Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Burgundy: The Grape Beyond

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.

Recently, I had the chance to visit a number of French and Italian wineries, mostly hoping to find some new wineries to tell you about but also to try the new vintages before they hit the U.S. shelves. That way I could give you a heads-up. I know: tough work.

For the French part of the trip, we based ourselves in the town of Beaune, the epicenter of the Burgundy wine trade. People in Burgundy are both knowledgeable and opinionated about their food. Ask two people on the street who makes the best jambon persillé or the best fresh goat cheese, and you'll get four different but equally passionate responses. And wine is the most argued-about of all the foods.

Unfortunately for us, no wine area in the world is as inscrutable as Burgundy, mostly because of its labyrinthine classification. I'll try to make it at least basically understandable.

The first thing you have to know about Burgundy is that there are three main grapes grown there. If a Burgundy wine is white, nine times out of 10 it will be a Chardonnay. If it is red, unless it is a Beaujolais, it will be Pinot Noir. Why don't they just say Chardonnay or Pinot Noir? Those nutty French people take terroir (an all-encompassing word meaning dirt, weather, slope, and anything else that can define a single place) as religion. They think where the wine comes from and who makes it are more important than what grape they use.

The next thing to know is there are a number of huge wineries that purchase grapes or juice, then make the wine and market it. These are called négociants. All négociants try to buy the best grapes they can, and many vineyard owners will sell grapes to several négociants to keep the bidding fierce. But that's confusing because you might see several companies producing a wine with the same name.

Here's how Burgundies are labeled:

Grand Cru is the designation for the top wines in Burgundy. We see only a handful of Grand Cru wines in Austin because of their rarity. They are punishingly expensive, frequently north of $300 a bottle and occasionally more than $1,000. These wines are always listed by the name of the place, like Clos de Vougeot, Montrachet, or Chambertin.

Premier Cru (look for "1er Cru" on the bottle) is the next-highest designation. There are more than 500 Premier Cru vineyards. No one living in Beaune can even name them all. Some of the Premier Cru wines can be priced as highly as the Grand Cru. But with a little skill and help, you can frequently find great bargains in this category.

Village wines can be made from any number of vineyards within a village's boundaries. This is where you find wines named after towns. Of course, if you've never traveled Burgundy on a bicycle, it's hard to tell a town from a vineyard. What's worse, years ago, several towns added the name of a Grand Cru vineyard to the name of the town. Puligny became Puligny-Montrachet, and Aloxe became Aloxe-Corton.

The lowest designation we see in the U.S. is simply called Bourgogne. These wines can be made from anywhere in Burgundy, and increasingly we are seeing them marketed here as Bourgogne Pinot Noir or Bourgogne Chardonnay. Bourgogne wines can also be named after a place. Like Macon-Villages. Which leads us to the last snag in labeling.

Burgundy comprises six areas: Beaujolais, Chablis, Mâconnais, Côte Chalonnaise, Côtes de Beaune, and Côtes de Nuits. Moreover, those last two are referred to collectively as the Côte d'Or.

Finally, you should know that there is no apparent connection between price and quality in Burgundian wines. There are négociants – like Jadot and Drouhin – where you can trust most of what they make to be good value for the money. But once you get into the smaller wineries, all bets are off. The best strategy is to talk to a trusted wineshop person, then try some of the least expensive wines. When you find one you like, start moving up that maker's ladder.

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