The True Test of A Burgundy Lover

Village de la Côte de Beaune : Saint-Romain dans la brume. Photo: BIVB / JOLY M.
Village de la Côte de Beaune : Saint-Romain dans la brume. Photo: BIVB / JOLY M.

It was Kermit Lynch who wisely proffered the following edict many years ago1: “Get to know a producer through their Bourgogne; purchase a case”.

Great advice. A case of Bourgogne lets you see how a wine behaves differently in reaction to different foods and seasons, and becomes an inexpensive gateway to a producer’s style.

Honestly, I would even take this further, and say that you simply cannot pretend to love Burgundy if you don’t regularly drink Bourgogne.

It holds true for other noble wine regions as well: German estate Riesling, or Langhe rosso in Piedmont. Perhaps less so in places like Bordeaux, where a ‘second wine’ is too often a disappointment.

This is not about shaming wealthy people, nor is this a reaction to hordes of Internet braggarts posting photos of grand cru bottles for others to covet — it goes deeper than that.

It’s about loving all that Burgundy has to offer, and respecting the wine by recognizing that different wines work at different moments.

mr burns drinking
Will they ever bring me my spaghetti? This Bonnes Mares is getting warm.

Even if I were wealthy enough to buy a new house once mine became too dirty, I’d still drink great Bourgogne. You simply can’t honor a Vosne-Romanée 1er cru every night; often we crave quick and easy foods that would lay waste to such noble wine.  And none of us want to confront those pricks of guilt wondering just how much a rare or expensive unfinished bottle will degrade overnight while recorking (although if you’re doing things right, this shouldn’t happen too often).

HOW LOW CAN YOUR RAINBOW GO?

What’s fascinating about Bourgogne is that quality varies wildly; it doesn’t necessarily radiate all the way from the top on down to the bottom of the quality pyramid. Some producers’ Bourgogne is a total waste of time. It’s as though their lowest quality level is simply a catch-all for grapes they couldn’t afford to waste, and they channeled a feeling of disdain for spendthrifts to then craft an acerbic wine that no mortal could joyfully drink.

But oh, how other producers’ Bourgogne is like a secret back door, a shrouded, golden portcullis which opens to reveal a disarmingly ornate example of the producer’s style. And sometimes at a ridiculous value.  As though the producer actually did what every single producer claims to do, treating their lowly Bourgogne like more expensive 1er cru.

As usual, price is an ineffective guide. Some Bourgogne is $20; some is $120. But price merely suggests how small their production is versus demand. And demand or scarcity is unfortunately not necessarily indicative of quality.

burgundy quality pyramid

It’s easy to believe that there’s a natural paywall system built into Burgundy’s cru hierarchy, and that as one climbs the ladder from regional to grand cru, prices rise based on scarcity, and quality rises in tandem. I suppose it generally holds true.

However as any Burgundy geek will tell you, stellar 1er crus regularly outperform lousy, swollen grand crus. Many producers’ lower-tier bottlings give absolutely no inkling of what type of monstrous quality lurks a few flights upstairs. But some Burgundy producers flip the script, and their entry-level wines outperform or nearly circumscribe mid-tier wines. Sometimes this may be the result of poor choices in new oak regimens for higher-tiered wines (this happens so predictably with Spanish reds that I’ve all but given up on reserva, and rush to sample crianza).

What makes me happiest, though, is when a producer takes pride in all they do and quality radiates like an uninterrupted rainbow from top to bottom. Something feels honest and complete about that; it’s as though the producer cares for their blue-collar, ordinary clients — a decidedly humanistic slant.

"Double-alaskan-rainbow" by Eric Rolph at English Wikipedia - English Wikipedia. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
“Double Alaskan rainbow”, Eric Rolph, English Wikipedia.

Most often, it’s the giant négociants (Louis Latour, Bouchard Père et Fils, Faiveley, Vincent Girardin, Jadot) who have trouble broadcasting quality all the way down to the very bottom. To be fair, the airlines and hotels of the world count on them to produce an unending river of cheap wine, and their higher-tier wines can prove quite compelling, as they’ve often owned the most coveted vines in Burgundy for generations. Typically, however, smaller producers do a better job of producing a tasty, interesting Bourgogne.

