Guess What’s In Your Bourgogne Rouge …

La grappe de raisin, William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1868.

I’ll say it again: I firmly believe any true Burgundy lover will regularly drink entry-level Bourgogne from carefully chosen producers.

Granted, the keywords here are carefully chosen. Some producers’ Bourgogne rouge will be a mind-boggling value, a terroirdriven portal to their house style.  Others will range from serviceable to saddening.

As I’m skeptical of négociants’ ability to produce quality, inexpensive wine at such a massive scale across vintages (30,000 bottles in 2011, according to this source), I’d wanted to taste the 2013 Bouchard Père et Fils Bourgogne rouge before committing to a first 5 cases for the wine shop. I sold a pallet of the 2012 Bourgogne rouge, and was proud to offer a pleasant red Burgundy to customers insisting on Pinot Noir under $20. It was a value workhorse of sorts, one that I could actually envisage drinking at home.

I ended up bringing the 2013 in; it does the trick at $20. But while tasting the 2013 Bouchard Bourgogne rouge, I stumbled upon a question for which I had no answer.

The 2013 Bouchard Bourgogne rouge was decidedly more stern than the 2012; it immediately fetched a sense memory of Irancy reds.

You’ll probably never see an Irancy; in part because there aren’t many, and in part because Irancy are strangely earthy, alien reds, to which few wine buyers will commit resources. Irancy are always red, and are Pinot Noir with bits of César — a wildly tannic, rare grape allowed only in the Yonne region — growing in Chablis-like Kimmeridgian limestone marls. César can constitute up to 10% of Irancy reds.

Note just how close Irancy is to Chablis; same limestone.

Many Chablis producers (Dauvissat, Clotilde Davenne) also craft an Irancy red. A consensus of French cavistes1 insisted that Domaine Colinot produced the finest Irancy: Colinot is an exception, and does not make a Chablis. After sampling Colinot’s wines among other Irancy contenders2, I tend to agree; however I find them challenging. A 2010 Domaine Colinot Irancy was nice; in a bright, airy, heavenly vintage like 2010, the César brought a hint of pleasant, savage earthiness and slight bitterness to the finish; it made me feel deep in the woods, yet spared my palate from fearing for its life.

Gustave Doré’s Little Red Riding Hood. I’ll go this way, you go that way, m’kay?

But if instead of 2010, you consider a greener, more acerbic Burgundy vintage like 2011, most Irancy reds tend to have a biting, earthy aroma reminiscent of cedar, feeling unforgivingly inward and harsh, almost like an angry ashtray.

It was a twinge of that biting cedar and ashiness that I could have sworn I tasted in the 2013 Bouchard Père et Fils Bourgogne rouge, poking out from behind the initial fruit. Which begged the question: Is César allowed in Bourgogne rouge?

I began poring over the newer 2011 Bourgogne AOC regulations, and slipped into a mind-boggling rabbit hole.

ALL THE CRAZY SHIT LEGALLY ALLOWED IN BOURGOGNE ROUGE

1 – CÉSAR

Yes, César is allowed. But only if it is growing in the Yonne, and only if it represents a maximum of 10% of the vines in the vineyards which feed your Bourgogne rouge.

Note Dijon and Beaune. These help you visualize Auxerre’s proximity to the Côte d’Or.

But here’s the bat-shit crazy truth: you are allowed to label a bottle AOC Bourgogne rouge that’s 49% César and 51% Pinot Noir.

Granted, that would probably only happen in a rare case of a crop failure of Pinot Noir, because you somehow lost your Pinot and saved César. But that’s odd, as César is notoriously susceptible to rot and mildew.

As of 2008, a mere 10 ha remain of César3. Very little exists. But you can be sure a négociant operation like Bouchard would quite likely have access to some! This doesn’t prevent some growers (Domaine et Vignoble de Flavigny-Alésia, Domaine Sorin-Coquard, Cave de la Tourelle) from bottling a pure César … an experience I would bravely sip once in the name of science. Not unlike pure Carignan, the resulting wine may prove too tannic unless care is taken during pressing and maceration. As of 2011, these producers are no longer allowed to bottle their pure César wine as AOC Bourgogne rouge. It needs to peak at 49%, but most often will be blended into Irancy reds at 10% max.

