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.

P1040726

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.

P1040855

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

ImageHandler-1.ashx

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

ImageHandler.ashx

22144

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

vill

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.

Grand

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.

Inventing Wine – the history of wine debunked

Ancient amphorae at Domaine Gerovassiliou in Greece

Ancient amphorae in the wonderful wine museum at Domaine Gerovassiliou in Greece

I love history and part of the pleasure I take in wine comes from this interest. Anyone who has attended one of my courses or tastings – and if you haven’t you really are missing out on something – knows that to me wine is closely intertwined with history. It has always seemed to me that there is a cultural identity and rationale for all wines and wine styles. This is by definition stronger in Europe where wine making has been a part of the landscape for far longer than it has in new world regions.

A glimpse of how it was - Priorat 1997

A glimpse of how it was – Priorat 1997

For a long time though I have questioned whether we get it quite right and if these identities are as strong as we like to believe. In the wine world we take for granted that there is a continuum from the Ancients to now. Wine originated somewhere near Georgia, Transcaucasia, and spread from there to the Greeks and Romans who took the vine and wine making to other parts of the Mediterranean and, more importantly France.

But in truth I know how great the improvements in grape growing and wine making have been in my time in the trade. So, I wonder how true this continuum really is? I have suspected that wine in the past was very different from how it is today. I am certain it is riper, cleaner, fresher, fruitier and technically better than at any previous point in history and many developments have made it that way.

I certainly like the idea of being in touch with the ancients when I drink wine, that feeling of beeing at one remove from the Roman tending vines in Campania or the monks of Clos Vougeot when we drink a modern wine from those same slopes, but how true is it?

The original wine press at Clos Vougeot, still in occasional use

The sixteenth century wine press at Clos Vougeot, still in occasional use

I do wonder, given how recent many of the things are that we think of as traditional. Fish and chips and eating chocolate only appeared a few years before my grandfather was born while Indian food must have been entirely different before Portuguese sailors brought the chili to Asia and Italian cuisine must have been similarly unrecognisable before the tomato arrived in Europe. As for wine traditions, I am well aware that contrary to the dry examples we expect today, Entre-Deux-Mers and Savennières were sweet until the 1950s.

Recently I discovered a wonderful new book on the history of wine. It questions many things that marketeers want us to believe and constantly made me look at many aspects of wine afresh:

Inventing Wine Cover ImangeInventing Wine: a new history of one of the world’s most ancient pleasures
by Paul Lukacs
Published by Norton at $28.95 / £20.00
Also available from Amazon.com as well as Amazon.co.uk and Waterstones in the UK.

Reading Paul Lukacs’s book has reinforced my suspicion that in reality there is very little link between wine as we know it and what was consumed in the past. Nowadays we choose wines for different reasons and we expect different things from them compared with wine drinkers of yesteryear.

Paul Lukacs points out that today’s well made wines in fact have very little in common with the rudimentary liquids our forbears drank. Central to this fascinating book is the realization that for most of history wine has not been drunk out of choice at all but nessecity. What’s more there has been little to chose between wines from individual places as they would all taste unpalatable to our modern palates. Indeed unless one was lucky enough to drink it very soon after harvest, all wine would have tasted sour and unpleasant throughout much of history. As Paul Lukacs says, wine was simply “a source of nourishment and inebriated escape.” Therefore it was not until quite recent times that wine came to be enjoyed for its taste, but for what else it could provide. Wine was mysterious, early man could not understand how it was made and so it was widely believed to have magical powers and to be a link to the gods, a view that persisted for thousands of years. What is more water was largely impure and dangerous to drink, so wine was the safer option, whatever it tasted like.

The evolution of the wine bottle was crucial to the development of wine as we know it today. These are at Domaine Gerovassiliou in Greece.

The evolution of the wine bottle was crucial to the development of wine as we know it today. Before wine could be bottled and sealed with a cork it was a race against time to finish the cask before the wine turned completely sour.These examples are at Domaine Gerovassiliou in Greece.

