Burgundy – it just seems complicated

Santenay

Santenay Clos des Cornières

Recently I was invited over to Burgundy as the guest of a campaign called Discover the Origin whose job is to promote traditional European products that have a clearly defined place of origin – Burgundy is a classic example. It was a wonderful trip and gave me a realinsight into this incredible wine region.

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Beaune, Burgundy’s main town, is a delightful place to explore.

All those medieval building still need looking after, so the old skills still exist here

All those medieval building still need looking after, so the old skills still exist here.

Many of my students find the sheer variety of Burgundy wines intimidating and the array of labels bewildering, which is presumably why some of the easier to understand examples are the best sellers.

I agree that at first glance Burgundy can look complicated, but actually it isn’t hard once you strip it down to basics and learn to trust Burgundy rather than fight it.

Of course that does depend on how much you really want to get to grips with the place and its wines. Becoming a world authority on Burgundy will be fiendishly difficult, but the good thing is that no one really needs to understand everything about it. Most of us just need enough information to enable us to enjoy the stuff without worrying too much about the potential pitfalls.

Here is my best advice to those of you who would like to get to grips with Burgundy, but find the complications off-putting – oh and if you do know about Burgundy, look away now, this is for the many interested, but nervous wannabe-Burgundy drinkers I meet.

Please remember to click on all the links.

The basic thing to get to grips with, perhaps more than any other wine region, is the geography. The wines are not big, rich and fruity, but dry and savoury because they come from somewhere cold with short summers. The fundamental dimensions and weight of most of the wines are similar as you would expect given that almost all the white wines are made from Chardonnay and the reds from Pinot Noir – both these grapes originate here. The winemaking is pretty similar too and the grapes are grown over a relatively small area, so the climate does not change much and variations are subtle. Every time I taste a lot of Burgundy I find myself writing many of the same words. I know the wines are different, but those differences are so subtle that they are very hard to sum up in a simple way.

Tradition

Frédéric Drouhin, urbane and charming director of Maison Joseph Drouhin which was started by his grandfather.

Frédéric Drouhin, urbane and charming director of Maison Joseph Drouhin which was started by his grandfather. The visit here was delightful and the wines had all the elegance you would expect.

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En garde – the delightful Alain Hasard with his pigeage plunger. Note the small scale of the vats at his wonderful little domaine Les Champs de l’Abbaye. All his viticulture is organic and indeed biodynamic inspired – I liked him and his wines.

Jean-François Chapelle of Domaine Chapelle in Santenay

Jean-François Chapelle of Domaine Chapelle in Santenay – his wines are superb too.

Marion Javiller of Domaine Patrick Javiller. They made 2 of my favourite wines from the trip and rather wonderfully I could afford them too -

Marion Javiller of Domaine Patrick Javiller. They made 2 of my favourite wines from the trip and rather wonderfully I could (almost) afford them too – 2010 Bourgogne Blanc Cuveé Oligocène and their wonderfully silky 2010 Savigny-les-Beaune 1er Cru Les Serpentières.

The tool rack at Domaine Joseph Voillot. I loved their Volnay wines, especially the sumptuous, yet mineral 2010 Volnay 1er Cru Les Caillerets.

The tool rack at Domaine Joseph Voillot, note the Tastevin. I loved their Volnay wines, especially the sumptuous, yet mineral 2010 Volnay 1er Cru Les Caillerets.

Patrice Olliver of Domaine Fougeray de Beauclair in Marsannay. Amongst many other lovely wines he makes an intriguing and rather good white from 100% Pinot Beurot which is the local name for Pinot Blanc.

Patrice Olliver of Domaine Fougeray de Beauclair in Marsannay. Amongst many other lovely wines he makes an intriguing and rather good white Marsannay from 100% Pinot Beurot which is the local name for Pinot Blanc.

Remember that Burgundy is a deeply traditional wine region where most of the producers are really just small family owned farms. This is not a place of big brands and industrial sized wineries and this traditional outlook shows in the wines, probably more than any other place in the world today. These wines are made by people who passionately believe this is the best place on earth to make wines and that the wines of their region are the best in the world.

As a consequence the idea of a wine being bright, bold and very fruity is almost an impossible concept for a traditional Burgundian to understand. Therefore expect elegance not weight, delicacy not power and the wines to be fundamentally savoury rather than sweetly fruity. As a consequence Burgundy wines really are best suited to being drunk with food. Most Burgundians would never think to drink a glass of wine on its own, that is what a Kir or Kir Royale is for. Wine, Burgundy wine anyway, accompanies food.

Vineyards

Santenay again

Santenay again

Marsannay

Marsannay

Something else that is a little different here. Very few vineyards in Burgundy have just one owner. Usually a single vineyard site is owned by several different growers and producers all making their own version of the wine. That is why a wine that appears to come from a specific vineyard often has many different labels. That is why wines that perhaps ought to be the same can sometimes taste more varied. If there is a single owner of a specific vineyard it will usually say ‘monopole‘ on the label to show it is that grower’s monopoly.