It’s as if something happens once the cellar swells to a certain size. Perhaps a fair analogy would be restaurants; would you rather dine at a chain restaurant like the Olive Garden, or at a unique Italian restaurant? You know exactly what type of generic, crappy experience awaits you at the Olive Garden; and in the most dire of circumstances, you can at least count on that. But even if the smaller restaurant is a mystery, it should more often than not outstrip the Olive Garden.

Certain large houses fare better than others (Drouhin sometimes does good Bourgogne or Hautes Côtes; Méo-Camuzet stands proud).

HERE COMES THE 2012 BOURGOGNE ROUGE

It’s getting cooler and I’m drinking red because I can. Rather than being forced by warm weather to pair to fish with minerally whites (that wine for all seasons) I’m eager to return to French reds — and slowly, along with the chilly winds and wet leaves of autumn, comes a desire for Beaujolais cru and deeper Pinot Noir. And then finally, once it’s freezing and the heaters come back on, we can begin uncorking Italian and Rhône reds.

But for now, it’s time for Bourgogne rouge. Let’s start at the very bottom, with a pleasant surprise.  If you haven’t heard yet, 2012 Burgundy is pretty fabulously light yet sappy and bright.

2012 red burgs

2012 Bouchard Père et Fils Bourgogne Pinot Noir: I typically couldn’t care a rat’s ass about Bouchard’s entry-level wines, but you can’t deny this is a great little wine for $20. It’s as though the brilliance of the 2012 vintage shines through, and you’re left with a bright, sappy cherry jam of a Bourgogne that’s user-friendly even if it’s still wrestling with reduction (seems to blow off in around an hour). I’m all too happy to sell this to folks who won’t spend over $20, as they invariably come back for more. So, bravo in 2012 Bouchard; I defer to the angry wolves this vintage.

2012 Méo-Camuzet Bourgogne rouge: Hubba hubba; what a charmer this is, and it’ll improve with a couple years in the cellar.  A nose full of smoky tea with a fleshy touch of yeastiness and a hint of rosy, greenish bubblegum (hint of stems?); the palate has a tart, youthful attack and a thick vein of spicy boysenberry jam suspended in a delightfully cool watery, juicy frame, with some bitter, earthy grip on the finish. Was quite sad at the last drops disappearing, which speaks volumes. Not much around, and the price attests to quality ($40-50, but you’re drinking vines sourced strictly in the Côte de Nuits, read: Vosne, Flagey, Marsannay, Fixin, Morey and Nuits St. Georges). All in all? Quite the bargain.

2012 Sylvain Cathiard Bourgogne rouge: Here we approach the pricing crisis for Bourgogne. For highly allocated producers whose wines typically sell $120-300 (Roumier, Coche-Dury, etc), often, their Bourgogne will receive all the love that higher tiers do, live up to its reputation as the product of an incredibly able and steady hand, and be sourced from bonkers places … but they will unfortunately sell at revolting prices. The average consumer won’t spend over $60 on a Bourgogne if they’ve understood the quality pyramid. That is, unless they are already keenly aware of a producer’s renown, and understand just what they’re getting for the money. Sébastien Cathiard’s wines are stunning: the kid can do no wrong in my book. The first thing you think when bringing your nose to this is SERIOUS. This is incredibly serious wine, and it tastes like a savage, unruly baby Vosne Romanée to me. There’s so much asphalt and  earthy aroma that I imagine it’s a baby Reignots — perhaps young replanted vines? A stunning taste of iron immediately recalls the taste of blood in one’s mouth and brings to mind a Pommard Rugiens. Dark fruit is here but it plays second fiddle to the massive earthy elements. The wine is challenging at this juncture. Heat sticks out a bit on the midpalate before tapering off on the finish (that’s quite rare in my experience), and even if it finishes somewhat bitter, that doesn’t prevent this from being a compelling red that may very well be in its pimply, adolescent voice-cracking phase. So curious to see where a short- to mid-term aging curve takes this. Sebastien gleefully acknowledges this is his finest Bourgogne ever.  Even with its flaws, Bourgogne should not be able to achieve these intense aromatic heights! Or at least it’s rare that it does. Far from being the baby Reignots I imagined it to be, I’m still trying to nail down the exact source for this wine: research so far suggests a mere 0.67 ha of vines planted in 1987,  in Flagey just opposite Clos Vougeot and aged in used oak. So, flecks and nuances of Clos Vougeot and Echezeaux.

