The Enigma that is Burgundy

June 2020

“You can pay an outrageous price and be disappointed, and you can pay a modest price and be delighted”
Burgundy is an enigma, an ongoing puzzle defying complete solution. Some of the greatest wines on earth come from Burgundy, yet it is maddeningly unreliable. You can pay an outrageous price and be disappointed, and you can pay a modest price and be delighted. You can learn all the important names, and discover that you scarcely know this enigmatic region at all.

This is an ancient land; Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, gave his name to vineyards here more than twelve centuries ago. The Dukes of Burgundy once rivalled the Kings of France for power and influence.

For millennia the Catholic church owned many fabled vineyards – those monks had the best sacramental wine ever!

True wine lover, you must come to terms with Burgundy and its wines! I do not suggest this as the first wine region you study; the subtleties and complexities can be quite confounding. Yet at its heart beats potentially earth’s most profound wine experience.

Burgundy – in French: Bourgogne – is both the region and its wine. It is the French name that appears on the label. Bourgogne comes in both red and white; the red is made with Pinot Noir grapes only, and the white with Chardonnay only, giving great purity of flavour. The grape variety may or may not be indicated on the label. Bourgogne blanc is one of the great bargains in the wine world. Always available, with lots of variety to choose from, this is your go-to wine for summer luncheons, to open a dinner party, to accompany fish or seafood. Crisp, fresh and lively; ripe, rich and flavourful, these wines are attractive in their youth, yet keep well for five years or more. Find much more about Bourgogne blanc by re-reading All-conquering Chardonnay, Bayview March 2016.

The red version, Bourgogne rouge, can be perplexing. There may be value here, but also much variability. The fine print on the back label may or may not give guidance to the wine’s origin and provenance. Bourgogne rouge can sometimes be a disappointment, unsatisfyingly thin and tart; you really need to experiment across the selection of producers. The LCBO brings in new Bourgogne rouge almost every month, and I always try a new one when I encounter it. There is a good selection on local shelves, but little to guide you toward quality and reliability. Personally, I find good value from Maison Roche de Bellene, from Domaine de Rochebin, and from the growers co-operative Vignerons de Buxy.

The situation becomes more interesting and complex as you move above the level of basic Bourgogne – there is an elaborate hierarchy of quality and price here. Compared with Bordeaux or California, Burgundy is a very small region; the amount of fine wine produced here is miniscule. Seeking these rare exquisite gems can become a life-long quest.

The heart of Burgundy and the source of its finest wines is the Côte d’Or – the ‘slope of gold’. The gold refers to the colour of the vine leaves in the fall, and perhaps also to the wealthy winemakers who own these treasured vineyards. But the term Côte d’Or does not appear on the label; you must now undertake the fascinating journey of learning all the little wine towns strung like gems along the line between the city of Dijon in the north, south through the city of Beaune, to the village of Santenay.

For such a small region, the diversity of sub-regions, communes, villages, vineyards, producers and estates is truly bewildering; we will need more than a full article on identifying these wines and comprehending their labels.

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© Paul Inksetter 2016

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