Laurent Delaunay (pic: Maison Édouard Delaunay)

Laurent Delaunay talks to Ivy Ng about his return of Burgundy to restore his family negociant business to its former glory.

Everyone is quick to jump on a good story from the venerable region of Bourgogne, especially one that celebrates the return of a “dutiful son”.  Laurent Delaunay, with his sharp business savoir-faire and keen eye for talent, is determined to revive his family namesaked Bourgogne negociant business to its former glory.

Laurent’s great grandfather, Edouard Delaunay, set up in Bourgogne in 1893. At its height, the eponymous business expanded to the Americas, Africa and the Far East, and supplied top restaurants and major travel companies including the Orient Express and Cunard.

When the illness of Laurent’s father coincided with economic downturn in the 1990s, the family sold the business to the Boisset family.  After graduating from Dijon University, Laurent and his wife Catherine set off on their viticultural adventure in the Languedoc. While running their company, Badet-Clément, which now sells more than 15 million bottles in 55 countries, the couple was on the lookout for an opportunity to return to Bourgogne. A chance meeting with Jean-Claude Boisset led to Laurent repurchasing the family brandname, though without the vineyards. Laurent had previously taken back the family home in the Hautes Côtes de Nuits – Château de Charmont.  Coincidentally, Laurent also took back the adjacent winery, which was previously leased to winemaker Dominique Laurent, in 2017. Only vines were missing. Thanks to the family’s network of connections and his distribution company DVP, Laurent was able to source grapes from more than 150 vignerons. These contracts have enabled the house of Edouard Delaunay to make 25 different wines under the watch of Christophe Briotet, formerly the chief winemaker at Domaine du Lycée Viticole de Beaune. Laurent has returned home……in Bourgogne.  

Although deprived of the opportunity to visit Bourgogne in person, I managed to speak to Laurent about his relationship with Bourgogne, his tip for an up-and-coming appellation and which Bourgogne wine he thinks best describes him.

Laurent Delaunay of Edouard Delaunay (pic: Maison Édouard Delaunay)

INDescribe your relationship with Bourgogne.

LD: 5th generation Burgundy producer and négociant. Family winery sold by my father. I went to the Languedoc with my wife in order to create and develop several vineyards and wine brands (including some very good Pinot Noirs made in a Burgundy way) and I came back and bought back the family winery, Edouard Delaunay, 25 years later, from the people to whom it was sold. The Edouard Delaunay winery was re-launched in 2017.

IN: Which descriptors would you choose for Bourgogne wine: sophisticated or contemporary; simplistic or enigmatic; dynamic or traditional; serene or schizophrenic; monotone or colourful?

LD: Well… very difficult choice because it is a bit of everything… I would choose sophisticated or contemporary. It is both, actually: Burgundy can be sophisticated in the sense that it is such a diverse, complex region, that you can spend your lifetime deepening your passion and knowledge about Burgundy and still have many things to discover. Burgundy wines can also be extremely sophisticated in terms of perfumed complexity. This is the beauty and elegance of Pinot Noir. But at the same time, they are definitely contemporary. Being contemporary does not mean being unsophisticated. They can be contemporary because Burgundy is a long standing wine region. Many centuries. And at each generation, producers develop their own way of revealing the terroir through the grape variety, through their own way of working the vineyards and making their wines. Each producer has its own interpretation which is different from the previous generation and different from their fellow producers. This creates an infinite array of nuances and this is where contemporary joins sophistication.

The cellars at Maison Edouard Delaunay (pic: Maison Édouard Delaunay)

IN: Has climate change been a good or bad thing for Bourgogne?

LD: So far, it seems that Burgundy, a northern wine producing region, has benefitted from climate change. We are less sensitive to the dramatic climate variations than we used to and we have more and more good vintages. If you look at the last 6 years (2015 to 2020), I can’t see any poor, unripe, vintage. This is a good thing if you compare to the 70’s or the 80’s… The good news is that our grapes, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, have shown in Burgundy, over the last years, an incredible resilience capacity. This is due to their unique capacity in keeping some acidity even in warmer vintages. The wines have more alcohol but they keep their balance because we keep a good level of acidity. Having said that, what is concerning, is the succession of years of drought and low rainfall during summer. Vineyards planted in very draining soils start to be suffering and yields there are really falling.

IN: Market forces have driven some Bourgogne wines to unattainable levels. Is this a threat or an opportunity? Which is your best value-for-money Bourgogne wine buy ?

LD: Wines that have reached unattainable prices are grands crus or some of the best premiers crus. It is a pity that average consumer can no longer afford them. But on the other hand, they represent less than x% of the total production in Burgundy and they have always been reserved to a bunch of happy-fews. The beauty of Burgundy is that it is made of many different appellations, actually no other region in the world has as many appellations as we do in Burgundy. Our classification is made of several levels and the quality of each level is improving constantly. We have also thousands of producers and there are so many of them who are constantly improving the quality of their wines, especially young producers. So there are an infinite number of new discoveries to be made in Burgundy. It’s extremely diversified and we have also affordable wines. Don’t only buy and drink the same well known producers. Don’t be a label drinker. Be a little adventurous, follow the advice of critics and journalists and you’ll make beautiful discoveries.

