Burgundy - An Expensive Education?
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed May 30, 2002. For more information go to wineloverspage.com.
It is hard to imagine a more magical word in the world of wine than "Burgundy." Rooted deeply in history, the name has become all but synonymous with red wine. (In fact, for many years, American mass-market wineries devalued the name by borrowing it for cheap, generic reds, a custom that has happily all but died out in modern times.)
True Burgundy, of course, comes only from the French region of the same name ("Bourgogne" in French, pronounced "Boor-gon-yuh"), where the reds are made entirely from Pinot Noir and the whites from Chardonnay.
It's one of the world's most beloved reds, in older times often dubbed "the king of wines." (In this old-fashioned gender stereotyping, Bordeaux was considered more "feminine" and wore the crown as queen.)
But for at least two good reasons, Burgundy is a difficult wine to get to know. First, for historical reasons ranging from early French inheritance laws to land ownership reforms in Napoleonic times, Burgundy's vineyards are divided into thousands of tiny parcels, each with its own name, status and vinous reputation. Learning that Burgundy's core region is called the Cote d'Or ("golden hillside"), and that this is further divided into the Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune, is only the beginning of a long (but tasty) education process to which would-be lovers of Burgundy must submit.
An equally grave barrier is price. While it's possible to get an affordable introduction to Burgundy in the $10 to $15 range through its lowest-common-denominator offerings (Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays bearing the generic "Bourgogne" designation), it's difficult to sample Burgundies from more narrowly defined - and desirable - real estate for less than $20, and you almost have to cross the $30 line before you reach truly interesting territory. For most of us, these price ranges don't encourage casual experimentation.
Then add the reality that Burgundy's unpredictable climate means that vintage differences matter, and it's no surprise that many wine enthusiasts simply throw up their hands and decide that learning Burgundy is not worth the bother.
But it's a shame to dismiss one of the world's greatest wines entirely. Even though my usual wine-budget range rarely permits great Burgundy, I'll take an occasional foray into its lower reaches just to maintain some sense of what Burgundy is all about.
To minimize the risks, here's my advice: Watch for tasting reports from publications or individuals you trust; and develop a good relationship with a trustworthy wine retailer in your community who'll point you to good buys when they become available. That's how I found a Burgundy from Savigny-les-Beaune, a section of the Cote de Beaune that's known for respectable quality and good value. It's the least pricey of several vineyard bottlings from Maurice Ecard, a respected producer, and 1999 was a very good vintage.
If you're serious about Burgundy, or want to get that way, you might also take a look at my friend Allen Meadows' Burghound.com, a quarterly online publication that features extensive articles by a man so passionate about Burgundy that he's chosen the pen name "Burghound." Full access requires a paid subscription, but there's plenty of free content on the site including many tasting reports.