But it doesn’t stop with César: we’re just entering the rabbit hole.

2 – TRESSOT

Just a drop of an another antique grape, Tressot, can legally figure in your Bourgogne. This is the most endangered grape of Burgundy: a mere 2.5 ha remain4. This also grows in the Yonne, and is only allowed to enter AOC Bourgogne rouge if the vines were planted before 2009. Domaine des Cerisiers is one of the last to work with it.

3 – CHARDONNAY, PINOT BLANC, PINOT GRIS

What the hell … ? Yep, you can label a bottle AOC Bourgogne rouge with 85% Pinot Noir, the “principal” variety, and up to 15% of any one of these “accessory” grapes (or any combination).

While this is clearly a regulation in place to allow for field blends which have existed for decades, 15% seems stratospheric.

Once again, the AOC seeks homeogeneity by allowing a maximum amount of vineyard holdings of these “accessory” varieties: you may not possess more than 30% Pinot Gris vines vs. your collective holdings producing your Bourgogne rouge, and, taking into consideration all “accessory” vines in relation to any one specific vineyard parcel, these white accessory varietals must never collectively supersede 15% of that delimited parcel.

How did Pinot Gris get mixed in? Well, Pinot Gris is a color variant of Pinot Noir that arose in Chassagne-Montrachet5, commonly called Pinot Beurot by locals (beurot or beurrot was said to relate the color of the mutated grapes to that of the local monks’ robes, called bures).

But Pinot Gris is rarely found in Chassagne-Montrachet these days. Curiously, it may also legally be included in Gevrey-Chambertin and Bonnes Mares6, as crazy as that sounds. It is most often planted near Joigny, and is recognized in the Bourgogne Côte Saint-Jacques appellation. Note that the current discussion only concerns plain vanilla Bourgogne rouge.

  • Pinot Noir.

Pinot Blanc is yet another mutation of Pinot Gris, which is more vigorous and productive than either of its parents, first noted in Chassagne-Montrachet in 1895. There’s also a “Pinot Noir Blanc”: a mutation discovered in 1936 by Henri Gouges in one of his parcels, then planted elsewhere, and eventually dubbed “Pinot Gouges” by Clive Coates.

4 – BOURGOGN-JOLAIS?

Few are aware of the rule, but Gamay is surprisingly allowed up to 30% in both Bourgogne rouge AOC vineyards and bottled wines. Strangely, up until the rewriting of the Bourgogne AOC rules in 2011, 9 of the 10 older Beaujolais crus (all but Regnié) used to be able to bottle their Gamay and/or Pinot Noir as Bourgogne rouge!

This understandably frustrated a number of Burgundy winemakers; it also reignited an age-old battle about the alleged inferiority of Gamay to Pinot Noir.

But given the new 2011 regulations, if Beaujolais growers wish to bottle Pinot Noir and Gamay growing in Beaujolais crus as Bourgogne rouge, they must label the resulting wine as a “Bourgogne Gamay” which may be anywhere from 85-100% Gamay (with up to 15% Pinot Noir). The Pinot Noir may come from Burgundy, or perhaps the south of Beaujolais crus, where a gold rush of sorts is driving Burgundy négociants to plant like crazy.

Louis Latour, for example, is planting 50 ha of Pinot Noir in “Terres Dorées” Southern Beaujolais limestone for their Coteaux Bourguignons, this newfangled AOC that replaces boring-as-hell sounding “Bourgogne Grande Ordinaire”. They plan to acquire vineyards at 350-400m altitude, presumably to compensate for southern locale’s heat7. Coteaux Bourguignons may however be 100% Gamay.

***

ENOUGH GRAPES, ALREADY

So what’s really going on in the 2013 Bouchard Père et Fils Bourgogne rouge? I interviewed Bouchard’s winemaker Frédéric Weber; what follows is my translation from French.

Any comments on the difference between your 2013 and 2012 Bourgogne rouge?