Geography
To enjoy and appreciate Burgundy you need to either be vaguely aware of the geography or at least choose to accept it or find it interesting rather than intimidating. All the important information on the labels is geographical, it’s all just place names, the region, district names, village names or vineyard names. Personally I find it useful to embrace the unknown on a wine label – if you have never heard of the place or grape on a label, try it. What is the worst that can happen?

Understanding the Labels

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A good quality Bourgogne from a famous producer – this one informs us that it made from Chardonnay, most Burgundy labels do not mention grape variety.

The more basic wines from Burgundy are labelled as Bourgogne, which is French for Burgundy and is the catch all appellation for the whole region. Bourgogne is an appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC or AC), which is a system of guaranteeing provenance to the consumer. Similar controls are found throughout the EU – and beyond – to regulate traditional products like ham, cheese and spirits, but wine is the most famous.

Some seemingly humble Bourgogne wines are very good and will give you an idea of the fundamental style of the region. These wines tend to be the more affordable ones – but that is not always the case and knowing the exceptions is where your hard won experience will eventually count.

Districts

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The district names of Burgundy appear on many labels as a more specific place of origin than Bourgogne. These show that the wines comes from a distinct part of the region, rather than  the region as a whole. Chablis and Mâcon are districts, as are Bourgogne followed by the name of an area, such as Bourgogne Côte ChalonnaiseBourgogne Côtes-du-CouchoisBourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre or Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes-de-Beaune. No one knows them all, well I don’t anyway, but once you understand the principle this sort of labelling is quite straightforward.

After a while you will start to notice the subtle differences in how these various wines taste. For instance the wines of Mâcon are clearly softer, fruitier and taste as though they come from somewhere warmer than the cold northerly slopes of Chablis. While Chablis wines are more mineral, taut and crisp than a Mâcon – the cool climate shows in the wine.

Villages

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This white wine comes from the village of Puligny-Montrachet

Quality in Burgundy is supposed to be all about the vineyard site – remember those subtle variations – so in the quest for quality it is always good to know where your grapes were grown. Therefore the benchmark for Burgundy is the wines that have the name of a village on their label. The grapes that the wine is made from were grown in vineyards that surround that particular village, so we know where the wine originates. Meursault, Beaune, Nuits-St-Georges, Puligny-Montrachet, Mercurey and Givry are examples of these village wines.

Premier Cru & Grand Cru
You have to remember that grapes have been grown and wine has been made in Burgundy for hundreds and hundreds of years. Over that time certain places have come to be regarded as having the inherent ability to produce better wine than others. This accounts for why some villages are so famous.

Some specific vineyard sites within the villages can also be thought of as producing better wines than others, or at least to be capable of producing better wines. To celebrate and affirm the potential quality of these vineyard sites many have been awarded Premier Cru /1er Cru status and if the fruit all comes from a single 1er Cru vineyard the name of that site will appear on the label together with the village name.

1er

This white also comes from Puligny-Montrachet, but more specifically the 1er Cru site called Les Folatières.

The very pinnacle of Burgundy production though is the Grand Cru vineyard sites. These are places that are thought to be capable of producing the very finest and most concentrated Burgundy wines of all – there are not many of them and they do not produce much wine at all, so are often eye-wateringly expensive.

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The Montrachet vineyard is shared between the villages of Puligny and Chassagne and has been added to the name of both villages.

So many UK wine drinkers brought up on wines labelled by grape variety seem to want to rant, rail and kick against the traditional French way of doing things. It makes life much easier to just accept it, pay attention to the information on the label that is useful to you and ignore the rest. I always warn my students to never go looking for consistency or logic in French wine regulations as they often mean subtly different things from region to region even when they use the same words.

On my trip I visited a wide range of producers, from big names with grand cellars and lots of employees to tiny, hands on vigneron who scratch a living from a tiny patch of vines. All were passionate about Burgundy though. They all loved their land and thought the site mattered. None of them in their hearts believed they were producing Pinot Noir or Chardonnay wines. They were merely using those grapes to express the character of the land they farmed – they were bottling Meursault, Volnay, Savigny-les-Beaune, Mercurey or Montagny. Their wines were capturing and celebrating the subtle differences and variations that make each of these wines unique.

It is precisely these differences that make Burgundy so interesting and worthwhile to the wine enthusiast and over time the very real, but subtle variations between wines from the Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune and the Côte Chalonnaise become apparent.

The beautiful cellars of Domaine Heresztyn in Gevrey-Chambertin

The beautiful cellars of Domaine Heresztyn who make lovely wines in Gevrey-Chambertin.

