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The Mysteries of Burgundy

From Chablis to the Côte d'Or to Beaujolais, Finding the Best Wines of this Fabled Region is Always a Challenge
Matt Kramer
Posted: April 1, 1995

Not long ago I was on the prowl for especially good producers in the small Burgundy village of Auxey-Duresses. As names go, Auxey-Duresses is not one of the shining stars of Burgundy, like neighboring Meursault or Volnay, yet it is a perfect emblem of this labyrinthine region.

Auxey-Duresses is a little town wedged in a narrow cleft high on the slope of Burgundy's famed Côte d'Or. As in all the hamlets along the Côte d'Or's 32-mile length, nearly everyone in Auxey-Duresses is a winegrower. In fact, many villagers are related. Burgundian villages often have one or two family names that have become prominent over the generations. In Volnay, for example, it's Clerget. In Auxey-Duresses, the preeminent name is Prunier.

Burgundy insiders point to Jean-Pierre and Pascal Prunier, father and son respectively, as producers of unusually good wines--unfortunately not yet exported to the United States. This particular branch of the family tree is not the most famous of Auxey's various Pruniers. Jean-Pierre's brother, Michel, whom I had already visited, claims that honor.

In Burgundy, when you find the grower's house, you also find his winery. Most Burgundy winegrowers literally make their wines in the basements--in good-sized cellars. And finding the Pruniers was not a problem. All I had to do was go to their home, which is smack in the center of the village. But as I approached the door, I read a chalked message on a slate: "Je suis sur la route de Saint-Romain. Camion rouge." ("I'm on the road to Saint-Romain. The red truck.") So I was on the trail of the Pruniers. Their little red truck was parked alongside a vineyard. Father and son were laboring on their vines up the slope. I walked into the vineyard, introduced myself and made arrangements to meet to taste later in the day.

Once inside their Hobbitlike cellar, I was presented with a typically bewildering array of wines, all of them mis en bouteille au domaine--estate-bottled. There was red Auxey-Duresses (Pinot Noir) and white Auxey-Duresses (Chardonnay). There also were premiers crus, or first-growth red Auxey-Duresses, a vineyard ranking that's a major step up in quality. And there were yet other wines from neighboring villages where father and son own tiny vineyard plots.

Father and son have separate labels, even though Pascal, the son, makes all the wines. The wines under both labels taste nearly identical--until I arrive at two bottles of red, both labeled Auxey-Duresses "Les Duresses" Premier Cru. One sports Pascal's label, the other has Jean-Pierre's.

One of Auxey's eight premiers crus vineyards, Les Duresses is so highly thought of by the locals that in 1924 the former Auxey-le-Grand renamed itself after the wine. Villages up and down the Côte d'Or renamed themselves--common practice in Burgundy in the 1800s--to bask in the reflected glory of their most famous vineyards. It began in 1847 when by royal decree of Louis-Philippe the unadorned Gevrey-en-Montagne became bejeweled: Gevrey-Chambertin. After that came Aloxe-Corton (1862), Vosne-Romanée (1866), Chambolle-Musigny (1878), Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet (both in 1879) and Nuits-St.-Georges (1892).

Anyway, the premiers crus of Jean-Pierre and Pascal should have been the same; both came from the Les Duresses vineyard, were made by the same winemaker and were the same vintage. Yet when tasted side by side, Pascal's wine was undeniably better. Now you're really in Burgundy, I thought.

Excuse me, but didn't you tell me that Pascal made all the wine? Oui, monsieur. And that he makes the wines for both labels? Oui, monsieur. In exactly the same way? Oui, monsieur. And that everything was made in this cellar? Oui, monsieur. Forgive me, but I have to tell you that I think that this Domaine Pascal version of Les Duresses is superior to the Domaine Jean-Pierre. How do you account for the difference?

It turns out the answer is that Pascal's parcel in Les Duresses is 2.5 acres planted with 40-year-old vines. His father's Les Duresses parcel is 1.2 acres planted to 21-year-old vines. Both wines are made by Pascal, but kept separate.

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