FW: Between 2012 and 2013, the difference is really the vintage itself; the sourcing and élevage are similar, I just used a shorter élevage in the 2013 to preserve the crunchy fruit of the vintage.

The wines must reflect their origins and the vintage; we don’t want to make a linear wine across vintages.

Our Bourgogne Pinot Reserve is based in Pinot Noir with a high proportion of vines located in the Côte d’Or (primarily vines in AOC Bourgogne from the villages of Pommard, Volnay, Beaune, Maranges, Nuits, Vosne and Chambolle) and the Côte Chalonnaise.

We vinify a small portion of Bourgogne from our own vines (beneath Pommard and Beaune) and then we buy wines from a large number of owners, which helps ensure consistent supply. These owners will vinify these wines as if they were their own, with their own style of vinification (whole cluster, destemmed), something which is critical to the overall balance of this wine.

Once purchased, the wines are brought to the Bouchard cellar beginning in December so we can begin a partial élevage in barrels (around 20% of the Reserve goes into barrels, of which 10% are new, depending on the vintage).

Might there be ‘accessory’ varieties in your 2013 Bourgogne rouge?

FW: In old vine parcels, you can find authorized accessory varieties in small quantities. It was common practice over 40 years ago while planting; you might find Pinot Beurot (=Pinot Gris), a few vines of white varietals like Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and also César, which as you’ve mentioned, is essentially in the Yonne.

So, yes, there may be other varieties in small quantities; impossible to know exactly how much, as it’s all part of the viticultural heritage and traditional practices of Burgundy.

***

So why is the AOC explicitly allowing these absurd amounts of secondary varietals if they’re never entering the wine?

We’ll never really know; it’s part of the ‘viticultural heritage and traditional practices of Burgundy’. I don’t think any Burgundy winemaker would wilfully disclose, say, 5% Chardonnay or Pinot Gris on a Bourgogne rouge back label; if they leave the odd-colored, or strangely-shaped incoming grapes in after sorting, they may guard it as a secret to their house style.

If they own the vines, they know exactly what they’re working with. But with large amounts of purchased fruit, César might prove tougher to call out on the sorting table, even if its clusters are allegedly considerably smaller.

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  1. Cavistes: wine merchants. []
  2. I really did not care for the 2011 Davenne’s Irancy. Jenny and François did bring in a nice Irancy however a few years back – the 2009 Vini Viti Vinci Irancy; but when last tasted, it had an unracked yeast aroma I found unpleasant. Not even Dauvissat’s Irancy pleased me for the price. []
  3. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1, 368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, Jose Vouillamoz. Ecco: 2012. p 216. []
  4. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1, 368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, Jose Vouillamoz. Ecco: 2012. p 1084 []
  5. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1, 368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, Jose Vouillamoz. Ecco: 2012. p 817. []
  6. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1, 368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, Jose Vouillamoz. Ecco: 2012. p 818. []
  7. http://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2012/04/louis-latour-seeks-solutions-in-beaujolais/. []

8 comments

  1. Sasha Agapov says:

    Fantastic read! Thank so much. It seems like I’ve found my new favorite wine site.:)

    And while we are on the topic of Bourgogne Rouge, what are your top recommendations? I’ve found that Leroy’s Bourgogne rouge is quite mindblowing for the price and is definitely hitting way out of Bourgogne-level league.

  2. Sasha Agapov says:

    Well, in that case I can’t recommend 2009 Leroy Bourgogne Rouge enough. It’s about $50/bottle, but a very nice investment in my opinion. Serious, elegant, earthy and long.

    Also, Domaine Roulot’s Bourgogne Blanc is outstanding.

    • Gargantua says:

      I have been hoarding Roulot for years. Tasting the 2013 made me wish that I had even more severely hoarded the 2012! I’d love to try the Leroy.

    • Gargantua says:

      That is not allowed in Bourgogne rouge. This article merely describes Bourgogne rouge. Were I to list accessory varieties in Bourgogne blanc, that would include Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, solely. Now: Cremant de Bourgogne, however, would leverage Gamay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir; and in white varieties Aligoté, Chardonnay, Melon de Bourgogne, Pinot Blanc, and Sacy 😀

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