At their best the wines of Burgundy are without peer, but the region produces such a relatively small amount of wine with high world demand that they can be very expensive indeed and even then can frequently disappoint. When they are good though they really let you know it.
It is interesting that the wines of Burgundy do get to you over time. I well remember that twenty odd years ago their beguiling beauty passed me by. Not any more.
As good as many others are, no where on earth uses Chardonnay to make such exquisitely poised and balanced white wines with tension between the richness and freshness. The red wines of Burgundy though are more tricky to get your head around. I think this is because they defy the wine norms of our time. We are used to big wines, full-bodied wines are widely favoured over other styles, yet Pinot Noir grown in the coolish climate of Burgundy simply does not produce truly full-bodied wines. They are generally lighter and more savoury than most other famous types of red wines and I think they really do need food to show at their best.
I have been fortunate to visit Burgundy a good few times over the years and am slowly acquiring a good working knowledge of the place and its wines. In addition I have been involved with Louis Jadot, one of the great producers of Burgundy on and off for some 25 years. In a region which is usually a patchwork of very small vineyards and producers it is very hard to get an overview of the place from this array of tiny farmer-winemakers. So a producer like Louis Jadot who is the largest landowner in the Côte d’Or really serves a useful purpose in providing a wide range of Burgundy wines.
There are other famous districts of Burgundy, Chablis, Mercurey and Pouilly-Fuissé amongst them, but it is really the Côte d’Or that sets the tone and provides much of the region’s fame. It is home to some of the most famous and sought after wines in the world including Meursault, Pommard, Gevrey-Chambertin and Nuits-St-Georges.
At first glance the Côte d’Or 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.
The other day I was asked to put on a fine red Burgundy tasting in The Criterion Restaurant in London’s Piccadilly. I had never been there before and what a place it is. Founded in 1874 hard by the Eros statue in Piccadilly Circus the restaurant is a sumptuous confection of such exuberance that to my uneducated eye seems a heady combination fin de Siècle and art nouveau styles. The shiny gold mosaic tiles made me feel I was inside a Klimt painting and the general ambience made it seem possible that Oscar and Bosie would walk through the door at any moment.