Unravelling the Burgundy Mystery

The Burgundy Mystery
The Burgundy region of France has long been the worldwide reference for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  This storied region produces wines of amazing depth and complexity, and you can spend years learning even the basics.  It’s also a huge mystery.  Wines are labeled by the village name, or the vineyard name, or a combination of both.  The micro-climate in each village has an impact on the wine produced.  The sheer number of producers, villages and official quality levels is daunting, and wines range from $20 up to $1500 per bottle.  Whew!

You can start your Burgundy journey by sampling a few each of Bourgogne Rouge (Pinot Noir) and Bourgogne Blanc (Chardonnay).  Once you’re ready to go deeper, you’ll need a plan and a budget, because above the regional wines, the prices go up rapidly. Want to accelerate the process without breaking the bank?  Find a good class.  With a little luck, you’ll learn something and you may develop a strategy for your own exploration.

Before the class starts, a tease for the wines we'll sample

Before the class starts, a tease for the wines we’ll sample

Twin Cities Wine Education
In the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, Jason Kallsen is one of our good sources for wine classes.  Jason has a business called Twin Cities Wine Education. He runs a variety of classes starting with the basics.  He also offers a series of “masterclasses” that go into much more depth. If you live in the area, you might enjoy participating in one of Jason’s masterclasses. Even if you can’t, you can benefit from his structured approach to the wines of the region.  Let’s take a look at his Burgundy Masterclass.

Jason really does his homework in advance of the class

Jason does his homework in advance of the class.  Be ready to learn!

Go from Village to Village
Each Burgundy village has a slightly different micro-climate, and the wines will have unique character.  A great way to experience this is to sample wines from the same winemaker, same vintage, different villages. That is, minimize the number of variables.  We started off our class sampling village level white wines from three classic villages, all made by one of the larger Burgundy producers, Joseph Drouhin.

One producer, three different villages - all very different

One producer, three different villages – all very different

They’re all Chardonnay, they come from villages very close to each other, same winemaking team, but they are clearly different wines, easily seen by different color. Puligny-Montrachet was the leanest of the three, with the most obvious bright acidity.  Meursault was significantly richer, more nutty and possessing less obvious acidity.  Chassagne-Montrachet was the middle ground between the other two.  It would be great if the villages were oriented geographically the same way.  Sorry, it’s Burgundy, it’s not that simple!  You can use this strategy with village level red wines as well.  I did something similar last winter with village level reds.  If you’re doing this on your own, these wines retail for around $50 per bottle.

In the glass, 2011 on the left, 2009 center and right

Puligny-Montrachet on the left, Chassagne-Montrachet center, Meursault on the right

Ascend the Quality Ladder
Once you find a village you’d like to explore further, you can take a journey up the quality ladder.  Now, keep the same supplier, same vintage, and sample generic Bourgogne Rouge ($25), Village level wine ($50+), and Premier (1er) Cru single vineyard wine ($75+).  For Burgundy as a whole, the base level wines (Bourgogne) account for 65% of the wine made.  Village level wines account for 23%.  Premier Cru makes up 11%, and Grand Cru 1%.

One producer, one vintage, zoom in from basic Bourgogne Rouge, to Village, to 1er Cru

One producer, one vintage, zoom in from basic Bourgogne Rouge, to Village, to 1er Cru

As you can see, the depth of color in the series of wines provides a clue that the wines may be quite different.  As we went from the basic wine to the Premier Cru, we could taste for ourselves the additional complexity of the wines.  Note: the higher level wines are not necessarily bolder and stronger; that’s not the point.  The goal is finesse, interest and complexity.  After the wines had been in the glass 1/2 hour or so, I noticed the greatest change in the Premier Cru wine; its aromas had developed new depth in a way the Bourgogne and Village wines did not.

The wines have different color and flavor as you move through the hierarchy

The wines have different color and flavor as you move through the hierarchy

The Tip-Top: Grand Cru
Grand Cru vineyards are very top of the Burgundy ladder, and they constitute approximately 1% of the total amount of wine in Burgundy.  Grand Cru vineyards are designated as such by the French National Board that oversees the wine regulations.  In Burgundy, vineyard ownership is very fragmented with many winegrowers owning only a few rows in important vineyards!  One new variable, then, is that you can have many different winegrowers producing wines from the exact same vineyard.  This is another opportunity to explore, and that’s what we did as the last step in our class. Our final tastes were two different winegrowers, same vintage, same Grand Cru vineyard.

The pinnacle: Grand Cru Burgundy

The pinnacle: Grand Cru Burgundy

For Grand Cru Burgundies, these wines were babies.  They could easily age for another 10-20 years or even more, but who wants to wait that long!

The two Grand Cru wines were both very nice, and their similarities were clear.  However, the Pousse d’Or was darker, richer, and possessed slightly firmer tannins as compared to the Louis Latour.  At $100-200 per bottle, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to taste, but they won’t be on my shopping list anytime soon!

The Grand Cru! Two producers, one vintage, same vineyard: different wines

The Grand Cru! Two producers, one vintage, same vineyard: different wines

If you want to do this class on your own, you’d have the advantage of being able to enjoy the whole bottle, and not just a 1-2 oz. pour.  However, you’d spend somewhere in the region of $600 to do so – ouch.  Why not look for a good class in your area?  Jason’s “masterclass” offerings generally run between $50 – $100, depending on the cost of the wines involved.

Thanks to Jason and Twin Cities Wine Education for a fun Burgundy Masterclass.  I’ve got some great ideas for my own next steps in Burgundy, thanks to your suggestions on approaches for exploration.

Comments
4 Responses to “Unravelling the Burgundy Mystery”
  1. talkavino says:

    Sounds like a great class! I would say that out of many other wines, you do need a real guide when it comes to Burgundy – try to learn on your own on a limited budget and you will decide that Burgundy makes no good wines at all – ever had those random Cru Burgogne wines which are just plain insipid?

    • I’ve certainly had some bad basic Bourgogne wines, but I’ve also had some that are very nice and < $20. They're expensive, but I've found the village level wines to be a reasonable place to start. I don't know if I'll ever spend the $$ required for Grand Cru.

  2. Burgundy is a bit complicated and there used to be relative bargains to be found (Santenay and St. Aubin come to mind), but those are now quite scarce as well. As a result, I find myself drinking far more domestic wines than I used to….

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