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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

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The amount of money can vary. Burgundy has earned the reputation of being expensive. It can be. But much depends upon the designation of the wine. For example, a simple red or white Bourgogne typically costs between $8 and $15. But if you buy a Bourgogne from one of the great producers , the odds are you'll be getting a deal. Great producers make great Bourgognes--often from young vines planted in top vineyard sites.

More expensive, but still within the realm of reason, are the premiers crus. Premiers crus from some villages (Vosne-Romanée, Gevrey-Chambertin) cost more than those from other villages (Auxey-Duresses, Santenay). But generally, a good premier cru will cost between $20 and $40 a bottle. Most Burgundy fanciers stick with premiers crus, partly for economy's sake, but also because they know that the more you learn the intricacies of Burgundy, the more you discover premiers crus that--in the hands of the right producer--are just a fraction less impressive than grands crus--at half the cost.

Only when you reach the grands crus do you start to get the financial bends. All grands crus are expensive. Prices start at $65 and can skyrocket to as much as $500. Are they worth such money? They can be. But after, say, $200, you're paying for rarity, status and bragging rights. Still, a really good grand cru (remember, producers count here as much as for lesser wines) is a wine that can live in your memory forever--and be worth the money.

But money is only the beginning. You must decipher exactly what Burgundy is. It is a far-flung region in eastern France that encompasses five subregions. The northernmost subregion is Chablis, which exclusively grows Chardonnay. Technically, Chablis is a white Burgundy. Usually, though, it stands by itself, in part because of the fame of its (much abused) name.

Considerably south of Chablis is the Côte d'Or, the slope of gold. For all practical purposes, when people say Burgundy, they're really talking about the Côte d'Or. It is divided into two equal-length sections: the Côte de Nuits in the northern half and the Côte de Beaune in the southern half. Both have numerous communes or villages, each of which, in turn, is parceled into hundreds of named vineyards. Pinot Noir overwhelmingly dominates in the Côte de Nuits. The Côte de Beaune produces nearly all of the white wines; it also issues some of the finest reds.

Behind the Côte d'Or lie what are known as the hautes côtes. These lesser vineyards have their own designations, Haute Côtes de Nuits and Hautes Côtes de Beaune. Their suggestive names aside, they are not part of the Côte d'Or and make pleasant but undistinguished wines.

Directly south of the Côte d'Or lies the Côte Chalonnaise, which is divided into five villages: Bouzeron, Rully, Mercurey, Givry and Montagny. Both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are grown here, sometimes to an impressively fine standard, although never to match the better Côte d'Or properties. Still, the quality can be good, and values abound.

Then comes the Maconnais subregion, which is all about Chardonnay (and a little Pinot Noir and Gamay) grown by a variety of winegrowers' cooperatives. Maconnais wines, pleasant if boring, are meant for short-term drinking and are invariably good deals. The one great exception to this rule of niceness is the village called Pouilly-Fuissé. It is more famous in the United States than anywhere else and consequently fetches a much higher price than any other Maconnais wine. Rarely does it deserve its premium. It is capable of being very fine, although it almost never is.

Finally comes the Beaujolais subregion. Technically it, too, is part of greater Burgundy. In reality, Beaujolais is its own world. The grape here is Gamay, which bears only a superficial similarity to Pinot Noir. Beaujolais is famous today for the ultrayoung wine called Beaujolais Nouveau, released with much fanfare every year on the third Thursday in November. Beaujolais has its own grands crus (10 in number), and these wines are truly the best of Beaujolais.

The most important issue in Burgundy today comes down to one word: yield. If the greatness of Burgundy lies in its unrivaled ability to impart a sensation of somewhereness, then the object of the winegrower is to amplify the voice of the land. In the vineyard, that means fewer clusters per vine rather than more--a low yield. In simple terms, there's only so much flavor and character each vine can draw from its spot. If this is spread among too many clusters, the resulting wine tastes diluted. Terroir is then faint, if not lost altogether.

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