What makes the differences is best shown by using the Côte d’Or as my illustration. This part of Burgundy is the most celebrated and contains most of the really famous wine villages of the region. Of the truly renowned Burgundy areas and villages, only Pouilly-Fuissé and Chablis are not found in the Côte d’Or.

Map of Burgundy – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Map of Burgundy – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

At first glance the Côte d’Or, made up of the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits, would appear to be so small that the wines it makes must surely all be pretty similar – after all it is sometimes less than half a kilometre wide. However, this is the place that really demonstrates the French concept of ‘terroir‘. The soils and conditions really matter here and make for the differences between the wines, although nuances might be a better word than differences as they are slight. The limestone ridge or escarpment that is the Côte d’Or consists of layers of different limestones, some more porous than others, as well as marls made up of clay, sand and gravel.

That makes sit sound as though it is all uniform, but it really isn’t. The limestones have weathered and decomposed at different speeds and are pierced by small rivers and dry valleys making for great variation as to which limestones dominate different parts. The topsoil also varies, as some are flinty and some a more chalky scree and the collapsing of the limestone ridge leaves different types and depths of topsoil.

Another variable is aspect, there are fissures, gaps, ravines and valleys in the limestone which change the direction a little, so some vineyards face more directly south than others – these will generally produce bigger wines as the grapes get more sun and so have more sugar which produces more alcohol and extract in the finished wine.

Luckily for us we don’t have to learn what the soil composition is of each and every village, let alone vineyard site, which is good because there is a great deal of overlap and variation making it very difficult to generalise to any useful degree. No, we only have to try the wines and see which ones we particularly enjoy.

So the next time you fancy some good charcuterie, try a red Burgundy with it, or it would be perfect with Boeuf Bourguignon or Coq au Vin too, those wonderful classic dishes of the region. White Burgundy really comes into its own with soft, squidgy cheeses or a simply cooked piece of fish.

If you really want to open your eyes to Burgundy though I would really recommend visiting the place for yourself, there is so much to see and enjoy.

Reluctantly leaving Beaune behind.

Reluctantly leaving Beaune behind.

Great British Food – it is great

It was only in 2005 that French President Jacques Chirac memorably damned British food with those astonishingly ill-chosen words, “you can’t trust people who cook like that“. So, there was no doubting his view, which was once that of the world at large – even the British themselves. When I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, very few people seemed interested in good food in Britain at all and looking back it seems the menus, both at home and out, were very limited and dull. I well remember watching items about the French lifestyle on Blue Peter and hearing that old cliché; “the British eat to live, while the French live to eat.”

In those days there were still the last vestiges of the old British view that things should be plainly cooked, that anything fancy was suspect and that being interested in food was not quite right and really a funny foreign idea altogether. Certainly the British of the day were unlikely to indulge in earnest conversation about food, the way Spaniards will about Jamón, the French about cheese or the Italians the relative merits of oils and vinegars.

So, if Chirac has made that statement in 1975 I would have probably agreed with him, but all that really has changed now. Enjoyment of food now seems to be an integral part of British life and food is no longer regarded as just fuel. I love eating out anywhere I go in Europe, but in reality the variety and quality of food available in Britain now is as good as anywhere – different, but certainly as good. I don’t just mean fine dining either, this country is full of exciting affordable places that turn out delicious food at all price levels and from an enormous array of ethnic backgrounds.

However food isn’t only about eating out, restaurants and fine-dining. It’s also about the ingredients and this is where it seems to me there has been a more profound change. Everywhere I go there seem to be local producers of fabulously tasty things, wonderful cheese shops and delis and nowadays we all take it for granted – my mother would have loved it. She died in 1978 when just buying spaghetti involved a special journey to an Italian shop in town and we had to bring our garlics and olive oil back from Spain.

One of these exciting food producers really appeals to me – The Artisan Smokehouse – and I have been fortunate enough to try quite a few of their products. Frankly if you are at one of the events where they show their wares – I regularly bump into them at the excellent Three Wine Men tastings – then you just cannot miss them as the smell is wonderfully enticing. I love the smell of smoked food and so it always beckons me over.

However, much as I like the aromas and flavours of smoked food, Tim Matthews has a palpable passion for it – which is why he and his wife Gillian started The Artisan Smokehouse some seven years ago. Talking to him he really does come across as a sort of Heston Blumenthal of smoking. There doesn’t seem to be anything he won’t have a go at smoking and precious few things that he hasn’t actually smoked – even maple syrup apparently.

Indeed Maple seems quite a thing with Tim, he does all his smoking over natural maple wood chippings and I know from personal experience that maple wood has a wonderful smell of sugary maple syrup.

Tim & Gillian

Tim and Gill Matthews

“It started off as something fun to do, but we now supply delis county-wide and see ourselves as part of the growing Suffolk food mafia!” said Tim.

