A "Where-ness" of Wine: Burgundy
by Mark Middlebrook
I recite this little piece of history because it's still discernable in some senses - certainly in the senses of smell and taste. Despite the political disappearance of Burgundy as a separate state, it lives on as the kingdom of superlative wine and food. In a country chock full of great regional cuisine and wines, Burgundy for many of us continues to reign supreme. It simply defines what luscious, noble, geographically-specific wine is all about.
Burgundy means red wines made from 100% Pinot Noir and white wines from 100% Chardonnay. The Burgundians grow a few other grape varieties on less-favored sites, but the wines made therefrom are obscurities, especially outside of France. When people talk about "red Burgundy" (or "Bourgogne rouge"), they mean Pinot Noir, and when they say "white Burgundy" ("Bourgogne blanc"), they mean Chardonnay.
If you drive a couple of hours southeast from Paris, you'll come to Chablis, the northern-most winegrowing region in Burgundy. Because of its cool, northerly climate, Chablis is home to the purest of Chardonnays. Classic Chablis is steely, minerally, even bordering on austere - i.e., the polar opposite of a big, buttery, new world Chardonnay.
(In Europe, "Burgundy" and "Chablis", like "Champagne", legally describe wines made only in those regions of France and only from specifically allowed grapes. The U.S. wine industry isn't required to play by those rules, and a few large California producers trade on the reputation of the French names by calling their red and white jug wines "Burgundy" and "Chablis", respectively. Such wines don't bear any resemblance to their namesakes - and in fact don't even contain a drop of Pinot Noir or Chardonnay.)
After driving another hour southeast from Chablis, you arrive at Dijon, a handsome city of colorful tile roofs, fabled mustards, and great cuisine. Dijon also serves as the northern terminus of theCôte d'Or, the beating heart of the Burgundy wine region. The Côte d'Or (a contraction of "Côte d'Orient", meaning "slope facing east") stretches south and slightly west from Dijon about 30 miles. The northern half is called the Côte de Nuit and the southern half the Côte de Beaune. The village of Nuit-St.-Georges marks the dividing point between the two. The Côte de Nuit is red wine territory and produces the world's greatest Pinot Noirs. The Côte de Beaune grows both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but is especially renowned for its luscious, weighty Chardonnays.
Directly south of the Côte d'Or is the Côte Chalonnaise, source of less well-known but also less expensive Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Next comes the Mâconnais, a large region northwest of the city of Mâcon that specializes in tasty, comparatively inexpensive Chardonnay.
We end our tour of Burgundy, and leave Pinot Noir and Chardonnay country, by driving south from Mâcon into Beaujolais. Paul C.'s article elsewhere in this newsletter tells you all about the beauteous wines of Beaujolais.
Now that I've laid out the geography for you, I have to confess that knowing the names of these regions won't help you much in deciphering a label on a bottle of Burgundy. Wine from Burgundy is labeled according to a highly specific and complex, but ultimately pretty informative, scheme that's administered by the French Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO). Wines, whether they're red or white, are divided into four categories.
The simplest and usually cheapest wines are labeled simply Bourgogne. The grapes for ordinary Bourgogne rouge or blanc can come from Pinot Noir or Chardonnay grapes grown anywhere in Burgundy. About half of the wine produced in Burgundy is this so-called regional Bourgogne.
The next step up is occupied by village wines, whose grapes must come from specified areas around particular villages. The labels on these wines carry the name of the village, such as Gevrey-Chambertin (in the Côte de Nuit), Volnay (in the Côte de Beaune), or Mercurey (in the Côtes Chalonnaise). Village wines make up about a third of the production in Burgundy.
Next come premier cru wines - about 10% of all Burgundies. "Premier cru" means "first growth", which translates to vineyard areas that traditionally produce wines of better quality than the regular village areas. Premier cru wines are labeled with the name of the village and the words 1er cru. If all of the grapes come from a single premier cru vineyard, then the vineyard name will be listed as well (for example, Gevrey-Chambertin 1er cru - 'Aux Combottes').
At the apex of the Burgundy wine quality pyramid are grand cru wines - a select 2% of Burgundies. "Grand cru" means "great growth" and is reserved for just 33 vineyards that traditionally make the greatest Burgundies. Grand cru wine labels carry just the name of the vineyard, such as Le Musigny or Le Montrachet. There's no village name to enlighten or confuse you.
