Sommelier Philippe Sauriat gives us his much sought view of Burgundy wine and leaves us in no doubt if we don’t take his advice we are missing du vin exceptionnel, extraodinaire et tout simplement, le meilleur! Merci M. Sauriat.
What was the last wine you drank? A Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa or a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand? Possibly, you were able to experience a Chardonnay or a Pinot Noir from France’s Burgundy region. Although you can buy Chardonnay or Pinot Noir from all over the world, undoubtedly, the best ones are Burgundy wines.
By definition, “Burgundies” are wines produced in the Burgundy region of France. You must be asking what it is that makes these wines the most sought-after by collectors, the most expensive in the market, and, frankly, the most delicious of their kind? Yes, there are superb Pinot Noirs and Chardonnay from Oregon, California, New Zealand, Tasmania, and Italy. But, seriously— have you ever had a glass of Batard Montrachet from Niellon or Ramon et? Is it the best Chardonnay in the world, or what? Or a Musigny from Vogue, or a Chambertin from Rous seau—have you ever experienced a Pinot Noir with such purity and elegance? Or in Alors—how is it that in this small region, they produce wine of such high quality?
Burgundy wine is easiest explained starting with a look at the different regions. There are five: Chablis, Côte d’Or (including Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune), Côte Chalonnaise, le Maconnais, and Beaujolais (which is a different wine altogether, with all due respect). The grape varieties are mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (with a few exceptions, such as the Sauvignon de Saint Bris and the Irancy from Chablis). Without a doubt, Burgundy has so much magic that it almost looks like the dream team of wine. With people like Denis Bachelet, Christophe Perrot-Minot, Alix de Montille, Freddy Mugnier, and Jean Marc Roulot, the list is endless and the region is full of men and women passionate and focused on one thing: quality.
This quality is a combination of three things, common to wine everywhere: the vigneron, the
history, and terroir. The first vines were planted in the Burgundy region around 600 BC. In the centuries following, it was the church that invested heavily in trying to obtain perfection through improved grafting (a bud of a plant inserted in a slit in the stem of another plant in which it continues to grow), vinification methods, and most important, performing comparative tastings. During the 12th and 13th centuries, Burgundy was considered the spiritual center of Europe and because of the “new covenant,” wine was drunk increasingly as a symbol of the blood of Christ. The Cistercians, an order of Roman Catholic monks, were the driving force in elevating techniques of viticulture. According to Ernest Hatch Wilkins, author of The Prose Letters of Petrarch, “In 1336 Petrarch said that the popes were lingering at Avignon because the cardinals were loath to return to Rome on account of the fact that there was no ‘Beaune’ [an area in the Burgundy region] in Italy…‘They look upon wine as a second element and as the nectar of the gods.’” It was clear that the higher quality increased demand of the wine from the nobility.
Also a key moment was the introduction of “climat” and “clos” (or parcel) by the Cistercians in the 15th century. Climat is the classification within each vineyard of the quality of fruit produced (not required to be a minimum size, a single acre could hold more than one classification). Then, a person could identify higher quality wines by their classification. There are four levels of classification: regional wines, village wines, premier crus, and grand crus. Premier and grand crus are highest honors and command higher prices. Having these standards in place increased the consistent quality of Burgundy wine.
The main difference between Burgundy Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and the rest of the world is their terroir—a combination of a few elements, including soil and subsoil, climate, topography, and ecosystem that plays in their climate classification. The terroir gives the wine produced complexity, character, and “layers.” In two words: unique personality. Not to offend lovers of Chablis or Côte Chalonnaise, but Côte d’Or is definitely one of the best parts of Burgundy, and the region I recommend you seek when looking for that perfect Burgundy wine.
Côte de Beaune, where Chardonnay finds perfect expression, and Côte de Nuits, where Pinot Noir is king, are where you find the best characteristics for the culture of the vine: naturally draining, nicely sloping landscapes. The elevation is perfect, the south and south east orientation protects the vines against winds, and the soil is mostly chalk and clay. Soil containing limestone is more predominant in the Cote Nuits, with some chalk and clay. The bedrock that lies beneath the vines increases minerality, an important characteristic of Burgundy wines. Also of note, Burgundy has 562 different registered “climates,” indicating the huge variation between the region’s vineyards.
I realize this might be getting too technical and somewhat boring, so I’ll ask: how does one choose a Pinot from one village versus another? Well, in these days where consistency has arrived in most Burgundy domains, as I mentioned, quality is more present than ever. The education and heritage these winemakers have acquired, combined with work on “clean” viticulture and moves toward organic and bio-dynamic culture, is guaranteeing the future of this region. So, yes, there are traditional domains—Domaine de la Romanee Conti produces the most beautiful Vosne Romanee and Domaine du Comte Vogue is well known for their Chambolle Musigny, full of elegance and femininity. But smaller domaines, like Cecile Tremblay (also in Vosne Romanee), are making wine with so much harmony and delicious taste that they are also deserving of your purchase.
To be clear, choosing a Burgundy wine is the best way to ensure that you pick a great wine, period.