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The Enigma of Burgundy

I find it amazing that many Pinot Noir and Chardonnay lovers seem to have a problem with Burgundy. Why do I say that? Well, Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from California, Oregon, Washington State, Chile, New Zealand and Australia sell very well yet Burgundies tend to sit on the shelf. Why is that?

Burgundy is that wine region in eastern-central France that is situated between the cities of Dijon to the north and Lyon to the south, including the region of Chablis just to the north-west of Dijon. At its centre is the beautiful and charming medieval town of Beaune. The northern part is known as the Cote-de-Nuits, the central part as the Cote d’Or and the southern parts are the Cote Challonais and Beaujolais.

All red Burgundy is made from Pinot Noir (except for Beaujolais which is made from Gamay) and all white Burgundy is made from Chardonnay. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are grapes varieties that are native to Burgundy and have been grown there for hundreds of years. They find their most sublime expressions in the soils of Burgundy and the hands of the Burgundian winemakers, yet so many wine consumers look at a bottle of Burgundy with a mixture of confusion and fear.

Perhaps the reason for this can be explained by two facts. First, most Burgundy is quite expensive. A decent bottle cannot be had for much under $200, the good stuff costs $300 plus and often much more. That’s at retail, in restaurants one can usually double or triple those prices. For most wine consumers that is big money. The reason behind the pricing is simply demand and supply. There is just not that much good Burgundy produced and wealthy wine buyers are prepared to pay top dollar for the good ones, which incidentally drives up the price of all Burgundy.

To give a stark example, it is all but impossible to get one’s hands on a bottle of Domaine de La Romanee-Conti’s ‘La Tache’ and those lucky enough to get a small allocation are willing to pay US$3-4,000 per bottle. Nothing from Bordeaux or anywhere else even approaches such price points for current vintages.

Secondly, Burgundy is a confusing region with many denominations and it’s hard to know the difference between a Chambolle-Musigny, a Gevrey-Chambertin and a Volnay, far less an Echezeaux, a Nuits St. Georges or a Santenay. And that’s just touching the surface; among the Villages, 1er Crus and Grand Crus there are also many single-vineyard names to contend with, which can make buying Burgundy a most intimidating experience for the uninitiated. Most people just shake their heads and buy simpler wines that they understand.

Worse again is the fact that paying top dollar does not guarantee one will get a tasty bottle of wine. I have had expensive Burgundies that are not worth a tenth of what I paid. Little wonder then that most wine consumers just shy away.

But what are they missing? Simply put, Burgundies are among the most elegant, complex and ethereal wines made on earth. They are able to express terroir—the effect of soil, climate and environment—like no other wines. It is possible to taste the difference between vineyards a mere few hundred yards apart. The levels of minerality, the subtlety and complexity of flavours, the gaminess and earthiness are often characteristics that only discriminating and experienced palates can appreciate. I know many wine lovers who just don’t appreciate these qualities and think Burgundy a complete waste of money. For those who do however, there is nothing else like it.

With wine drinking becoming a more and more popular pastime, there is a growing interest in Burgundy, especially among wine lovers who have become a little tired or bored with New-World varietals that offer no sense of locational identity.

Finding good Burgundy to buy therefore requires either a lot of patience, a lot of money or a good wine merchant who has done the homework.

After intensive research for about two years I actually went to the region and visited scores of wineries I had learned about. I swirled, smelt, tasted and spat hundreds of wines, some ordinary, some very good, some so brilliant they were “unspittable.” One day while walking the streets of Beaune I happened on a retailer who had a vast collection of the finest Burgundies in his showcase. Frederic Henry, who thankfully spoke good English, gave me a short but necessary education in Burgundy. I learned that there are 1,900 or so makers in the region of which only 100 are any good. Of that 100, 75 are horrendously expensive. The remaining 25 are the up-and-coming winemakers who are producing excellent wines but who have not yet earned the right to charge a fortune.

From that small group I chose to buy from just two. Nicolas Potel is something of a winemaker prodigy with a cult following. He purchases grapes from some appellations while owning his own vines in others. This young winemaker, whose father was himself a famous winemaker in his own right until his premature death, is gifted. It will not be long before his wines will cost an arm and a leg but so far he remains a value proposition.

The village of Vosne-Romanee is the home of the greatest vineyards in the Cote-de-Nuits. This village, for many wine connoisseurs, is the Mecca of the wine world. The wine writer Hugh Johnson put it very simply: “There are no common wines in Vosne.” Allen Meadows, probably the most respected expert on Burgundy, called the Vosne ‘The Pearl of The Cote’.

It is in this village that we found Domaine Jacques Cacheux and proprietor Patrice Cacheux. As was the case with Nicolas Potel, every sample we tasted was yummy, expressive and memorable. Patrice has, within the last six or seven years, raised the quality of his domaine to rank with the very best. He too will be ‘expensive’ before long.

As with all great Burgundy, these wines are smooth, expressive and subtle, offering complex flavours and delicate balance. For those of you who do not appreciate strong, mouth-drying tannins as a pre-requisite to full favour, red Burgundy offers an elegant and sublime wine experience. They are wines that work equally well as pre-dinner aperitifs as companions to food.

If you like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and are willing to explore, you will come to love Burgundy.

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