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Malcolm Jolley: A new wino hope in Northern Bourgogne

Commentary

I am a history buff and prone to romanticizing the past. When I imagine the times before, all of the problems of today do not yet exist, and the problems that existed for the people who lived through them are forgotten. These fantasies extend into wine writing.

How easy it would be to only have to know the names of a few first-growth labels in France and the odd hill in Napa? A familiarity with a few famous houses in Champagne and maybe Porto would quickly lend the credentials of a “wine expert.” Not only that, most of these wines would be more or less affordable and available to regularly taste.

In my business, among writers my age (52) or younger, it’s not uncommon to mix a bit of self-pity and envy and complain amongst ourselves how much easier our elder betters must have had it. And yet, as one of the most respected of them, Jancis Robinson, continually points out, for all the insane price inflation and voluminous complexity of the modern wine world, the quality of wine has never been better, at all price levels.

I was thinking about Robinson’s sentiments earlier this year in a high-ceilinged room in the Abbey de Saint-Germaine d’Auxerre. Auxerre is a finely preserved medieval cathedral town and department seat of about 35,000 people that’s roughly 150 km southeast of Paris. And, if you’re perspective runs from north to south, it’s where the wine region of la Bourgogne begins.

I was aware of the Auxerrois wines, but only vaguely, in the way that a Google search might have been required to remember exactly where they came from. As I sniffed, swirled, swished, and spat through these unfamiliar wines in the old Abby chapel, I was glad to have more things to learn in a complicated wine world.

A map of the la Bourgogne (Burgundy) wine region will typically focus on the narrow area that runs south from Dijon almost to Lyon, with the town of Beaune more or less in the middle. Depending on the scale, to the top left or in an insert in the top left, will be Chablis and maybe to the left (west) of that famous village the the Côtes d’Auxerre, near the town.

Auxerre is far enough north to be about as close to the southernmost vineyards in Champagne as the northernmost on the Côte d’Or near Dijon. Aside from flinty Chablis, this area would have been best known for growing grapes bound for Crémant de Bourgogne sparkling wine. Global warming and the fine wine world’s insatiable thirst for Bourgogne’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are changing that.

In the old high-ceilinged room in the Abby in Auxerre were about two dozen tables of producers of the Grand Auxerrois, pouring Côtes d’Auxerre wines. Though many of the producers there also make Chablis, the Chardonnay they were pouring did not come from that specific appellation, since it would have its own show and tasting the following day. I was there on a press trip as a guest of the Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne, as part of the weeklong series of ratings and events called Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne.

The vignerons pouring the wines were, for the most part, relatively young (20s, 30s, 40s) and markedly cheerful. Their youthfulness may have been a reflection of their willingness (or duty) to work an event on a Sunday evening, but I chose to see it as an indicia of a new spirit and energy in the Northern Bourgogne region. Likewise, I took their enthusiasm and happy demeanour as a sign that they knew their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay table wines are having a moment in the wine world, and things only look to improve for the Auxerrois.

Not all wine tastings are joyful events. Most are a mixed bag of enthusiasm for some tables and avoidance of others. As I have written before, tastings in Bourgogne tend towards an embarrassment of riches, but most of the pleasure south of Auxerre comes with met expectations. It’s not surprising when a Grand Cru tastes good, and whatever personal epiphanies may be revealed within the glass, it’s not news.

What was great fun about the tasting in Auxerre was the sense that this was ”New Burgundy.” There was news to bring home. The supply of well-made, food-friendly, cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the limestone-dominated soils of the Eastern Middle of France had neither been exhausted nor priced out of reach. A new wino hope.

A vineyard in Northern Bourgogne. Credit: Malcolm Jolley.

The Grand Auxerrois region includes wines labeled Bourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre, reds and whites that come from a number of villages, as well as a number of others, most notably Bourgogne Chitry and Bourgogne Tonnerre. It has three Villages appellations, including Saint-Bris, which is applied only to white wines made with Sauvignon Blanc or Gris; the only place where these grapes may be used officially.

In terms of new-wave Bourgogne, it’s worth keeping an eye out for the Chardonnays of Vézelay and the red wines of Irancy. Both are newish Villages appellations, established in 2017 and 1999, respectively, and both are hitting their stride. Longer growing seasons due to global warming mean they are competitive with the wines of Bourgogne to the south, but they each retain a certain northern raciness and minerality, perhaps from the chalky soil they share with Chablis.

These days, the phrase “affordable Burgundy” is not quite an oxymoron, but it is relative. The Villages will start at around $30 a bottle in Canada. The wino math is that a comparable bottle from, say, Beaune, might be twice the price or more.

I opened a bottle of 2018 Irancy I had bought off the shelf recently with a friend whose wine budget is bigger than mine and who has a predilection for finer Pinot Noir de Bourgogne. He’d brought a Mercurey from one of the bigger houses, which we drank and was lovely. My Irancy was my follow-up after dinner.

