Of all the world’s wine regions, Burgundy offers some of the greatest wine experiences possible, as well as the most daunting challenges in terms of topography and quality. Although a lifetime could be pleasantly spent, and with some invidious and fortunate individuals has been spent, uncovering the nuance of every square hectare of vineyard there, a brief overview of the region will suffice to allow an enjoyably successful choice of wine with dinner. Be forewarned, as lyrical and hedonistic as the wines are to drink, learning about them is a little bit of a slog.
Burgundy, or Bourgogne to the locals, is a province in eastern France known for making wine since approximately 51 BC. It is a long, skinny strip of land running from a little north of Dijon down to Lyon. Since most all of the reds are 100% Pinot Noir, and almost all the whites are 100% Chardonnay, what differentiates the wines from one another are exactly where they are made, and by whom. These two factors are the heart of the complexity of the region. Starting in the north and traveling south, the main sub-regions of Burgundy are: Chablis, Côte d’Or (consisting of Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune), Côte Chalonnaise, Mâconnais and Beaujolais. The most important area is the Côte d’Or, with the most significant reds coming from the Côte de Nuits and the most important whites coming from the Côte de Beaune. Chablis is exclusively white, producing a few stellar and distinctive examples. Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais each produce generally less expensive whites and reds that can be relative bargains and very pleasant. Although Beaujolais is technically part of Burgundy, because its wines are made from the Gamay grape and not Pinot Noir and are of a lighter and fruitier style, it’s often considered a separate region. Geographically speaking, there are four levels of wine in Burgundy. At the most basic level are regional wines, wines named after any of the already mentioned regions, with all of the grapes making up the wine having been grown somewhere within that region. An example is a bottle labeled “Côte de Nuits.” The next level is comprised of communal wines. These are produced from grapes grown in a smaller “commune” within the bigger region. An example is a bottle labeled Vosne-Romanée. The next level up is a Premier Cru. These wines have a specific vineyard name appearing after the commune’s name, like Vosne-Romanée “Les Malconsorts.” The Highest level is Grand Cru. With these wines, the vineyard name alone appears, for example, La Tâche. The idea here is that the vineyard is so well known, it is assumed no more topographical info is needed. Part of what makes a wine label in Burgundy so tricky is that it assumes a lot. It gets a little worse. Because of the Napoleonic Code, which insists on equal inheritance for every family member, many of the precious vineyards of Burgundy are fragmented to the point where a typical owner may not own enough vines to make and market a viable amount of wine. Clos de Vougeot, for example, is a Grand Cru vineyard of 124 acres, owned by over 70 different people. Although some Burgundy is Domaine bottled, that is, made of grapes grown exclusively by one owner, many are not. Some are handled by negociants, who buy grapes or wine from small landowners and sell them to other makers, or market them themselves. Although the vineyard is very important in the quality and character of a Burgundy, the maker is even more crucial to the end product. One maker’s regional wine might be better than another’s Premier Cru. The landlord can be more important than the address. Now, on to some tasting. Although most white Burgundies have at least some oak and are the prototypes for a lot of California Chardonnays, some are made with none. The most famous non-oaky white Burgundies are from Chablis. Domaine Thierry Hamelin 2002 Chablis Vielles Vignes ($19) is typical. It’s flinty, pleasantly austere, has firm, tart apple flavors, and a nice mineraly finish. It’s the classic match for raw oysters. Louis Jadot 2003 Pouilly-Fuissé ($15) comes from the most well known village of the Mâconnais (and should not be confused with Pouilly-Fumé, a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire). It’s a nice, well balanced wine, with a little oak, fairly ripe fruit, good acidity and more character than most Chardonnays at this price. It’s a great aperitif, and works well with any number of simple foods, from quesadillas to boiled shrimp. Vincent Girardin 2002 Puligny-Montrachet Les Enseigneres ($39) is a white Premier Cru from the Côte de Beaune. It is redolent of spicy baked apples, is soft and full, but has an acid backbone that removes any threat of the wine becoming cloying. Its finish is long and rich with interesting mineral overtones. It would be the perfect complement to a crab salad. Domaine Rémi Jobard 2001 Meursault le Poruzot-Dessus ($35) is another white Premier Cru from the Côte de Beaune. It is a vibrant wine, with generous alcohol, and an almost citrusy crispness tempered with the impression that it is being served on a paper-thin butterscotch tuille. It’s a lot of fun with broiled Dover sole with brown butter and lemon. Domaine Lorenzon 1999 Mercurey ($22) is a communal red wine from the Côte Chalonnaise. It has lots of winsomely attractive unripe red fruit reminiscent of hard red candy, an equal amount of acidity, and is almost as squeaky clean as a lot of California Pinot Noirs. It’s a great crossover wine, being as good a match with grilled salmon as a grilled rib eye. Dujac Fils & Père 2001 Gevrey-Chambertin ($42) is a communal red wine from the Côte de Nuits. It is a beautifully balanced wine with almost chewy, ripe berries focused by a crisp but subtle acidity. It has a long, attractive finish and is as great with roasted chicken and pan gravy as it is with broiled pheasant and truffles. Domaine Michel Lafarge 2000 Volnay ($35) is a communal red wine from the Côte de Beaune. Elegant and crisp, it is like a bouquet of violets in a glass. It’s a real treat with roast duck with tarragon sauce or a rack of lamb with rosemary and garlic.