Friday, April 24, 2009

Burgundy: The Grape Beyond Part 2

This is an article I originally wrote for the Austin Chronicle. I place it here for your information and as a teaser for when this blog gets going full time, which will be shortly after the edits and art for my next book, What's a Wine Lover To Do? (Artisan), are finally finished.

Chablis was our starting point, an area planted almost totally in Chardonnay. These wines, like all Burgundies, are food wines. There's plenty of acid to cleanse your palate when you have it with a meal but probably too much acid to sit around sipping it on a hot Texas afternoon. The people of Chablis set four classifications of their own. Petit Chablis is the least of the wines, followed by Chablis, Chablis 1er Cru, and Grand Cru at the top. Of all the Burgundians, they are probably the biggest proponents of terroir. Decades ago, some wine-born pathogen settled in their oak barrels, and the winemakers burned every barrel in the area and installed stainless-steel tanks. Today, almost all Chablis is made without oak, so when you taste a glass of Chablis, you are tasting nothing but grape, terroir, and the winemaker's art.

I know about terroir but was still surprised when I tasted 10 different Chablis, all from one maker, La Chablisienne. All had the wonderful wet slate aroma common to Chablis, but all were completely different. The wines ranged from overly acidic and thin at the Petit Chablis end to magnificent, well-structured richness at the Grand Cru level. Another winemaker, Clotilde Davenne, was my pick of the best winemaker in Chablis. Even her simplest wines, Bourgogne Blanc, had depth and opulence. She also has one of the few vineyards in Chablis that is allowed to grow Sauvignon Blanc, called Les Temps Perdue Saint-Bris. It's elegant and restrained with the aromas hitting you as an afterthought. We were smitten.

The Mâconnais area is around the town of Mâcon. This is where most of the least-expensive Bourgogne wines come from, but it's also where most of the affordable action is these days. It has long been the bastard stepchild of the better areas, but things are changing. The Bret brothers (pictured above with friend and fello wwine writer Leslie Sbrocco), owners of Domaine de la Soufrandière, had a bumper crop, qualitywise, in 2006. Their hand-tended, organic vineyards are producing fruit as good as any in Burgundy, and the brothers are young enough to make a difference in the Mâconnais for many years to come.

Knowledgeable French wine lovers have been scarfing up the wines of the Côte Chalonnaise district for years, because the prices are low compared to the Côte d'Or. The Château de Chamirey showed some incredible 2005 wines that haven't yet hit the U.S. market. The U.S. will only get 25 cases of their Mercurey 1er Cru "Les Ruelles," but it's worth trying to finagle a bottle any way possible. This is quintessential Pinot Noir. A bit easier to find, if more expensive, is the Château de Perdrix Nuit Saint George Premier Cru "Aux Perdrix."

Once we move to the Côte d'Or, the négociants take control of the marketplace. While there are dozens of good négociants, two I trust are Louis Jadot and Joseph Drouhin.

We spent most of an evening with Jadot's winemaker Jacques Lardière as he took us through their barrel room, blithely tasting wine that will retail at anywhere from $9 to $900. I tasted 11 different wines that I would give my highest possible score, and luckily, two will be less than $25 when they hit stores over the next year. The 2006 Pernand Vergelesses Blanc will give you a good idea of what their $200 white Burgundies taste like, and it's under $20. And the 2006 Fixin similarly gives a strong hint of what the $400 Pinot Noirs taste like, and Lardière says it should come in around $25. At the end of the evening, Lardière wanted to show us how long his wines last, so he poured us a 1971 Pommard Rugiens and a 1961 Bonnes Mares. Both were still youthful, brightly colored wines with amazing complexity. These wines really do live a long time.

Drouhin wants to get young people interested in their brand by offering affordable wines. That way, as their taste and wallets mature, they'll be Drouhin fans and go for the higher priced wines. Their starter wine – the $20 2006 Veró Pinot Noir – is a perfect example of a simple Bourgogne level wine, but they have flexed their winemaking muscles to make something dazzling for the price. I'd pick it over a lot of $100-plus Burgundies.

Not all Côte d'Or wine is made by négociants. Winemaker Laurent Pon­sot operates the winery named for his family. He is a tall, thin man with a long gray ponytail (see above), an ex-mountain climber who took a big fall so now gets his fun flying acrobatic planes. And making wine. He is another of the terroir-as-religion folks. "The wine must be a vector between the earth and your glass," he says, as we sip some of his 2006 Morey-St.-Denis Premier Cru Clos des Monts Luisants Vieilles Vignes Blanc, a rare wine made from the Aligote grape. "I am not a winemaker. I am a conductor." The French have a way of tossing these grand statements like we might say our address. My favorite Ponsot quote: "A bottle is too big for one, and a magnum is too small for two."

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