UNDISPUTED LORDS AMONG BOURGOGNES

Common wisdom says that in warmer vintages (eg. 2009) regional and village level Burgundy spikes in quality simply because ripeness is more abundant. I suppose that’s true, but ultimately, it’s the lean vintages that steal my heart …

2008 Maume, 2010 Hudelot Noellat Bourgogne

2008 Domaine Maume Bourgogne rouge: Don’t bother searching, I bought every last damned case of it on sale at Zachy’s, and have already drunk 53 bottles (only 12 left; clearly not enough) over the last couple years. None was made in 2010, and Mark Fincham become winemaker in 2012; it’ll never be the same since Bertrand Maume was ousted by the Moray Tawse buyout. One of the greatest Burgundies out there, and here’s an example of a producer flipping the script: honestly, even if his 2008 Gevrey Chambertin Lavaux St Jacques 1er cru can outclass it with floral aromatics and a silkiness typical to the parcel, this Bourgogne is remarkably similar to Maume’s 2008 Gevrey village, offering 90% of the pleasure and aromatic profile for a tiny fraction of the cost: brown sugar, sappy deep Pinot fruit that ranges from crab apple to dark tannic fruit jams, a constantly churning palate of earthy spice, and what I wager will someday become an unbelievable silky texture if only I can manage to wait for 2016. Even if higher than usual (7%?) corkage issues and a fair amount of bottle variation are par for the course, this remains the most compelling Bourgogne I’ve ever drunk. Celebrate the refined rustic nature of Gevrey, that grubby peasant with dirt under his nails that you welcomed into your home for dinner one night that ended up proving the most classy, erudite charmer at the table.

2010 Hudelot-Noellat Bourgogne rouge: Oh, how these wines make me swoon. There’s a wispiness about them: they are like fine perfumes. Charles van Canneyt seems to finish his wines quicker than many others, and yet, they have a regal purity that outstrips so many other domaines. The house is just as distinct and iconic as Maume, but the wines go in the complete opposite direction: think lightness and spring water; brightness and purity.  These wines always want a year or two to get through their reductive phase. When last tasted in Dec 2013, the 2010 Bourgogne was almost perfectly ready and had a stunning cherry grip to it. Even their 2011 Bourgogne, while showing a bit of the cursed green character that marks many wines of the vintage to my palate, still managed to keep it classy and was enjoyable enough to lament having finished. I can’t wait for 2012, and may very well have unrealistically high expectations.

What are your favorite Bourgogne values? You may want to make sure you’ve sufficiently hoarded them before revealing them in the comments below.

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  1. Try as hard as I may, I can’t find the exact reference, but believe it was somewhere in Inspiring Thirst. []

20 comments

  1. Thanks for a nice piece!

    I didn’t see anything indicating that you didn’t want to talk about white Burgundy (Bourgogne Blanc/Bourgogne Chardonnay) so I’ve taken it upon me to share some impressions on those (I drink white, as well as red, all year long).

    Here are a few either recommendations for Bourgogne Blancs:
    Guy Roulot Bourgogne Blanc: Pretty darn good each year, ages rather well for 3-4 years and is delicious from the outset. By the style it’s rather obviously that he puts a great deal of care into his BB. I love him for it. An excellent buy!

    Benjamin Leroux: Also makes really good BB in the lean style. Doesn’t have the same level of grape material as Roulot, but certainly worth drinking. A little more straigh forward and therefore also an easier thirst quencher. As the weather gets colder I go for bigger BBs.

    Thomas Morey: Oh, lord. This is a heck of a lot of wine for your money. His BB smells, tastes and reeks of Chassagne-Montrachet (in my humble opinion). He has a richer style with more butter and toast, which also comes through in his BB. His oak and batonnage regime gives his wines a richness, however, that doesn’t always stand up to the fruit. In 2011 I felt the wine was too rich for the fruit, but 2010 and 2012 are both great.

