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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
From the Print Edition:
Ron Perelman, Spring 95

(continued from page 1)

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.

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