FOOD FOR THOUGHT

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Unraveling the Complexities of Burgundy


            The term “Burgundy,” in the minds of the American masses, has come to denote generic red wine.  Mediocre restaurants often use the term to signify their mundane house red.  This is terribly misleading and a complete bastardization of the word Burgundy.

            Burgundy is a geographical area in France.  REAL Burgundy is wine made from pinot noir (PEE-noh NWAHR) grapes for red, and chardonnay grapes for white, from vineyards within the boundaries of the Burgundy region.  In France, wines are named for the location they hail from, not the grape, as in America.  Wine made from the pinot noir grape anywhere else in the world, even in France but not from Burgundian vineyards, is NOT Burgundy.  The same scenario is true for Champagne, Chianti, and port to name a few.

            The point of this demarcation is that wine from a grape grown in one location will taste different from the same grape grown elsewhere.  You can judge which one is better, but there is a difference.  And it these contrasts that the French, and the Italians, wish to highlight when naming their wines, and protecting the integrity of those location-based terms.

            The reason that the same wine can have various expressions is due to what the French call terroir (teh-RWAHR).  Terroir is the microclimate in which a natural entity develops.  The chemical properties of the soil, rainfall, the vineyard’s terrain, amount of sunlight, altitude, water drainage, the list goes on and on, all influence the final product. 

            Every vineyard has its own unique terroir.  Even neighboring vineyards, as is so often the case in Burgundy, can have subtle variations which result in significantly disparate wines.  Thus, the same grape and can have an almost infinite number of manifestations.  Moreover, every grape has an ideal terroir; a terroir whose elements synchronize so smoothly with the biological needs of the grape in question, that the grape is capable of achieving its full potential, or close to it.  These ideas must be kept in mind when demystifying Burgundy. 

            The heart of Burgundy is the Cote d’Or (koht  DOR), a thirty mile strip between Dijon and Santenay in eastern France.  Due to its terroir, this section of the world excels at nurturing the pinot noir and chardonnay grapes to their most sublime potential.  The northern half of the Cote d’Or, named the Cote de Nuits (koht duh NWEE), is best known for its red wines.  The lower half, the Cote de Beaune (koht duh BOHN), also crafts exceptional reds but is especially noted for its world-class whites.  Within the Cote de Nuits and the Cote de Beaune are numerous villages within which are vineyards of varying distinction.

            The quality of any particular bottle of Burgundy is loosely based on the degree of geographic specificity of where its grapes originated.  Very generally speaking, the broader the geographic range that a wine’s grapes come from, the lower the quality of the wine will be.  Let’s climb the Burgundy hierarchy from lowest to highest.

            The least expensive, and least rewarding Burgundy will simply denote “Bourgogne” (French for Burgundy), on the label. The grapes for this wine can come from anywhere in the greater Burgundy region and often include some mediocre vineyards.  It is simply a composite of grapes from generic vineyards scattered throughout the territory.

            The next level up is a wine whose grapes originated within one of the two divisions of the Cote d’Or.  The label will either say Cote de Beaune or Cote de Nuits.  The grapes for this wine will come from any number of vineyards (although certainly not the most prestigious), from within that half of the Cote d’Or. 

            The next tier up is a wine whose grapes arise from a specific village within either the Cote de Beaune or Cote de Nuits.  The name of the village will be prominent on the label e.g., Morey-Saint-Denis. While still an amalgamation of grapes from assorted vineyards, all the grapes must come from vineyards within the boundaries of that village.  For a serious pursuit of Burgundy, one must learn the nature of the various villages for they deviate not only in quality but style as well.  For example, in the Cote de Nuits, wines from the village Gevrey-Chambertin tend to be more structured and tannic while wines from Chambolle-Musigny tend to be more elegant and feminine. 

            Now we start to enter the upper echelon of Burgundy.  Certain vineyards, within the various villages of the Cote de Beaune or Cote de Nuits, have been classified by the French authorities as either premier cru or grand cru.  These are among the best vineyards in Burgundy, inevitably blessed with exceptional terroir.  A premier cru vineyard will have the name of its village on the label and often the specific vineyard as well.  It will also say premier cru or 1er cru.  All of the grapes for that wine must come from that particular vineyard.

            A grand cru vineyard, the crème de la crème of Burgundy, will only display the name of the vineyard on the label and usually the words grand cru.  As with the premier cru, all of the grapes for a grand cru wine must come from that specific vineyard.  Obviously, knowing the names of top vineyards will facilitate the negotiating of Burgundian bottles. 

            Now things really start to get complicated.  A single vineyard can be fragmented amongst dozens of owners who produce the wine themselves or sell their grapes to producers who do.  Producers, as in any human endeavor, vary in their skill level.  Therefore, it is the rule, not the exception, that even within one vineyard, there will be multiple wines, emanating from multifarious producers.  Now you need to know who the best and most consistent producers are.  And if that’s not bad enough, don’t forget that vintage plays an important role as well.  If you wish to master Burgundy, you must either do your homework or find a knowledgeable wine dealer to guide you. 

            Your efforts will be rewarded however.  Drinking good Burgundy is an unparalleled experience. No other area of the globe can raise the finicky pinot noir grape to such heights.  Red Burgundy is generally medium bodied with low tannins.  It is refined and velvety tasting, with delicious berry-like flavors and harmonious earthy undertones.  But you must taste one yourself to appreciate it.  The white Burgundies from the villages of Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagn-Montrachet in the Cote de Beaune, are indisputably the best chardonnays in the world.             

            Burgundies from an average vintage or vineyard can be consumed within six to eight years or less.  A strong vintage or vineyard should be aged eight years or more.  Better years (determined principally by weather), eventuate in more concentrated and fuller bodied wines.  They require more time for their complex flavor components to meld and mellow.  Red Burgundy should be served at a temperature in the low sixties and the middle fifties for white.  Burgundy is a versatile wine and complements meat, chicken, and even certain fish dishes.  But nothing beats a hunk of cheese, a loaf of bread, and the right company to share it with.

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