    Carillon: Another realtively rich style. Not as complex and pretty as T. Morey, but an excellent buy, super value for money and a very good choice for those buttery fish dishes 🙂

    • Gargantua says:

      Hi Morten, I was debating about doing a separate post on Bourgogne blanc because this had already swollen to a typically bloated length (for my blog). Agree with you on all counts for the value producers, particularly Roulot. A pricing error with a larger NYC retailer had them selling Roulot’s Bourgogne blanc for a while at the price of the aligoté (also a fine wine), and I bought nearly a case before they corrected their pricing error. Consistently elegant juice! I’ve less experience with Leroux’s Bourgogne; only tried his 09 Meursault and CM, but they were very good. Have yet to sample Thomas Morey’s Bourgogne as well. Carillon is great, know him well, typically enjoy his village Puligny, would trust him to make a good Bourgogne blanc! Thanks for reading and posting!

    • Gargantua says:

      Morten, also noticed your blog is under spam comment siege like mine–I recommend installing the plugin Akismet: it is free and will solve the problem!

  2. Thank you. I’ve installed Akismet now. Thought it cost money, but realized I could install it for free(although it seems worth paying a little support fee for).

    We did a Bourgogne Blanc tasting yesterday, btw. Here are the abbreviated results:
    Matrot Bourgogne Chardonnay 2011: Easy drinking everyday wine. Cheap. Worth the money.
    Mikulski Bourgogne Chardonnay 2012: Smells of tinned pears. A wine of disjointed parts. Not good. None liked it.
    Antoine Jobard Bourgogne Blanc: 2011: Very nice. Some raw nuts, lots of yellow apples. Excellent length. Very good wine.
    Deux Montille Bourgogne Chardonnay 2011: Good wine, decent length and intensity, but rather one dimensional. Lacked something to keep one interested.
    Roulot Bourgogne Blanc 2011: Yep. As good as you expect.
    Thomas Morey Bourgogne Chardonnay 2012: Excellent again. Bigger than most, but too big. Excellent value.
    Henri Boillot Bourgogne Chardonnay 2010: Oak. Too much oak. Very woody on the tongue and dominated by vanilla, toast and caramel on the nose. With air you can smell fruit as well, and the intensity on the tongue is there. Seems to have very good fruit – but smothered in oak. None of us were fans. I don’t think this will integrate with time, the fruit will go before the oak.
    Etienne Sauzet Bourgogne Chardonnay 2011: Wins the price for the ugliest label (looks like some children have put a sticker over the original label). Also wins the price for the best BB. Superb elegance, very floral and light, but with excellent intensity and length. Everyone’s favorite.

    All in all we all thought Morey, Roulot and Jobard were excellent, Matrot is worth the money (it’s dirt cheap) and Sauzet was nudge above the rest.

    Hope you find this interesting 🙂

    • Gargantua says:

      Yeah Mikulski’s Meursault AOC and higher are fabulous but I agree his bourgogne can oftenbe lacking the couple times I’d tried it. Thanks for posting! Matrot can be variable too but is always inexpensive

  3. A new producer has become available in Norway; Pascal Clement. Don’t know if you know of him, but he’s started a negc-business and the quality is great. His Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2012 and 2013 are both ecellent value here.

    He makes some excellent whites from less famous appellations like Montagny and Rully in Côte Chalonnaise and Pernand-Vergelesses in Côte d’Or.

    His style is very straight and linear perhaps not entirely unlike Lafon or Coche-Dury (where he used to work).

    • Gargantua says:

      Pascal Clément has yet to arrive on my radar; I’ll keep my eyes peeled for him out here. His website speaks of indigenous yeast and primarily organic farming, so that’s a plus. Based in Savigny. Funny; he looks like Kevin Spacey.

  4. Pclin says:

    Nice article.

    The 2009 Sylvain Cathiard Bourgogne tasted a few years ago was very good. If 2012 is the finest yet, I should definitely look for a bottle.

    Another Bourgogne that supposedly very good but I yet to try is the Cecil Trembly Bourgogne La Croix Blanche.

    • Gargantua says:

      I can certify both are outstanding. I’ve had the 2011 Tremblay; no green, and just a hit of the candied overripe character of the vintage, but like all her wines very suave yet wild. Love her wines and use of whole cluster–makes me think of my beloved Enderle and Moll.

