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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

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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.
I understood why Burgundy is so difficult to grasp. It's not the wines themselves. If anything, they are seductive beyond even a schoolboy's fantasy. A really fine Burgundy can convert--or at least convince--even the most determined teetotaler.
But Burgundy's maddening complexity can drive you to...Bordeaux. The wine cosmos in Bordeaux is idiotically simple: you've got the famous 1855 classification that ranked 58 of the greatest estates. Today the number is 61. It's the fine-wine version of paint-by-number. Burgundy, in comparison, is an insider's game. Like winning at the slots, everything must line up: vineyard, vintage and producer. Miss just one and you've missed it all. But when you win, you never forget the sensation. And that sensation can be summed up in one word: somewhereness.
What makes Burgundy unique in the world, what has kept wine lovers returning to it for nearly 1,000 years, is this thrilling sensation of somewhereness. In Burgundy, the earth itself speaks. The grapevine is vehicle rather than voice. It's also why it is absurd to describe red Burgundy as simply 100 percent Pinot Noir (which it is) or white Burgundy as 100 percent Chardonnay (ditto).
It also explains why Burgundy has hundreds of named vineyards; some are as small as an acre. Over the centuries, the Burgundians--taught by the Benedictine and Cistercian monks--learned to listen to the land. Each plot, with its unique combination of soil, sunlight, exposure, slope, air, water drainage and who knows what else, delivers a different message.
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were the grape varieties chosen not because of their "varietalness"--to use American wine-marketing jargon--but for their exquisite sensitivity in conveying the nuances of place. The resulting wines give the drinker a feeling of tasting something that goes beyond the grape or the technique of the winemaker: somewhereness. As always, the French have a word for it: terroir.
But not all terroirs are equal. Some wines offer a strong sensation of the effect; others are comparatively mute. All of which explains the underlying organization of Burgundy's vineyards. Every piece of its vinicultural land is qualitatively ranked. The least "vocal" sites (which are the most common) are allowed to be labeled no more than mere Bourgogne (Burgundy), red or white. Vineyards that have something more to say are allowed a village designation, such as Volnay, Gevrey-Chambertin or Pommard. Some villages, of course, are better than others.
Finally, sites that can impart the strongest sensations of somewhereness are raised to the rank of either premier cru or, rarest of all, grand cru. Only 31 vineyards in the Côte d'Or--the source of Burgundy's greatest wines--plus an additional seven vineyards in the Chablis district, are ennobled as grands crus.
Rank has its (label) privileges. In the same way that the herald simply announces the arrival of "the king," only a grand cru, such as Chambertin, can use its vineyard name without any further information about place. Premiers crus, as lesser aristocrats--like, say, the Earl of Northumberland--require an additional fillip of identification: Gevrey-Chambertin "Clos St.-Jacques Premier Cru."
But place isn't everything. After all, somebody has to make the wine, and he or she may not be as good as one might like. Then, there's the matter of vintage, which is the wine's way of recording the quality of the weather during the entire growing season. Ironically, vintage is the least important of the three factors in creating fine Burgundy today: producer and vineyard are more important. Modern wine-making technology has performed wonders in salvaging once hopeless years. Still, there's nothing like a great vintage to vault a wine--and its drinker--into a state akin to bliss.
So how does one make sense of Burgundy? How do you make a frustrating, complicated system work for you? It can be done. It takes a bit of insider knowledge, a certain amount of interest and application on your part and, of course, some money.
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.
The problem, as always, is economics. The world clamors for any Burgundy with a famous name. The French government trots out all sorts of regulations trying to demonstrate how it is limiting yields. In fact, yields have legally reached absurd levels that result in painfully thin, bland wines that sell for high prices. Producers have no market incentive to lower the yields yet--and no governmental constraints to do so either.
This is why the producer is so critical. The best ones conscientiously keep their yields low, even though they don't always fetch a commensurate price for doing so. A few get a higher price thanks to buyers from abroad (especially Americans), but most keep their yields low out of integrity and personal honor. Regrettably, not all of these honorable growers are also first-rate winemakers. The trick is finding the ones who are both.
There's another factor to consider in the Burgundy equation: the shippers. Although the ownership of Burgundy's vineyards is divided among thousands of growers, the majority of all Burgundy wines are still sold through négociants or shippers. Prior to the Second World War, virtually all of Burgundy's wines were sold by shippers. The growers sold their months-old wines to the shippers, who aged the wines and bottled them under their own labels. The rise of estate-bottling--in which the grower makes and bottles his wine and sells it under his own label--effectively began in the 1950s and really took hold only in the '70s and '80s. It humbled to a degree the previously all-powerful shippers.
But the balkanization of Burgundy's vineyard ownerships means that shippers will always be needed, if only to consolidate small batches of wines into one commercially salable lot. The division of Burgundy's in-dividual vineyards is almost incomprehensibly fragmented. For example, the 14.5-acre Les Charmots vineyard in Pommard has 58 owners. Its largest single owner is clutching just 1.2 acres, which is too small a plot for all but the most zealous producer to estate bottle. Still, the power rests with those who own the vines; buyers must come directly to them to buy their estate-bottled wines.
Generally, it is true that the best Burgundies today are estate bottled, but it is also increasingly true that a few of the most ambitious shippers are issuing comparable fine wines. They do that either by buying vineyards when they can or, more often, paying growers a price they can't refuse for their grapes or young wines. Sometimes growers have more wine than they can sell easily. Or they need money quickly. Or a family doesn't have a new generation interested in working the vines, so it enters into a long-term contract with a shipper to tend the vines and sell the wine.
In a world that fervently pursues convenience and easy understanding, Burgundy is an anachronism. Nobody today would fashion a wine area with hundreds of named vineyards tilled by thousands of growers. It doesn't make marketing sense. But Burgundy achieves something that is literally irreproducible. Its wines, red and white, retain such a distinction of place that even Burgundians themselves can't fully explain how one neighbor manages to reap grand cru on a slice of land contiguous to property that overachieves at premier cru.
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