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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
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.
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.
Skeptics submit that it's all a matter of winemaking. But honest tasting and the perspective of history tell us otherwise. The earth speaks to us in Burgundy as it does nowhere else. And that voice has never disappeared, even though wine-making technology over the centuries has changed dramatically. The same Burgundies that captivated wine lovers centuries ago still awe us today: Chambertin, La Tâche, Montrachet, Volnay, Meursault and many more. They do this not by technique, but by terroir. And that is immutable. Great Burgundy, like a great diamond, is forever.
Matt Kramer is a columnist for Wine Spectator and the author of Making Sense of Burgundy (1990), William Morrow, 528 pages, $24.95).
The Guide to Shippers
Two shippers today stand out: Leroy and Louis Jadot. Leroy has a collection of fabulous older Burgundies. The Leroy cellar is vast and its wines exceptional, and since 1988 director and co-owner Lalou Bize-Leroy has added attention and resources to a new, extraordinary estate called Domaine Leroy.
Louis Jadot remains a shipper--yet not quite. The reason its wines are exceptional is that it, too, has moved to purchase vineyards as well as enter into long-term contracts with growers. Its best wines (both red and white) come from grapes Jadot owns or controls. Overall, its standard is exemplary, equal to the best growers.
Other shippers have varying strengths. Joseph Drouhin is very good, even though many of its wines are intentionally made to be drunk young. Labouré-Roi is an up-and-comer. It has redefined the role of the shipper (which traditionally put only its own name on the label) by arranging at least 60 estates to bottle their wines--under the grower's own label. Labouré-Roi's own wines are usually very good value. The shipper Louis Latour does an especially good job with white wines, not so with reds. In comparison, the shipper Faiveley is a better performer with reds than whites.
The Guide to Growers
The topic of growers gets too complicated for the space available. The really good Burgundy growers number between 100 and 200, depending upon who's doing the counting. New ones keep cropping up all the time, as brothers (and, increasingly, sisters) divide family inheritances and create their own labels.
The following producers are personal favorites. I'll stick to Chablis, Côte d'Or and Côte Chalonnaise because that's where the best wines are found. Precisely because they are per-sonal favorites, the lists are far from comprehensive. Someone else could as easily create an entirely different roster--and be just as correct. But I'll say this much: if you start with these producers, you'll get a terrific idea of how good a Burgundy can be.
Chardonnay yields in Chablis are excessive, and prices have never been higher. The producers I look for are depressingly few. The best are Domaine Raveneau, René & Vincent Dauvissat and Domaine Louis Michel. Other good producers include Domaine Jean Collet, Domaine Guy Robin, Domaine de la Maladière/William Fèvre and Domaine Robert Vocoret.
It's almost overwhelming to start listing by village; there are so many villages and so many good producers in each one. Better, if only for reasons of space, to divide into producers of great red Burgundies and great white ones. The villages or single vineyards of their best wines are in parentheses.
Domaine Marquis d'Angerville
(Volnay; silky, refined, superb)
Domaine Simon Bize & Fils
(Savigny-lès-Beaune; elegant, supple, good buys)
(Nuits-St.- Georges; concentrated, refined)
Domaine Yvon Clerget
(Volnay; beautifully defined wines, fragrant)
Domaine Georges Deléger
(Chevalier-Montrachet; superb, intense, rare)
(Morey-St.-Denis, Bonnes Mares; Gevrey-Chambertin; silky, concentrated, expensive)
Domaine Maurice Ecard
(Savigny-lès-Beaune; intense, beautifully defined, great buy)
Domaine René Engel
(Vosne-Romanée; famous name, returning to top form)
Domaine Frédéric Esmonin
(Gevrey-Chambertin; rich, intense, structured)
Domaine Michel Esmonin
(Gevrey-Chambertin "Clos St.-Jacques"; great single-vineyard wine)
Domaine Jacques Germain
(Beaune; pure, elegant, beautifully defined)
