Burgundy, High and Low

Paul Blow

Pinot Noir has never been hotter (thanks to Sideways and to our general cultural readiness for a more versatile, food-friendly wine), but this new fascination has not really translated into renewed interest in the everyday reds of Burgundy, the place that Pinot Noir calls home. Retail buyers complain that Burgundy is just too inconsistent. You’ve got too good a chance to pay a lot of money for bad wine; better to stick with the more reliably fruity Pinot Noirs of Oregon, and of California’s Russian River Valley and Santa Barbara.

Sad, really. While nothing in wine can match the transcendent grace and beauty of a mature great Burgundy from a good year, good bottles can be found at entirely accessible prices.

It’s worth getting a taste of great Burgundy if for nothing more than to understand Pinot at the peak of its expression. These wines are different from American Pinots—they’re often a bit lighter in body and show more ethereal aromas and an earthier character. Finding high-end Burgundies, however, can be tough—collectors and fine-wine enthusiasts are scooping them up like mad, and their prices are going up. The best way to get a sample of these wines is to attend an event like La Paulée.

La Paulée, in its eighth year, is held by Daniel Johnnes, wine director for the restaurants of chef Daniel Boulud and perhaps America’s most influential supporter of Burgundy. Ticket holders are encouraged to bring bottles that are shared; over the course of the night you may taste 40 or 50 wines of once-in-a-lifetime rarity and breed. That so many people would actually pay to bring and share their most precious bottles with strangers is indicative of the spirit and fanaticism this relatively small region in northeastern France incites.

Top Burgundy vintners like Olivier Lariche of Domaine de l’Arlot, Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac, and Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Burgundy’s greatest estate, were on hand at this year’s event to talk about the wines and share their products with the legions of American fans. When you talk to them, their emphasis on the plot of land from which the wine comes is clear. “The terroir of a certain vineyard,” said de Villaine, “is something fragile, something elusive. If you want it to function harmoniously in a wine, great effort in the vineyard is the first step.” This is typical of the way a Burgundian speaks about his wine. American winemakers tend not to be as interested in the particulars of site, but rather on the expression of the grape—its “fruit” character and its richness. This emphasis on site is the key to understanding Burgundy.

Burgundy is where the idea of terroir originated—that the unique character of the total ecological environment (climate, microclimate, soil, subsoil, slope, and weather) of a particular piece of land is expressed through the wine made from the grapes that grow on it. Some terroirs make better wine than others, hence Burgundy’s meticulous and hierarchical division of its land (by Cistercian monks 400 to 500 years ago) into the vineyard levels of Grand Cru, Premier Cru, and Village. Grand Crus are considered the best wines from the best vineyards; they command top dollar, a typical bottle going anywhere from $50 to $150.

But it is not true that to enjoy Burgundy one must spend a lot of money. The key to finding great Burgundy is not to know which vineyards are best, but to know which producers are the most gifted and dedicated. While terroir is important, the talent of an individual producer can often trump it to make lovely wines from less hallowed pieces of ground. For instance, try a wine from Bouchard Père et Fils. This is a large firm that makes many wines from many vineyards at many price levels. But its style is contemporary and accessible, and even its cheaper wines have a lovely softness and vitality. William Fevre, a firm in Chablis (a region producing crisp, mineral Chardonnay), makes wonderful Grand Cru wines. But its Champs Royaux is a gorgeous blend that often retails for $17. The Domaine des Comtes Lafon is one of the most hallowed estates in Burgundy and has holdings in the most coveted vineyards. But it also makes fabulous, inexpensive white wines from the Mâcon, a satellite region. Domaine Dujac is a similarly revered producer that makes both great wines and great-value wines.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.