Burgundy – the name always conjures up the memory of the most sumptuous bottle of red wine I ever drank, a bottle of 1966 Clos de Beze
Sadly, it was the start of a quest for similar bottles from the region that more often than not ended in disappointment and occasionally a downright feeling I had been conned. You need deep pockets to indulge in the wines of this area.
This area is almost without doubt the most difficult to buy from for a multitude of reasons – not all of them lack of knowledge.
Burgundy has never been able to supply the world what it demands, hence sky high prices and in the past a disregard for the consumer revealed itself as a take it or leave it attitude among many vignerons and negotiants.
This was/is further complicated by the sheer number of owners of many of the great sites rather as in Germany the sites are shared by many growers and winemakers, the difference being that the difference between good and poor is more marked in Burgundy.
As an example of how great sites are shared, The Clos de Vougeot has 80 growers in its 125 acres, some of these can be as small as half an acre so knowledge of growers is above everything else paramount in this region.
The one simple thing here is that there are only two grapes that really count – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – with Gamay being used in the Beaujolais region. Having just two main grapes is fine but of course the Pinot Noir is notoriously difficult to ‘get right’, hence the need to know on the grower front.
Burgundy is split into three distinct areas. North west of Dijon there is Chablis, south of Dijon is the Cote de Nuits, followed by the Cote de Beaune and south again the Maconnais and Beaujolais.
Chablis is the survivor of a much bigger area of vines that used to supply Paris. 100 kilometres away to the northwest, phylloxera the vine desease and the coming of railways that saw the area bypassed to the south, meant that the vineyards shrank to a 1000 acres at one stage but a revival came in the second half of the last century and is still in progress.
Chablis is Chardonnay but a very different wine compared to that produced in the Cotes further south. The soil is different, the vines being grown on a band of chalk that goes north and across the channel to the white cliffs of Dover.
It is a food wine that is more steely than its southern neighbour and often has that sauvignon like green tinge. As with all things Burgundian, the crus and grand crus that form the best of Chablis and sometimes the worst don’t come cheap and some Bourgognes, as from Vezelay, offer better value.
The two cotes to the south Nuits and Beaune are where the Burgundy of stratospheric prices comes from.
The area has upped its game since the 70s and 80s but you still need to know who’s coasting on a reputation and who isn’t. You will pay the same mostly for both and either way will still have to be able to afford it, with little relative value to be found here.
You really do need to know your stuff or be stuffed.
All that said, if you can seek out value and it’s not easy, there are some wines that will get you near the good stuff in the lesser appellations, not for those who insist on a name but that is only snobbery.
The real deal in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from this region is sublime, given all the caveats I have highlighted. Personally, it’s now out of my reach but in the past I have been fortunate to have sampled the delights of white burgundy from Leflaive and red from the likes of Armand and Boillot amongst others and when you do you understand what all the fuss is about – sadly for me those are just memories.
The other factor in the price of Burgundy of the red variety is there have been little or no alternatives.
If you wish to sample Pinot Noir, yes there are versions of it grown in Germany for example but although some is very good it is not seen in this country anyway, the only salvation is the New World and as of this moment New Zealand in particular.
Nearly everywhere in the world has tried to grow this grape, mostly with little success but NZ has managed to crack it and is slowly being followed by others. The best producers there are producing some outstanding wines and are a genuine alternative to Burgundy but again the ones that can compete whilst not in the price range of Burgundy are not cheap either so do not confuse them with the good but not outstanding supermarket offerings.
The real hope for a value alternative is at the moment Chile. I have had a couple of this country’s Pinot Noirs that were exceptional for the money, so there is hope.
Anyone who has visited the area north and south of Beaune cannot but be impressed with the pristine villages, pristine vineyards, pristine everything. The Burgundians have made a lot of money from their wines in recent years and it shows from the Montrachets, Aloxe Corton, Nuits St-Georges and all the others.
They’re the same beautifully kept properties and vineyards, and of course the commercial wine centre itself Beaune with its famous Hospice is well worth a visit.
The southern slopes of the Maconnais and Beaujolais are more rugged, with limestone slopes, higher and interspersed with orchards and pasture, without the prestige names north of here. The prices are much more reasonable but it is a different product. The reds are lighter as the vineyards are higher and need a longer ripening season and generally lighter in alcohol.
In general, the smaller wineries give way to larger units with some big and very good coops.
This is prevalent in Macon. Pouilly Fuisse is lighter than its northern neighbours, nearer to Chablis in style in the Mercurey area. The Pinot Noir is better value and can approach the level of the northern cotes but without the sumptuousness.
Big negotiant firms like Louis Latour and Jadot have some very good wines in both areas that are available here at reasonable prices.
Beaujolais itself is slightly different, as it is the Gamay grape that rules. The days of Beaujolais Nouveau and the frothy formulaic wine that was shipped out in great quantities has fallen out of fashion and it has had an effect on the area with a lot of acreage going out of production the result being that good young fresh Beaujolais well made is becoming ever more available and the single vineyard owners have increased the quality in the cru classes.
Brouilly, Morgon, Regnie, Fleurie and Chenas are the smallest cru areas. All can produce wines capable of aging.
The problem for someone like me, an ordinary wine enthusiast, is that value-wise, many of the wines still do not stack up vis a vis the new world. The new world may not be able to replicate the nuances of old world terroir and centuries of wine making expertise but it can offer good everyday wines at a price Europe finds very difficult to compete with.
Things are changing and they need to. People will not pay twice the price for the same pleasure.