Domaine Michel Lafarge
(Volnay; rich, concentrated, superb, expensive)
(Auxey-Duresses; polished, intense, great buy)
Domaine Philippe Leclerc
(Gevrey-Chambertin; very concentrated, oaky, striking)
Domaine René Leclerc
(Gevrey-Chambertin; very concentrated, no obvious oak, striking)
Domaine François Legros
(Nuits-St.-Georges; a new rising star, polished, refined)
(Vosne-Romanée, Chambertin, many others; simply the best grower in Burgundy today, very expensive)
Domaine Hubert de Montille
(Volnay, Pommard; elegant, refined, long-lived, expensive)
Domaine Charles/Denis Mortet
(Gevrey-Chambertin; concentrated, rich, superb)
Domaine Georges Mugneret/Mugneret-Gibourg
(Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne-Romanée; intense, defined, expensive, rare)
Domaine de la Pousse d'Or
(Volnay, Santenay; refined, very pure, detailed, expensive)
Domaine Michel Prunier
(Auxey-Duresses, Volnay; concentrated, intense, great buy)
Domaine Daniel Rion
(Nuits-St.-Georges, Vosne-Romanée; concentrated, mouth-filling, expensive)
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
(Vosne-Romanée; Burgundy's most famous and most expensive red wines; memorably great)
Domaine Joseph Roty
(Gevrey-Chambertin; very fine, expensive, hard to locate)
Domaine Georges Roumier
(Chambolle-Musigny; superb, silky, defined, concentrated, very great)
Domaine Armand Rousseau
(Gevrey-Chambertin; an old standard-bearer returned to top form, expensive)
Domaine Tollot-Beaut & Fils
(Corton, Beaune; lovely, oaky wines, concentrated)
Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé
(Musigny, Bonnes Mares; big owner, wines on the comeback; expensive)
(Chassagne-Montrachet; beautiful definition and concentration, good buys)
Domaine Robert Ampeau
(Meursault; unusually rich, intense, long-lived)
Domaine Bonneau du Martray
(Corton-Charlemagne; famous vineyard, rich, long-lived, great)
Domaine J.-F. Coche-Dury
(Meursault; concentrated, austere, very expensive and hard to locate)
Domaine Michel Colin-Deleger
(Chassagne-Montrachet; detailed, austere style, long-lived)
Domaine Albert Grivault
(Meursault; famous for Clos des Perrierès vineyard)
Domaine Patrick Javillier
(Meursault; a young, rising star)
Domaine François Jobard
(Meursault; among the greatest,unusually long-lived)
Domaine des Comtes Lafon
(Meursault; intense, rich, oaky, very expensive and hard to secure)
(Puligny-Montrachet; expensive, very fine and highly polished)
(Corton-Charlemagne, Puligny-Montrachet, Auxey-Duresses; among the greatest, expensive)
Domaine du Duc de Magenta
(Chassagne-Montrachet, Auxey-Duresses; long-term contract with Louis Jadot, great quality)
Domaine Pierre Matrot/Joseph Matrot
(Meursault; austere, no apparent oak, very fine, good buy)
Domaine Michel Niellon
(Chassagne-Montrachet; one of the greatest, hard to find)
Domaine Paul Pernot
(Puligny-Montrachet; rich, intense, newly arrived in the United States)
(Chassagne-Montrachet; famous, very great, expensive and rare)
Domaine Guy Roulot
(Meursault; many vineyards, fine quality)
Domaine Étienne Sauzet
(Puligny-Montrachet; superb, austere, expensive, rare)
The Côte Chalonnaise is without question the most unappreciated, unexplored source of good red (Pinot Noir) and white (Chardonnay) Burgundies. For everyday drinking--or even better--look for wines from Bouzeron, Rully, Mercurey, Givry and Montagny.
Château de Chamirey
(Mercurey; intense, concentrated red Mercurey, also impressive white, distributed by Antonin Rodet)
(Mercurey; Côte d'Or shipper specializes in superb, concentrated red Mercurey)
Domaine Michel Goubard
(Bouzeron; lovely, delicate Pinot Noir sold as Bourgogne)
(Givry; concen-trated, very oaky but good red Givry)
Domaine Michel Juillot
(Mercurey; rich, oaky red Mercurey, very fine)
(Montagny, Givry; the Côte d'Or shipper makes great white Montagny and fine red Givry)
Domaine Maurice Protheau
(Rully; excellent white Rully and especially good, rare white Mercurey)
(Rully, Mercurey; shipper creating superb Rully white and other Chalonnaise wines)
Château de Rully
(Rully; superb white Rully)
Domaine A. P. de Villaine
(Bouzeron; famous as co-owner of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti; superb red and white wines labeled Bourgogne, also white wine from Aligoté grape)
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