I’m on a quest for good, reasonably priced Burgundy. I can already hear wine snobs muttering “bonne chance” into their premier crus, deep-rooted in their assumption that there isn’t a low-end wine from this exalted region even worth a pass under their snub noses. Sure, 13 centuries of history inextricably linked to kings, monks, and dukes is plenty of time and reason to develop an ego. Add in Napoleonic inheritance laws that split estates into tiny parcels, scarcity of land (Burgundy has a quarter of the acreage of Bordeaux), and its iconic reputation, and you’ve got a wine wearing big, expensive britches. Buying Burgundy at the prices that most demand is like crossing a minefield. Great Burgundy will break your heart. But, bad Burgundy priced like great Burgundy, will tear your heart out and braise it for dinner.
Pinot noir, Burgundy’s red wine grape, is thin-skinned and difficult—just like some wine snobs!
The contradictory charm and fickleness of Burgundy makes sense when you consider its grape. Thin-skinned, difficult to grow, and demanding of optimum climate (warm days, cool nights), Pinot Noir can be a real bitch. Burgundy also goes through a decidedly awkward stage. Somewhere between its exuberant youth and its elegant maturity, it’s all gangly elbows (acidity), acerbic wit (tannins), and body odor (barnyard funk). My advice? Buy basic until money allows for a loftier purchase that has had ample time to grow into its nose.
What brings Burgundy down-to-earth though is precisely that, its earth. The soil (and those 13 centuries of cultivating it) contributes greatly to that mystical concept we winos mention so often: terroir. Loosely translated as “a sense of place,” terroir is the sum of effects that the local environment has on the production of a wine. In Burgundy, terroir governs every aspect from grape to glass—whether a simple, juicy Bourgogne Rouge or the heralded grand cru Domaine Romanée-Conti. In fact, even with all of Pinot Noir’s current star power, Burgundians see it less as a grape and more as the perfect vehicle to express the terroir of which they are so duly proud.
Burgundy bargains lie in the “fringe” areas of the famed Côte d’Or. This “Gold Coast” divides into Côte de Nuits in the north, (home to almost all of the grand crus, but also to the “value” village of Marsannay) and Côte de Beaune in the south (home to its own “value” village of Santenay). South of the Côte d’Or is the Côte Chalonnaise, where wines from the village of Givry impress at tolerable prices. Négociants who supplement their own harvests by buying from small growers to provide larger quantities of sought-after wines also offer an affordable starting point for dependable, varietally correct Burgundy (which, oversimplified, would be a zip-line of acidity, a satin sheet of tannin, and a raspberry-mushroom-violet flavor).
SIX WAYS TO FALL FOR BURGUNDY WITHOUT GOING BROKE
Louis Latour Marsannay 2005. Tastings of Charlottesville. $19.95
Château de Chorey Bourgogne Rouge Vieilles Vignes 2007. Wine Warehouse. $24.99
Maison Bertrand Ambroise Nuits Saint Georges 2004. Market Street Wineshop. $21.99
Philippe Colin Santenay 2006. Rio Hill Wine & Gourmet. $25.99
Domaine Besson Givry Haut Colombier Rouge 2006. Whole Foods. $18.99
Alain Roy Givry 2007. Greenwood Gourmet Grocery. $24.99
Top-shelf Burgundy export prices are dropping (relatively speaking, bien sûr) thanks to economic incompatibility, but while you wait, there is love to be found in the region’s more humble offerings.
France, Cali call a truce
Fossett’s hosted its France vs. America wine dinner on one of those delightfully warm evenings a few weeks ago. While it was a bit overwhelming to score eight wines without food and then with food (which also went into battle with French and American interpretations of dishes dueling it out on the same plate), the 40 guests drank and ate with both joie and joy. Many wines had it in the bag when tasted without food, but then lost out over their competitor with food. And, with Old World-ers leaning New (California Chardonnay over white Burgundy) and New World-ers skewing Old (Bordeaux over California Meritage), it was clear, again, that we are all influenced by labels and that expectations should be challenged.