The mention of Pliny as being more a connoisseur of resin than the actual wine was a fascinating insight into how awful ancient wine must have tasted for the flavourings to be so important. Pliny’s writing about the characteristics of the different resins though did put me in mind of how we discuss oak today – and although it does other things, surely most oak is merely a flavouring for most modern wines?

Lukacs makes a pretty convincing argument that true modern wine as we understand it has only emerged from about 1660 onwards when Arnaud de Pontac began selling his wine as the product of a single estate. This wine was Château Haut-Brion and Samuel Pepys tasted it on Friday 10 April 1663, memorably recording in his diary; “drank a sort of French wine, called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with.”

Another glimpse of the past, vino rancho ageing outside in demijohns, Castille 1997

Another glimpse of the past, vino rancio ageing outside in demijohns, Castille 1997

It was only handful of wines though that could become such vins fins, as they needed to command a high price and be sold to consumers who were happy to pay that price. Most consumers had little or no choice about what they drank until many hundreds of years later when technology was finally applied to even the most ordinary wines – I well remember how basic Jumilla wines tasted during the 1970s and would not like to experience them again. Broadly speaking until quite recently, in historical terms, a high quality wine was one that had few or no defects. Only relatively recently did it come to be seen as one with “particularity and provenance” – the concept that came to define vins fins. It was these different characteristics – or particularity – that made some wines more famous and sought after than others.

I found it especially illuminating that the word terroiris actually a recent one, certainly less than a hundred years old and not the ancient term that I had always assumed. Which begs the question if the concept existed before the word and if so, how did they explain it?

What is more wine does not exist in isolation, so this book touches on social history generally. The urbanisation and secularisation of Europe, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, beer, spirits, tea, coffee and chocolate and the industrial revolution all play their part in the story, as do more modern developments in wine making and globalisation.

A modern winery in Bordeaux 2012

A modern winery in Bordeaux 2012

This is no holiday book for the average consumer, you need to be interested and it leans towards an academic style – indeed I much preferred the content to the writing, but Paul Lukacs’s story of how fine wine – vin fins as opposed to vin ordinaries – slowly developed in various places from the seventeenth century onwards is a fascinating read. I certainly feel enriched and better informed for reading this book. It seems to have something new to say on every page and puts a great many things into context that have perhaps been falsely romanticised for too long.

Minerality in wine – flight of fantasy, fact or terroir?

The Mosel - slate slopes and a cool climate

Wine tasters and wine trade people often talk about minerality in wine – possibly too much, but I have always assumed that it means something, even though spell checkers hate the word. However I often come across people who find it hard to understand the term in reference to wine and yesterday I met someone who positively hates it.

Minerality to me describes many of those characteristics in a wine that are not fruity – yes there are some – especially in youth before the aged leathery or honeyed characters take over. Some wines are blindingly mineral, like the terpene/petrol notes of Riesling and a few other grapes. Some are chalky, in others you would swear that you can taste granite, iron, flint or slate, while others are more vaguely mineral. It is slightly confused, because scientific research seems to say that the vine does not deliver actual mineral flavours from the soil in which it grows – so where does it come from? It is possible that it is sometimes the acidity and sometimes the sensation of the tannins, but is it also possible that it is an utter flight of fantasy? A case of grasping at straws? Continue reading

Nature or Nurture – Terroir or Technology?

I had a very interesting experience the other day. I attended a tasting hosted by the Australian Wine Research Institute. This is a highly respected body that supplies the infrastructure and skills to give the Australian wine industry the research that keeps it at the forefront of technological and market developments in wine.

The AWRI does good and interesting work in the science of wine, giving greater understanding, more choices and potential to wine makers. I am all for that and of course no one is forced to use what they do, but I was slightly uncomfortable about the potential of some of the things that I heard. Continue reading