Don’t only buy and drink the same well known producers. Don’t be a label drinker. Be a little adventurous, follow the advice of critics and journalists and you’ll make beautiful discoveries.

There are several lesser known appellations where wines are still affordable. Santenay, Saint-Romain, Savigny-les-Beaune… One appellation I would recommend is Côte de Nuits Villages. The lesser known of the appellations from the Côte de Nuits. The name is not “sexy” but you have all the elegance, the nobility, the fruit of the best villages of the Côte de Nuits for a price which is almost half of the village appellation.

IN: Looking ahead, which Bourgogne appellation is the one to watch in the next 5-10 years?

LD: Hautes-Côtes de Nuits : same latitude as Côte de Nuits, same soils and same terroir, just 100 to 150 m higher in altitude. In the last years, we’ve had beautiful late seasons in the Hautes-Côtes and the grapes have reached levels of ripeness, still with some freshness and acidity, that were never seen before. Land and vineyards are still affordable. There is a fascinating [task] of identifying the best terroirs to be done, exactly as the monks did in the 12th century. There are some great wines from the Hautes-Côtes to come!

Château de Charmont (pic: Maison Édouard Delaunay)

IN: What do you think of the Bourgogne wines made with the “other” grape varieties of Bourgogne? Aligoté, Gamay, César, Sauvignon Blanc, etc?

LD: As far as we are concerned, we make a very interesting Aligoté from some of the highest altitude vineyards of the Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, full of cut grass, citrus and jasmine flavours, with a beautiful and bright freshness and some complexity in the mouth. This kind of profile is unique in the world.

IN: If you could choose one appellation to be promoted as a Grand Cru candidate, which one would it be?  

LD: Some Premier Crus appellations definitely have the quality level for becoming Grand Crus. I agree with the current candidates: Les Saint-Georges in Nuits and Les Rugiens in Pommard. As far as I am concerned, with absolutely no illusion, among the wines that we produce, I can claim that our Nuits-St-Georges Les Poulettes (a beautiful small and little known premier cru located just on top of Les Saint-Georges) and our Pommard Les Chaponnières (a premier cru not far from the Rugiens) have, some years, a quality and a concentration that exceed many Grands Crus.

IN: Is meeting the demand for its wines a challenge for Bourgogne as a region? What do you suggest to balance the demand?

LD: I’m not totally sure I understand the question. I assume that you are meaning the scarcity of high quality Burgundy wines compared with the global demand which leads to important price increase. If it is the case, I believe that there are still some possibilities to grow and increase the offer of high quality wines in Burgundy. This is not well known by Burgundy lovers but, as a Burgundy professional, I’m convinced that there are still some ways, and our own example illustrates it. We rebought our family winery 3 years ago, without any vineyards nor any contracts, and we found, thanks to our premium family and professional network, some great grape contracts to buy from. It is not easy, you have to have a lot of relationships, you have to be a member of the trade, but it exists. Actually, scarcity and price increase is particularly true at an individual scale: each producer has a limited production and it is difficult and expensive to increase the size of the vineyards you are growing. But at the scale of the region, there are still a lot of producers who are not making their wines with the quality that is expected by great international lovers. Simply because they don’t have the skills or the philosophy that is needed. With time, it is possible for players like us to convince those producers to sell us their grapes, to improve the quality of their work in the vineyards, in some cases to lease us the vineyards or to let us work their vineyards our way, and to make great wines where only average wines used to be made.

The average quality is improving dramatically in Burgundy and you have more and more producers who finally get to the international level, but there are still a lot of producers who are not exactly there and who constitute a potential reservoir of wines which will eventually get to this level.

IN: Is there a personality from Bourgogne you most admire?

LD: No surprise: Aubert de Villaine. Not only he is my friend, but, although he is the most emblematic producer of Burgundy, he has a vision and some selfless actions which go well beyond himself, his own interests and those of his generation. He thinks and acts for the good of all the region and for its sustainability over generations and centuries.

I think that he really embodies the Burgundian philosophy which states that we are not the owners of our land and our vineyards, but we receive them from the previous generations, we have the duty of maintaining and working them as well as we can with an utmost respect for nature and for the major equilibria, in order to pass them onto the next generations.

What he did with the Climats de Bourgogne, and what he is going with the Abbaye de Saint-Vivant are the best examples.

IN: Which Bourgogne vintage do you identify with the most?

In the recent vintages, I particularly love and identify myself and Burgundy to the 2017 one. This is not the warmest, the most concentrated, the densest vintage, the most acclaimed but it is exactly as Burgundy should be, to my opinion: elegant, delicate, subtle, complex, fine, with some depth and personality. Of course, these qualities can also apply for human beings and I dream I would be favoured with a few of them.

IN: Which Bourgogne wine best describes you as a person?

LD: Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru Les Combottes : totally surrounded by some of the best Grands Crus (Latricières-Chambertin in the North, Charmes-Chambertin in the East, Clos de la Roche in the South and West) but still a Premier Cru only. Surrounded by the best but still under a lot of challenges, with still a lot of improvements to be done, with still a lot to prove. One other way of seeing it could also be: still not yet recognized at its real value ?…

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