October 18, 2012

Burgundy – exploring the Côte d’Or, part one

On a recent trip to Burgundy in France I found myself on a voyage of both exploration and reflection.  My need to understand this complex wine region extends well beyond what others have written or what my own tasting notes reflect. In order to explain the complexity of Burgundy to enthusiastic newcomers, one must stand at the foot of these great vineyards and stare upon the contour of the land, watch the clouds as they form over the tree-topped hills, and touch the stone-walled cellars that have held bottles for centuries of passing vintages. The trip was truly an enlightenment of wine fascination and as a friend pointed out after the fact, a pilgrimage.

I enjoy wine from every grape growing region in the world, some more than others but I also appreciate the variations in aroma, body, and taste that each country and region has to offer. Occasionally that difference is rather blatant, other times less so, but in every example it is (or should be) unique. This constant variable is what has kept me motivated.  If all wines were to taste the same, I'd likely drink something else - or figure out how to make my own.

The region that I continually gravitate toward is the Côte d'Or in France.  The 'Golden Slope' is the main body of Burgundy and its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are my choices for dinner more often than not.

Burgundy is a place that in terms of both theory and taste, I know very well.  But in order to satisfy my own sense of fulfillment, I feel compelled to visit the source of these wines, to walk along the twisted vineyard roads, taste the fruit straight from the vine, and sample local wines as I make my way from one village to the next.

For the same reason that people are drawn to the mysteries of Stonehenge, China's Great Wall, or Easter Island in the south Pacific, I was looking for answers to a number of questions:   What is it that makes this place unique? Could it just be a gross exaggeration as a result of perception?  Why should I or anyone else pay such a premium to enjoy it?

I found the answers that I was looking for plus a few more along the way and I'd like to share my thoughts and observations with you over the next couple of posts.

Thinking back to a little over a decade ago, I too was discouraged by Burgundy's complex label language, classification system, and degree of vintage variation. The region is a double-edged sword of sorts; to the serious wine enthusiast it might represents vinous perfection, but as a new comer, the labels are next to impossible to understand and if you dare to 'cheap-out' on your purchase, disappointment is certain. Unfortunately that disappointment often leads to discouragement which in terms of wine selection tends to guide people back to the path of least resistance i.e. Australia, California, and the slopes of South America.

So why bother?  In my case, the need to explore the unknown will always demand immediate attention.  Your attraction to this place and its wine may be entirely different.

My first experience with Burgundy was highly atypical, somewhat lucky, and extremely positive; it involved a bottle of 1999 Vosne-Romanée.  The bottle, while seemingly impressive, was an impulse buy while out of town.  The luck factor is that there is no (or should not be any) bad wine made in the village of Vosne Romanée; I had no comprehension of that at the time, and had it been Vougeot or Volnay, the outcome may have been quite different.  The key to buying good Burgundy is to know not only the village and vintage, but also the vineyard if applicable, and more importantly the producer or domaine that has made the wine. After serving the 1999 Domaine Misset, Vosne-Romanée les Barreaux as an alternative to the richer and more full-bodied styles of Shiraz and Amarone that normally accompany dinner at our home, the Burgundy created a bizarre moment of silence in the room.   Each person at the table simultaneously stopped, took a moment to stare at their glass, and then asked what it was that we were drinking and where it was from.

Beyond "It's Pinot Noir from Burgundy." I really didn't have an answer for them. The catch, however, is that it took me numerous attempts, multiple bottles, and hundreds of dollars to come even remotely close to recreating that sense of awe. Now in my world, this is the recipe for fascination and it has lead me on a continual search for that 'perfect bottle'.

The blunt truth is that most people will not take the time to understand this and I cannot overemphasis how critically important that is for the rest of us; Burgundy is not mass-produced. There is by no means enough of it for everyone.  In fact, I cringe at the thought of finding a bottle of premier cru Chambolle-Musigny on the wine list at The Keg or on the store shelf at Costco in the States.  These places sell fruit-bombs to people who rarely step outside the scope of beverage mediocrity. A bottle of fine Burgundy in this environment would be tragically lost.  The supply of Burgundy is restricted by the structure of the vineyard classification system and resultant land on which the vines were planted long ago.  Its complexity and rarity are also what make it appealing to those who desire to know and are willing to spend a little more.

The name Côte d'Or is a reflection of the changing autumn leaves that catch the morning sun on the hills that rise to the west - I saw it, and yes, it is truly breathtaking, though I do find myself wondering if the golden slope more accurately relates to the money these vines have generated for the Church over the last 1000 years.  The production and sale of wine in France has historically translated into great wealth and after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Church acquired many of the prized vineyards in Burgundy through donations from the monarchy.  In the hands of the Church, these vineyards theoretically stood a greater chance of surviving both political and hostile transition.  It was the Church that shaped and structured many of the vineyards in the region. The wine produced and its intoxicating effect has generated a significant amount of highly controversial income for the ‘House of God’.

In modern times, the supply versus demand placed on Burgundy by the western world and now a new Asian market is unfortunately what continues to drive the price from marginally affordable to totally unreasonable.  Along a 45km stretch of road extending between Dijon to the north and Santenay in the hills to the south you will find the most expensive farmland in the world.  At the upper end of the quality spectrum, the bottled wine reflects not only the spirit of the land, but its value as well.

Burgundy is surrounded by history, legend, and lore; it really is quite spectacular to witness in person. Amazingly, very little has changed along this narrow band of fields on the hillside.  As you walk along the vineyard access roads and sit on the edge of the stone walls, you quickly realize that time in the Côte d’Or has stood still and that these good people really don’t care about what is popular, they have little interest in the latest trends, or how many million cases of pink fizz Champagne sold last Valentine’s Day.  Such concerns don’t enter the thought process or formula that winemakers here follow. With the exception of a few items of convenience, they make wine in Burgundy using the same philosophy as their ancestors did in the 18th century.  Once you grasp this concept, only then will you begin to discover the magic of the incredible wine region.

In my next post, I invite you to walk with me from Fixin to Morey-Saint-Denis, stopping to tasting along the way.

~> Burgundy Part Two

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Tyler is a member of the Wine Writers' Circle of Canada and the Guild of Sommeliers. He writes about and reviews wine both online and via a variety of circulating publications. In 2009 Tyler founded North of 9 Fine Wine, a free public wine education resource where he publishes his Thoughts, Theory, and Recommendations. For additional vinous related information and learning, follow on Twitter @TylerOnWine