016, we harvested on the 23rd of September, but in 2018, we harvested on the 1st of September. More than three weeks in advance, so the trend is going in this direction.

Tom Hyland, October 15, 2018
Forbes: The Glorious Burgundies of Olivier Bernstein