Without a doubt Burgundy is the world’s most complex wine region. In fact, no other wine producing part of France, or the rest of the world for that matter, even comes close when it comes to its plethora of vineyards: some tiny, none large, each with its own designation of quality written into French law. Because of the Napoleonic laws of inheritance, vineyards may have dozens of owners each exploiting their portion as best they can or when too old or lazy simply renting their rows of vines to younger, ambitious would be winemakers. Like chefs, some winemakers are better than others with many having cult followings and able to command extraordinary sums of money for their wines. Last month I wrote that the only simple thing about Burgundy is that white wines are made from Chardonnay and reds from Pinot Noir. (This is not factually correct but let’s not split hairs.)
Most of the vineyards in Burgundy were once owned by the Church. Not only could the Church guide you to a heavenly afterlife, but monks, through trial and error, established vineyard quality designations useful for the here and now. They knew exactly which vineyards could produce outstanding wines and which, perhaps only a few metres away, could not. The French revolution saw the appropriation of vineyards from the Church but by that time the concept of terroir was firmly established in Burgundy.
There are three quality designations in Burgundy: Village Wines, Premier Crus and Grand Crus. These quality designations are attached to particular vineyards and are not negotiable. For example, the village of Chambolle-Musigny is also a red wine appellation. This appellation has 25 Premier Cru vineyards with Les Amoureuses considered the best. There are two Grand Crus which are Bonnes-Mares and Musigny. There are of course vineyards within this appellation which are designated as village wines and simply labelled Chambolle-Musigny.
Like the village Chambolle-Musigny there are countless appellations in Burgundy explaining the complexity which confronts wine buyers. I believe that Burgundy wines are a niche product. I say this because it takes many bottles (of red at least since the whites are easy to understand) to appreciate its nuances, its ethereal smells and lean but razor sharp complexity. This is particularly so here in Gibraltar where we are used to jammy wines like Ribera del Duero. Once acclimatised, however, one never looks back, and few wines have the power to seize the connoisseur’s imagination as Burgundy can.
Last month I wrote about travelling in Burgundy along the D974 up to Beaune. We passed many famous vineyards like Meursault, Volnay and Montrachet. This month we continue our short journey northwards from Beaune where we enter the Cote du Nuit (the upper half of Burgundy) famous for its reds and home to vineyards whose produce are considered the holy grail of wines.
Beaune is a pretty town much devoted to tourism as wine. Sitting outside one of the restaurants near the market we lunch early on chicken with morels. A stunningly good dish accompanied by a small but lovely glass of red from a producer I have never heard of. Later that day we leave Beaune in a northerly direction along the N74 and soon pass Aloxe Corton, home of Corton, the only Grand Cru red wine within the Cote de Beaune region.
Soon we are at Nuit St. George, the only Burgundian appellation which has made a name for itself amongst the general public. The wines here tend to be dark in colour and more full- bodied than other appellations. There are no Grand Crus here though some pretty decent Premier Crus. Henry Gouges is the leading wine maker here and I recently tasted a white wine from this producer made from an “albino” grape variety. A wine merchant friend managed to get a bottle of this extremely rare wine which he kindly shared with me.
Another producer here is Robert Chevillon which I have drunk regularly as by Burgundian standards his prices were modest – though no longer. His village wine now sells for £35 and his better wines go for £60 and upwards. I will mention prices later in this article and what wine geeks do when millionaires invade their patch.
Next to Nuit is Vosne Romanee, where the finest expression of Pinot Noir is made. Many would say that here the finest wines on the planet are made. There are six Grand Crus, Romanee Conti, La Romanee, La Tache, Richebourg, Romanee St Vivant, and La Grande Rue. The wines here have both power and complexity and whilst I have only tasted La Tache, I am told that a common thread runs through these wines. Prices of these wines are now beyond normal humans. However, all is not lost. For example if you go to the top end of La Romanee vineyard and take a small jump (I am talking literally here) you will find yourself in the Vosne Romanee Champ Perdrix vineyard. Bruno Clair, a good producer here, can be had for £60 a bottle. It’s not cheap, but by Vosnee Romanee standards it’s the bargain of the century and it may have a passing resemblance to its grand neighbours.
I have only mentioned some of Burgundy’s venerable appellations. I am lucky that my wine group have been drinking Burgundy for decades and I have learned much from them. One member I consider a real expert as he has spent most of his life as a specialist Burgundy wine merchant. Up to a few years ago Burgundy, though never cheap, was affordable. This has now changed as millionaires and the Chinese market are ‘discovering’ Burgundy. Yields are small and cannot be increased. Vineyards are what they are and cannot be enlarged.
So what is the keen wine drinker to do? Simply what we have always done. We move on to lesser known appellation such as St Aubin which produces wonderful white Burgundy. It’s not just wine geeks that move on; young ambitious wine makers unable to even contemplate buying known parcels of vineyards are moving to lesser known ones, in many cases producing excellent wines. This is an area to watch out for.
Beaujolais, strictly a part of Burgundy and the butt of many jokes due to the appalling Beaujolais Noveau, is turning itself around. I recently tasted some wonderful examples with real finesse and Burgundian character from this area. Another producer Thevenet from the Maconnais, also a part of Burgundy, is showing that perhaps this area has been seriously underrated. So as wine aficionados let’s do what we have always done: move on until millionaires and the Chinese catch us up.