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The Truth About Burgundy

Red wines from France’s celebrated Burgundy region have a reputation for being overpriced and overvalued. That’s about to change.

Fine Cooking Issue 115
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Photos: Scott Phillips
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To my taste, red Burgundies—the pricey Pinot Noirs from the eponymous wine region in eastern-central France—are the earthiest, silkiest, most seductive wines on the planet. Their bracing, pinpoint acidity makes them glorious food wines, too. They go particularly well with poultry, game, lamb, and beef, and are therefore a great match for the hearty, meaty dishes we all crave during these cold-weather months.

But red Burgundies get bad press that goes something like this: Their quality is spotty, they’re crazy expensive, and for every great bottle you find, there are five more that’ll leave you underwhelmed and feeling fleeced. Now, here’s the truth: These wines are consistently excellent these days—in fact, the winemaking in Burgundy has never been better—and you don’t have to spend a lot of money to enjoy them.

Burgundy’s vineyards grow superior Pinot Noir

Thanks in no small part to the 2004 hit film Sideways, Pinot Noir has been the wine world’s “it” grape for nearly a decade. Its popularity has been a boon for vintners in California, Oregon, and New Zealand, all regions that produce excellent pinots. However, pinot reaches its apogee in the narrow, limestone-rich corridor of France known as the Côte d’Or, the Burgundian heartland. This region has proven to be very hospitable for this notoriously difficult-to-grow grape, and pinot has been king there since the late 14th century.

Burgundy is also one of the most complicated wine regions in the world. It’s central organizing organizing principle is based on the premise that small changes from one parcel of land to another can yield dramatic differences in the wines those sites produce. Vineyards are divided to reflect these small changes, and the classification system established there in the 1930s created a hierarchy of vineyards that could confuse a rocket scientist.

These days, Burgundy consists of some 150 appellations, or geographic zones that identify where a wine’s grapes are grown. At the top of the hierarchy are 33 grand cru vineyards (the most prestigious designation) and more than 400 premier cru vineyards (also prestigious, if not quite at the level of grand cru). Just imagine the most gerrymandered Congressional district possible, and that will give you some idea of what Burgundy’s wine map looks like. As I said, Burgundy is complicated, but for me, that’s part of its charm.

Next generation winemakers produce better Burgundies

Thirty years ago, Burgundy wasn’t so charming. In fact, the wines were often disappointing. The weather was notoriously uncooperative; if a producer had two good vintages over a 10-year stretch, it was considered a successful decade. The winemaking also left much to be desired, with lots of shoddy farming and inferior grapes yielding inferior wines. Despite boasting some of the world’s most fabled vineyards, Burgundy was an underperforming region.

The arrival of a new generation of winemakers who were well traveled and open to fresh ideas turned things around in the 1990s. This generation recognized that the wines their parents and grandparents made were not at the level they should have been, and they believed that great wines were made mostly in the vineyard, not the cellar. They became fanatically scrupulous farmers. The improved quality of their grapes, coupled with better technology and greater viticultural know-how, resulted in a dramatic upswing in the quality of Burgundy’s wines. Climate change has helped, too. Though it poses a long-term threat to Burgundy, it has had a benefi cial impact over the last 15 years, with more consistent and warmer growing seasons than in the past.

Burgundy’s quality revolution began in celebrated appellations like Vosne-Romanée, home to six grand cru vineyards. It’s led to soaring demand and, in many cases, astronomical prices, which are in line with Burgundy’s reputation as a pricey indulgence.

Journalist and francophile A. J. Liebling once said, “Burgundy is a wonderful thing if someone else is paying.” That’s never been more true than now. But here’s the thing: This golden age of Burgundian winemaking has touched every corner of the region, and less exalted appellations such as Fixin, Santenay, and Mercurey are producing some very good wines that can be enjoyed without spending a lot of money—either your own or someone else’s.

Three ways to find affordable Burgundies

So how do you get your hands on the good stuff? I have three suggestions.
The first is to look for wines from some of the better negotiants, the merchant houses that buy grapes or unfinished wines from small producers and then bottle them under their own labels. Firms like Louis Jadot, Joseph Drouhin, and Bouchard Père et Fils make excellent wines across a range of prices.

Another approach is to look for wines from certain importers. One of the reasons we Americans drink so well these days is thanks to the work of a small group of very discerning importers who have spent years traveling through rural France to find great producers turning out compelling wines. Kermit Lynch, Becky Wasserman, Neal Rosenthal, Martine Saunier, and Daniel Johnnes bring in a number of superb Burgundian wines; look for their names on labels.

There are also two very appealing vintages on the market now that don’t necessarily command astronomical prices: the 2008 and 2009. The wines of the acclaimed 2009 vintage are ripe, fruit-forward, and a pleasure to drink. It’s a great introductory vintage for Burgundy neophytes. There are still plenty of 2008s around, too, and if you want to taste Burgundies that are more in the classic vein—light, earthy—the ’08s are definitely worth a taste.

The beauty of these inexpensive Burgundies—aside from their price tag and their subtle, elegant flavors—is that they don’t require special occasions and pair well with even casual weeknight meals, be it hamburgers or pizza. Personally, though, I’ve never needed an excuse to drink a good Burgundy. And now neither do you.
Explore the reasonably priced end of the Burgundy spectrum through these seven bottles.

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