In truth the smoking process is only something that I have a superficial understanding of, but whenever I speak to Tim he really draws me in. He is passionate about his craft and food in general, flavour seems very important to him and this enthusiasm is infectious.

His passion shows in the foods he produces and in the raw materials he smokes. The flavours he achieves strike me as being very delicate. Sometimes with smoked food that is all you can taste – the smoke. With Tim’s products the smoking seems subtle and integral to the other flavours. The texture and the flavour of the raw material are as important as the smokiness.

Truthfully though the thing that originally got me interested in his wares seems pretty unsubtle, it was smoked garlic. He smokes whole heads of British garlic and the aromas are just so enticing. Wrapped in foil and roasted, the soft flesh of the garlic is unctuous and delicious with a rich smoky note and pungent character – trust me it is fabulous on toast!

I am not the greatest fan of smoked salmon, but their Freedom Food Smoked Scottish Salmon was a revelation with a deep flavour that seemed to have a fruity quality to it. Even better, to my mind, was the Freedom Food Hot Smoked Scottish Salmon Fillet, the flakes of fish were firm yet succulent with a fragrant flavour reminiscent of Chinese tea. The hot smoking actually cooks the fish and so the texture is unlike most smoked salmon and like a piece of cooked fish, but with that delicious fragrant smoky quality.

Just before trying the smoked fish I wondered what wine to have with it. Something about the aromas of the food made me think of  that Grüner Veltliner would be good, so went in search of a bottle. However I found a lone bottle of something else that got me thinking and changed my mind. I am glad I did as the combination was perfect:

Dr%20F%202009%20Rkatsiteli2008 Dr Frank Rkatsiteli
Dr Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars
Hammondsport
New York Finger Lakes A.V.A.
New York State

An unusual grape, Rkatsiteli is from Georgia, but was widely used throughout the USSR, including Ukraine as well as more widely in Eastern Europe. It has an aromatic, floral and spicy kind of character, so will appeal to fans of Grüner Veltliner and dry Furmint.

This was great with both the smoked salmons. Just a lingering succulent softness showed this was a mature white and it balanced the acidity, which was still enough to be a perfect foil to the smoky flavours and fatty feel of the smoked salmon. The aromatic and fragrant nature of the wine was a great match for the fish too, as was the delicate spice character. A terrific dry white wine and a great combination – 90/100 points.

The 2010 vintage is available in the US from the winery at $15 a bottle.
Dr Frank’s wines are available in the UK from Wine Equals Friends.

Artisan Smokehouse hamper

A hamper from The Artisan Smokehouse

The meats are equally good by the way, the Smoked British Fillet Beef is so tender and fresh tasting with the flavour of the meat and that of the smoke sitting perfectly together. Tim’s Smoked Free Range Duck Breast is delicious too, despite being smoked you can taste the duck as well as the fragrant smoky flavour – it would be great in a gourmet salad.

I was also delighted to be able to try his speciality Violino di Capra – marinated, cured and smoked goat leg – which was stunningly delicious, fragrant, delicately meaty and fragrantly smoky.

The smoked meats would be wonderful with any red that wasn’t too strong by the way, earthy, umami flavours help too. Wines with the weight of a rich Beaujolais or fruity Pinot Noir are perfect. A smooth Syrah or a Barolo could be good too, like Spar’s excellent value earthy and meaty 2007 Valle Vento Barolo.

So, as you can see from my reaction to a small cross section of the range from The Artisan Smokehouse, what they make is delicious and terrific quality. It strikes me that one of their hampers would make a wonderful present for the foodie in your life.

The Artisan Smokehouse
Tim and Gill Matthews
Telephone: 01394 270609
Email: info@artisansmokehouse.co.uk
http://www.artisansmokehouse.co.uk

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The Rusty Pig’s cooking chorizo

The Rusty Pig 
As if all this smoked gorgeousness wasn’t enough, I was recently tutoring a wine tasting and Robin Rea was giving tastes of the charcuterie that he makes down in Ottery St Mary in Devon. Robin is an experienced chef and still cooks at River Cottage HQ, but he has a passion for curing and air drying charcuterie. I really think what he makes is as good as anything I have had from France, Spain or Italy – the chilli salami was amazing, intensely hot and sweetly tasty by turn, like a gourmet’s Russian Roulette! It was all, as Robin says, “pigging delicious.”

What’s more, it isn’t only a shop where you buy amazing sausages and bacon, you also can eat there.

Robin Rea

Robin in full swing

Rusty Pig
Robin Rea
Telephone: 01404 815580
Email: robin@rustypig.co.uk
http://www.rustypig.co.uk/gb.aspx

It would seem that Chirac was completely wrong, we have thrown out that old view of British food and are now as keen as anyone else to eat great food, cook great food and to produce great food.