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FOOD FOR THOUGHT - August 6, 2003
Mark R. Vogel - [email protected]      Archive of other articles by Mark Vogel

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. But this is analogous to using the term “Coke” to designate all cola drinks.  Yet Coke tastes different than Pepsi, which in turn differs from the supermarket brand. For the cola connoisseur, only Coca-Cola is real “Coke.” Such is the case with Burgundy.

       REAL Burgundy is wine made from within the boundaries of the Burgundy region of France. Red Burgundy is made from the pinot noir (PEE-noh NWAHR) grape and white Burgundy from the chardonnay grape.  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 point is not that French wine is better, (even though I think it is); the point 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. Cigars from Cuban tobacco taste different than Honduran. Even Cuban tobacco seed grown in another country is unlike it’s primordial ancestor. Identical fish from different waters will have discrepant flavors. Russet potatoes grown in Idaho are considered better than elsewhere.

       The reason for these contrasts is what the French call terroir (teh-RWAHR). Terroir is the microclimate in which a natural entity develops. The chemical properties of the soil and rain, climatic factors, amount of sunlight, altitude, water drainage, pollution, and countless other subtle elements all influence the final product. This is why we don’t grow oranges in Vermont. And if we did the abbreviated growing season would reap havoc on their taste.

       The heart of Burgundy is the Cote d’Or (koht  DOR), a 30 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 produces exceptional reds but is most famous for its whites. Within the Cote de Nuits and the Cote de Beaune are numerous villages with vineyards of varying quality.

       A bottle of Burgundy will cost anywhere from $10 to $1,000. Quality grades are based on the degree of geographic specificity. Generally speaking, the more localized the source of the grapes, the better the wine. At the lowest level is your basic Bourgogne, (French for Burgundy). The label will simply state: Bourgogne. The grapes for this wine are grown anywhere in the Burgundy region, usually from lower quality vineyards. The next level up is a wine whose grapes come from anywhere within one of the two divisions of the Cote d’Or. The label will say Cote de Beaune or Cote de Nuits. The next tier is a wine whose grapes arise from vineyards within a specific village in either the Cote de Beaune or Cote de Nuits. The label will reveal the name of the village.

       Now we start to enter the upper echelon of Burgundy.  Certain vineyards have been classified by the French authorities as either premier cru or grand cru.  The nature of a specific vineyard’s terroir, and the way the grapes are grown and harvested, can radically alter the resulting quality.  A premier cru wine will have the name of the vineyard and the village it is in on the label. It will also say premier cru or 1er cru. A grand cru wine, the crème de la crème of Burgundy, will only display the name of the vineyard on the label and usually the words grand cru. All of the grapes for a premier or grand cru wine must come from that specific vineyard. Obviously, knowing the names of the villages and vineyards will facilitate the negotiating of Burgundian bottles. 

       Now things really get complicated.  A single vineyard can be split up amongst dozens of owners who sell their grapes to multifarious producers.  Producers vary in their skill level in making the actual wine. Thus, you may have multiple wines made from the same vineyard, yet with noticeable quality differences. Now you need to know whom the best and consistent producers are. And if that’s not bad enough, don’t forget that vintage plays a huge role. You either must do your homework or find a knowledgeable wine dealer to guide you.  I would also recommend Wine Spectator’s yearly Guide to Buying Wine.

       Your efforts will be rewarded though. Drinking good Burgundy is an unparalleled experience. No other area of the world can raise the finicky pinot noir grape to such heights. Red Burgundy is generally medium bodied with low tannin.  It is refined and velvety tasting, with delicious berry-like flavors and harmonious earthy undertones. But you must taste one yourself to appreciate it. 

       Burgundies from an average vintage can be consumed within six to eight years or less. A strong vintage Burgundy should age ten years or more. Better years, (determined principally by weather), produce more concentrated and fuller bodied wines. They require more time for their complex flavor components to meld and mellow.  Burgundy should be served at a temperature in the low 60’s. Burgundy is a versatile wine and will go with meat, chicken, and even certain fish dishes.

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