The wine was generous with raspberry and classic red fruit notes, underpinned by a touch of forest floor earthiness and a fine silk touch of tannin. Impressed, my friend picked up the bottle, studied it, and then asked, “Where’s Irancy?”

“Think red Chablis,” I replied. Maybe wine’s not so complicated after all.

Fen Osler Hampson and Tim Sargent: Interprovincial trade barriers are seriously stunting Canada’s growth

Commentary

Eliminating interprovincial trade barriers to create one genuine national market is one of the hardy perennials of Canadian politics and federal-provincial relations. But it is a flower that never blooms. It is time for Ottawa to exercise genuine leadership by creatively applying its fiscal powers to incentivize provinces to do the right thing.

Study after study has shown that interprovincial trade barriers seriously stunt Canada’s economic growth and productivity, which now lag further and further behind the single markets of the European Union (EU) and the United States (U.S.). Studies, by the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of Canada among others, find that removing these barriers would boost Canada’s GDP anywhere from four to seven percent. 

Lower GDP not only means that Canadians are poorer per capita, but it also means “lost” revenue of roughly $15 billion or more to the federal government and the provinces each year. That is a lot more than Ottawa plans to spend on fast-tracking the building of new housing ($8.5 billion), pharmacare ($1.5 billion over five years), or defence ($8.1 billion over the next five years).

Despite various attempts over the years to reduce internal trade barriers, many obstacles to trade across provinces remain, especially in procurement, labour mobility, trucking, and agriculture and agrifood. There is less free movement of goods and services in Canada than in the EU, which has 27 member countries and more than ten times Canada’s population, or in the United States, which has 50 states and more than eight times Canada’s population.

Why do these barriers persist? There are well-organized, self-interested lobbies for particular sectors, such as dairy producers in Ontario and Quebec that can block change. Perhaps even more important is the coordination problem: the benefits of removing interprovincial barriers are much greater if all provinces act together, and so provinces are reluctant to lower their own barriers—and anger these domestic lobbies—without some assurance that other provinces will do likewise. However, as we saw with the Canadian Free Trade Agreement in 2017—with its dozens of exceptions—simply bringing the provinces together will not bring about the change that is needed.

So what is the way forward? In one world, the federal government would direct the provinces to remove barriers under its trade and commerce powers (S. 121) in the Constitution. But in a series of crucial rulings, the Supreme Court, including its controversial decision in R. vs Comeau (also known as the “free-the-beer case”), has upheld the rights of provinces to restrict the purchase of goods and services across provincial boundaries.   

Ottawa’s challenge is to exercise leadership, not coerce or hector the provinces, but to offer calibrated inducements to remove trade barriers. 

The basis of such a bargain should be as follows: if provinces are willing to pay the political price for dropping barriers, Ottawa should compensate the provinces with something else in return. However, it should not cut the provinces a cheque, as some have suggested, from the increased revenues generated by substantial GDP growth. This would simply increase provincial dependence on federal transfers. Except for equalization, which is enshrined in the Constitution (and rightly so), each level of government should be as self-reliant as possible to enhance administrative efficiency and provide clear accountability to voters.

A customer takes a jug of milk from a cooler at a grocery store in Airdrie, Alta., on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016. Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press.

Instead, Ottawa should provide so-called “tax points” to the provinces, reducing its tax take so that provinces can get a greater share of the revenue. 

The provinces could, if they chose, raise their taxes by the same amount as the feds lowered them and use it to pay down debt or spend it—perhaps on measures that would help those groups negatively affected by the elimination of barriers. 

Importantly, taxpayers would be no worse off in this scenario and indeed could be better off if the provinces chose not to take up all the tax room given to them—remember that because eliminating barriers increases GDP for everyone, provincial revenues will rise as well. Accordingly, a province could choose not to raise taxes and still see higher revenues.

A key decision when implementing such an approach is whether to offer a deal to any province that wants it or require all provinces to join simultaneously. The problem is that reluctant provinces might try to water down the deal and bargain with Ottawa to remove some barriers and not others for a lower tax point transfer. On the other hand, an extensive federal-provincial negotiation would be a painful and possibly underproductive exercise unless the groundwork is laid properly in advance. 

Accordingly, it may be helpful to take a page from the Canada-U.S. free trade negotiations in the 1980s, where the foundations were laid by the Royal Commission on the Canadian Economy, which conducted a detailed and careful sector-by-sector analysis of the costs and benefits of free trade before talks formally began, thus building critical public support for what the Commission’s chair, Donald Macdonald, called “the leap of faith.” A similar exercise today on removing interprovincial barriers and the benefits of tax point transfers would have to be collaborative with the provinces and the private sector but should start now.

Undoubtedly, a concerted effort to remove interprovincial trade barriers will have immediate political costs. At the same time, the economic benefits will take a few years to materialise as they did with CUSMA and then NAFTA. To ease the pain, the federal government should lower taxes immediately after an agreement is signed and absorb the impact through a temporarily higher deficit or temporary spending reductions. Above all, Ottawa must show leadership and demonstrate its commitment to an agreement from the beginning.