  5. Chris MacLean says:

    Great article. I drink a lot of Bourgogne-level wine. Favorites? 2012 and 2011 Domaine Bachelet Bourgogne rouge; both bottles were memorable. I also recently loved Michel Gaunoux 2011 Bougogne rouge. Georges Noellat 2013 was great too. Less great but really solid was a Glantenay 2012 rouge. The Alain Hudelot-Noellat 2012 I had a few months ago was good but mostly closed; I’m waiting a few years to open my next bottle. The same story for 2011 Maume and Lafarge: good but closed. I’m a huge fan of Juillot Mercurey, which inexpensive, but his 2012 Bourgogne rouge is nothing special. As for Domaine Bart 2010 and 12, it’s basic and pretty good but you might as well spring for one of the Marsannays, considering the price. Tremblay 2012 was pretty great, come to think of it. Oh, yeah. Leroy 09 Bougogne, which I found at a Whole Foods, was fantastic, but 50 dollars. I think that’s all the Bourgogne rouge I’ve had over the last year. Any experience with my choices?

    • Gargantua says:

      Many similar observations here. Even Tremblay’s 2011 Croix Blanche was pretty fabulous. Hudelot-Noellats always seem to want a couple years to resolve. Very eager to discover George Noellat’s wines after hearing good things. I actually shied away from 2011 Maume (despite Maume being a best beloved producer) after detecting a lot of green notes in his 2011s–theories abound as to why; it may resolve. Lafarge wines always want time too; sometimes I think they’re open for like 5 minutes of their life cycle and somewhat cranky all the rest–but when you get one that’s showing well, especially a Clos des Ducs, its ethereal. Completely agree on Juillot and Bart, and recently tried some Leroy Bourgogne with a sales rep and while good I couldn’t justify selling it at such an exorbitant price (well over $50 outside of a huge chain purchaser). Thanks for reading!

  6. Morten Båtbukt says:

    Had a bottle of Roumier BR 2013 yesterday at a restaurant. Must be the best bourgogne rouge I’ve ever had, but it has such a low availability that I won’t be able to buy it for my own consumption at home :p

    As for 2011s I stay away. Lafarge 2011s are also quite green (but they say Pousse d’Or made excellent 2011s). Most of the 2011s I’ve had have become much more green the last two years.

    • Gargantua says:

      Yes that has been my experience as well with most 2011s. I have it on authority that the green aromas will settle over time, but I’m not confident enough to invest. There are some growers who magically sidestepped it, but they’re quite exceptional in my experience.

  7. Morten Båtbukt says:

    One thing is the fact that some growers sidestepped it (Pousse d’Or and Fourrier, Gouges on some wines, but not all are the ones I know of), but another is that not all people are sensitive to the greeness. At a big Nuits-St-Georges tasting recently where we tasted Boudot, Les-St-Georges and Vaucrains against each other the Chevillon 2011s were all horrible to me, but only about a third of the people present (we were 12) were really sensitive to the green characters. Unfortunately for me I’m one of them.

    This means it’s hard to take peoples recommendations unless you know they are sensitive to the green notes as well. One of the most important wine critics in Norway is not – so I ignore her on those vintages.

    P.S. Gouges varies from wine to wine, not all were green.

    • Gargantua says:

      That is what I have noted too–a lot of folks are oblivious. It would seem Burghound is…. Honestly, they’re lucky. They could clean up on auction.

  8. Morten Båtbukt says:

    Yeah, good for them I’d say. Out of the 12 present 4 found the green bad (and all the 2004 were horrible and the greenness has gotten worse as time has passed). 2 found it to be “adding to the complexity” and the rest were oblivious. We also had one bottle of Chevillon that was infected with brett. If it weren’t for the fact that I know it’s not what he wants in his wines I would be fine with that level of brett – but not there. 2 others found that wine awful (1 being in the “adding to complexity camp” the other sensitive to green as well). It’s quite fascinating how we accept different levels of different aromas – and might not pick them up at all.

    We’ve recently had a discussion about petroleum in riesling as well – where some don’t like it even in small amounts while others can enjoy it even at high levels.

    • Gargantua says:

      That’s an interesting informal sample. So, 30% in your sample were sensitive. Would be really fun to do a formal study and publish it in some journal.

  9. Morten Båtbukt says:

    I’d love to test it. I know that the other sommelier in our restaurant (we are only two trained somms – small restaurant) is not sensitive to green. She can’t pick it up. It’d be simple to test it, but one would need to set some criteria as to who one would like to test it on.

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