Exploring elusive burgundy

November 2020

For centuries, the ancient duchy of Burgundy has been the source of the world’s most sought-after wines. In central France, about two hours drive south of Paris, this small region – less than a quarter the size of Bordeaux – is home to a rich diversity of wines, from the everyday to the outstanding. Basic Bourgogne, red and white, is a cellar staple. Perfectly matching a wide range of foods, these are your go-to wines for casual dinners. But for something really special – for Christmas dinner, or Christmas gifting – you must dig deeper. Today we explore some of these treasured Burgundies that wine lovers so ardently seek.

The hierarchy of quality and price in Burgundy is linked to the patch of ground where the grapes are grown. Over centuries, through trial and error, Burgundian vintners, often Catholic monks, identified with great precision the exact pieces of earth where the best vines grow. The only red grape permitted by law on these prime sites is Pinot Noir. This capricious varietal, temperamental and difficult to grow, possesses a rare affinity to express, with great purity of flavour, the character of the place where it grows. The French term terroir describes all the attributes of a specific site – soil, elevation, exposure, microclimate – that combine to give unique character to the grapes and thence to the wines.

The heart of Burgundy is the Côte d’Or, a narrow strip of land just a few hundred metres wide and barely 50 kilometres long, running south-west from the regional capital of Dijon to the village of Santenay. Along this line are strung like jewels the famous, enchanting little wine towns, or communes, that produce their rare elixir: Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-St. Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Vosne-Romanée, Nuits-St. Georges comprise the northern part. Note how the names are hyphenated. This is a marketing device: each town has appended the name of its most famous vineyard, hoping that reflected glory will shine on all the wines produced there.

Topping the hierarchy are the Grand Cru wines, that are marketed under their own name only; these wines are utterly sublime and impossibly expensive. Chambertin is possibly the most famous of all these Grand Cru Burgundy vineyards. It is located in the commune of Gevrey, so that commune now markets itself as Gevrey-Chambertin. Next come the Premier Cru wines, from named vineyard sites within the commune, lacking the stature to go to market under their own name only: Gevrey-Chambertin Clos St.-Jacques is a fine example of a Premier Cru vineyard. And finally come the commune wines, called simply Gevrey-Chambertin – a fine wine indeed, but not of Grand or Premier Cru stature. The wines from all these hyphenated communes follow this pattern: Grand Cru, Premier Cru, commune wine.

There are some 30 Grand Cru vineyards: Musigny, Clos St. Denis, Romanée-Conti, La Romanée, Clos de Vougeot… all red in the northern half of the Côte d’O; both red and white: Corton, Corton-Charlemagne, Montrachet… in the southern half. Then there are dozens of premier cru sites – Vosne-Romanée Suchots, Chambolle-Musigny Charmes, Beaune-Grèves…and other named vineyards spread across some twenty-five communes whose names appear on labels. To complicate things further, each vineyard may have multiple vignerons, each owning a few rows of vines. Labelling all this is as intricate as theology!

To begin to assimilate and fully comprehend all this, you must delve into the extensive library of wine books.

I suggest beginning with Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine. Gorgeously illustrated, filled with maps and detailed descriptions, it makes a perfect Christmas gift, and an ultimate
desert island companion. A lifetime of study awaits you – the rewards are worth it!

© Paul Inksetter 2020

Follow Paul Inksetter’s wine writing on his blog, www.winewicket.com
© Paul Inksetter 2016

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