It's a lovely part of the world, Burgundy is. Vine-covered hillsides, quaint villages with flowers planted in old wooden presses. Smiling vignerons, lazy dogs, musty cellars. La France Profonde, they call it, the real thing. Armand Cottin, 82, and his brother Louis, a year older, have lived here all their lives, growing up in the village of Nuits-Saint-Georges, where they ran the family wine business. Labouré-Roi.
There are some 4,000 individual grape growers in Burgundy, whose vineyards cover some 70,000 acres in 100 closely-defined AOCs. Though Burgundy accounts for only three percent of all French wine, it's arguably the nation's most prestigious product, certainly one of its most valuable exports. Labouré-Roi is the third-largest of Burgundy's 250 néciants, or merchants, that are an essential part of the wine business.
And it's a very tightly regulated business. The laws specify how much wine can be produced from every AOC; the higher the ranking, the lower the yield. Everything is declared and subject to inspection.
So here's the shocker: earlier this week the police came to arrest Armand and Louis as part of an investigation into a massive fraud. Two million bottles of Labouré-Roi wine produced between 2005 and 2009, labeled Nuits-Saint-Georges, the police said, were no such thing. Instead, they were cheap wine from the south of France.
Nuits is one of two dozen villages in Burgundy; its best wines are Premier Cru level, one notch down from the very top, Grand Cru. (Burgundy's Nuits, by the way, has nothing to do with "night." It's a corruption of noix, walnuts.)
How'd the Cottins get caught? The inspectors said there was a disparity between the figures the company declared it was bottling, and the yields declared at harvest time. See, it's all about the paperwork. The two octogenarians haven't been formally charged; they've blamed it all on their managers and underlings. But the government is not amused.
Noting that "more than half of Burgundy wine is exported to 150 countries," a spokesman for the Burgundy Wine Institute said, "Any suspicion of dishonest practice that might tarnish the reputation of these wines cannot be tolerated."
This is clearly a case of life imitating art. Seattle's own Peter Lewis published a murder mystery, Dead in the Dregs, a couple of years ago (and reviewed here). The setting was, of course, Burgundy.