Thankful for Burgundy

Paul Blow

November just feels like the appropriate time to visit Burgundy. There’s a last flicker of color in the trees that still have leaves, layers of fog and mist cover the damp earth, mushrooms abound in the French markets, and the complex wines glow in the glass.

Hundreds of small, old-fashioned producers are spread out among the chain of villages that line the Côte-d’Or, or Golden Slope. To get an appointment to taste here with a good producer is not easy. These are lean operations, and the owners of many domaines (as wine estates are known in France) still do all their own winemaking and cellar work, diminishing their time to host visitors. And, of course, they make so little wine relatively that it would bankrupt them to pour every curious traveler a taste.

A typical domaine visit will involve being greeted at the door at the prompt time of the appointment by the vigneron (an excellent French term that indicates someone who both grows his grapes and makes the wine—we have no equivalent in English). Often this is the door of the vigneron’s home; his holdings of vines might begin just in his backyard. At a recent tour with Jean-Marie Fourrier of Domaine Fourrier, we were each handed a glass and escorted down a narrow, steep staircase to the cramped basement cellar, stuffed so full with barrels that there was hardly room to move. Fourrier took us through a tour of his barrels, siphoning out of each one a few drops of year-old wines.

At most places, you take one modest swallow from your glass and pour the remaining wine right back into the barrel, conserving it for future tasters. Each wine has its own character, and the chatter will often involve the wine itself, the history of the vineyard, the nature of the vintage, or perhaps some local winemaking gossip. And if you’re lucky, you’ll be offered a taste of the grand cru wines: the most expensive and finest from the slope. Recently a young vigneron offered a taste of Musigny, one of Burgundy’s finest vineyards, of which he owns so small a plot that there are enough vines to make just 1 1/4 barrels each year.

Wine scolds warn about the danger of anthropomorphizing wines. But it’s impossible not to hunt for hints of a vigneron’s personality in his wine. Frédéric Mugnier of Domaine Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier is a quiet, stoic man, offering few words during a tasting. Yet there’s a pretty, ethereal, almost playful edge to his Chambolle-Musigny, and it’s hard not to read those traits in the wine as an emanation of Mugnier’s own interior wit and humor.

It is the season to be thankful (and, by the way, wines from Burgundy and its subregion Beaujolais are always good with the Thanksgiving meal), and I’m grateful that wines and places like Burgundy still exist in the increasingly commercialized and corporatized wine landscape. Here are two I recommend:

2006 Deux Montille Soeur et Frère Chambolle-Musigny “Les Babillères”—Brother and sister Alix and Etienne de Montille joined forces to start a small wine company separate from their family’s domaine. This wine is fresh and bright with ripe, red fruit and a mineral, earthy base. Lovely.

2004 Domaine Fourrier Gevrey-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes—Wines from the village of Gevrey-Chambertin tend to have a slightly darker, meatier edge than those from villages to the south, and this one is no exception. But it’s got a wonderful streak of wild-berry fruit in it, a whiff of smoke, and smooth, polished tannins. The vintage is also starting to gain a little secondary complexity in the bottle.

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.