MY FIRST MEETING with the late Patrick Bize, who passed away last month following a heart attack, took place at The Mira Hong Kong the very evening after its most famous guest, Edward Snowden, had fled Hong Kong for Moscow. “Snowden might still be hiding in my room!” he exclaimed in mock horror, whipping out his smartphone. “I have to warn my wife!” One of his playfully taciturn frowns followed, his signature look repeated over the course of our conversations, and I was thus left deeply impressed by one of the unsung heroes of the wine industry, largely unknown publicly yet revered by his peers for making wines of real finesse from one of the most underappreciated regions of Burgundy.
Bize was the fourth-generation owner of Simon Bize et Fils, the 22-hectare estate founded by his great-grandfather in Savignyles-Beaune – an area known mostly for its elegant reds imbued with natural softness, textured tannins and vibrant flavours. Yet what really surprised me were his white wines, in particular his premier cru Aux Vergelesses, which stunned me with its sucker-punch combo of wispy oak and complex fruit (peach, nectarine and citrus), resulting in an unusually fine balance. Clearly, Bize had transcended the limits of his terroir, no mean feat since the soils of Savigny-les-Beaune are known to be extremely variable and very difficult to farm.
Nevertheless, he had done that since 1972, the year he built a new cuverie (vinification facility) and expanded the cellars first built in 1880 by his great-grandfather Simon. We met twice during what would unfortunately turn out to be his last visit to Hong Kong, and we shared a bottle of his sublime grand cru 2000 Latricieres-Chambertin, a silky red that enhanced the already elevated tenor of our discussions. He will be greatly missed.
What was your perspective back in 1972, when you chose to continue the work started by your great-grandfather? How old were you when you knew you wanted to do this?
I was 20. It wasn’t like something happened. Nobody made me feel obliged to do this. It has been an evolution of work and even now I’m always trying to improve, especially with our biodynamic farming. My greatgrandfather bought the vineyard when the price was affordable, and you couldn’t do that now. So that’s 41 years I’ve been doing this. My son is now 15 and I’m not sure he will want to do this, but then when I was 15 I didn’t know what I wanted to do, either.
I’m so impressed by your white wines, your Chardonnays, especially since Savigny-les-Beaune is better known for producing reds.
Yes, but we have small plots from where white wines can be made very well. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, white wine wasn’t something most people wanted and this only changed in the early 1980s. My grandfather planted some but my father actually pulled out the Chardonnay vines and planted only Pinot Noir, because at the time he believed nobody wanted white wines.
Do you personally prefer one over the other, Pinot Noir over Chardonnay?
I love good wine – white or red, it doesn’t matter. There’s no difference in the vineyard when you prune the vines, and the way our teams work in the vineyards is the same. Just before racking, we keep on lees one year and more, and we follow the biodynamic calendar: we plant and prune according to the moon. However, I’m going to do something different soon. Next year, for the first time, we’ll put 200 bottles aside, if we bottle on what might not be a good day, and taste them one or two years later just to see the difference. We’re going to try this next year, just two percent of each cuvée, and it will be an interesting experiment. It’s the same wine so it shouldn’t be that bad, anyway – at least I’m hoping so!
In Savigny-les-Beaune, you have a lot of very complex soil variation and so, to me, what you do is like a microcosm of Burgundy, and you can be seen as representing Burgundy.
Yes, you can have one kilometre between two vineyards and they can be so different, because the soils are completely different. My advice to young winemakers trying to make wine in Burgundy is to respect the terroir. Make sure you have low yields and clean cellars. You’re the custodian of the soil – that’s the most important thing – and that’s why I don’t like the word “winemaker” and prefer “vigneron”. What “winemaker” implies is too much interference, when you should just follow the vineyard and not change too much what nature has intended. You are a “vigneron” if you’re working from your own production. However, if you buy the grapes from elsewhere, then I would say “winemaker” applies.
Still, Savigny-les-Beaune, how do you sell that? Many people new to Burgundy don’t know it, so are you anxious about specific marketing challenges?
Yes, Burgundy is very complicated. Most people know Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, Vosne Romanée, Volnay, Puligny-Montrachet, just a handful of villages. Or they’ve heard of Beaune or Meursault, but Savigny-les-Beaune or Aloxe-Corton? Probably not. But it doesn’t bother me too much because I don’t have time to worry about things like that. I’m now making between 80,000 and 100,000 bottles every year. It’s easier for a customer to understand one domaine or one chateau, like in Bordeaux, whereas I have 15 wines that I make – five whites and 10 reds. My grands crus come from single vineyards and the Corton-Charlemagne whites from two vineyards. I own all the vineyards and we don’t buy grapes from elsewhere.
Have you ever had a year when you didn’t make wine at all?
Yes. In 1975. That was the last time it happened, which was a bad vintage and we sold the grapes to négociants. If you have a very, very bad vintage, it’s better to just forget about it. For me, it’s always about what happens in the vineyard, which is the most important thing, but I will admit the weather in Burgundy has been strange. Yesterday I called back and was told it was 35 degrees and this same time three years ago, it was 10 degrees, which is crazy. We have rain between December and May, some snow in January, then the temperatures go up. Last year, we picked the grapes in the middle of September and this year it’s definitely later.
Wine and food pairing in this Asian market – do you agree with me that Pinot Noir works better with the food?
Yes, I think in general Asian cuisines work better with the Pinot Noir style than the Cabernet style. Pinot Noir is better because Cabernet is more “square” and Pinot is more “round” – more elegance and more finesse. I like drinking Bordeaux too, you know, but Pinot has a certain voluptuous quality that is not so aggressive. My wife is Japanese, and with the Asian cuisines we enjoy, this is the case.
How much do you travel for business?
Twice a year, one week each time, depending on the markets and the importers. I don’t have a “brand ambassador” who travels, I do the travelling myself. I’m in Burgundy most of the year. I live in Savigny and work in the cellar. In the vineyards, I have seven other people in my team and then we have 40 others who do the picking of the fruit and other things. Right now, my biggest export markets are the United States, Japan and the UK, and we’re exporting 75 percent of our wine, but that’s not unusual for Burgundy. Most Burgundy producers export 70 to 80 percent of their wines. You have to.