It was Kermit Lynch who wisely proffered the following edict many years ago 1Try as hard as I may, I can’t find the exact reference, but believe it was somewhere in Inspiring Thirst.: “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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.