Red Burgundy is generally light to medium bodied, with strawberry, cherry, and lighter berry aromas. Most red Burgundies also smell of the earth - soil, minerals, mushrooms, leaves, and humus are some of the things that they can remind you of. In a good Burgundy, these characteristics envelop your nose and palate in the most delicate, elegant way imaginable. California Pinot Noirs echo the fruit-and-earth qualities of red Burgundy, although they usually exhibit more up-front fruitiness and lower acidity. Oregon Pinot Noirs often fall in between the California and Burgundy styles. Of course these are generalities, and there are many differences among producers and vineyard areas in Burgundy, California, and Oregon.
Burgundies of all levels are superb food wines. Red Burgundy's lighter body, lively acidity, and moderate tannins help it accompany a wide range of food gracefully. It can span the culinary field from fish (especially salmon) to hearty stews (such as Beef Bourguignon). It's an especially winsome partner to pork and gamy birds such as duck and turkey. White Burgundy is great with fish and pork as well, and it's a classic match with lobster and crab.
If you're new to the delights of Burgundy, one thing that you'll have to come to terms with is that the wines are not cheap. Pinot Noir is a difficult grape to grow and vinify, and the wines are highly sought after. Extra effort in the vineyard and the wine cellar, coupled with a centuries-old reputation, add up to extra cost. Simple, decent Bourgogne rouge starts at around $15. Expect to pay at least $25 for good village wine and at least $35 for excellent premier cru wines from the Côte de Nuit. There are decent white Burgundies to be found for under $15, especially from the Mâconnais. The great white Burgundies, though, like the great reds, are expensive.
Another factor is the unpredictability of Burgundy - and especially red Burgundy. As with all wine, the factors that influence quality include terroir, producer, vintage, and evolution as the wine ages in bottle. Pinot Noir is just a lot more sensitive to these factors than other grape varieties. That sensitivity is part of what makes Burgundy infinitely rewarding. But sensitivity also can make Burgundy infuriating. You can pay a lot of money for a bottle of wine that turns out to be disappointing.
The four-tiered regional Bourgogne, village wine, premier cru, grand cru hierarchy is useful as a quality guide, but it doesn't tell the whole story. In order to make informed decisions, you need to know producers' reputations, be familiar with vineyard names, and understand how the wine is likely to evolve in the bottle over the years. Most of all, you need to gain experience by drinking a lot of it! Unless you're a gambler, these are not the kinds of wines that you want to pluck off the shelf of a supermarket or cavernous liquor store without some expertise to guide you. Of course, that's why we're here. We taste hundreds of Burgundies every year in order to bring you ones that are worth the money. We also re-taste them periodically - and drink them at home often - to see how they're evolving in the bottle.
All of these caveats may make Burgundy sound like a risky proposition. And yet, every wine lover I've met who has taken the time to get to know some of the wines has turned into a Burgundy enthusiast. There just isn't anything that compares with it. Paul M. says it well:
"What makes Burgundy so special? Part of it is the way it frames power with elegance. But I think its defining trait is its potential for expressing beauty in a way no other wine can. When red Burgundy is wonderful, it's the only wine I know (aside from an occasional Barbaresco or Barolo) that sings."
In future newsletters, we'll continue our geographical tour of Burgundy by focusing on specific sub-regions. Until then, we invite you to come in and ask us for more information - including our current favorites in the shop. Our "Classic Thanksgiving Wines" selections will get you started.
Classic Thanksgiving Wines
Roast turkey goes well with lots of red and white wines. It's the traditional accompaniments that make Thanksgiving Day wine matching a job fraught with peril. Most Thanksgiving meals include dishes with a wide range of sweetness, bitterness, and acidity. Cranberry sauce in particular is a wine minefield. Popular varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon fight with many of the flavors in a traditional Thanksgiving meal. In general, you want to avoid wines that are especially dry or especially tannic.
Our favorite all-purpose Thanksgiving wines are white wines from Alsace and Pinot Noir from Burgundy.
Alsatian Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and other varieties have enough richness and weight to stand up to that riot of flavors on your plate. The spicy notes in these wines complement turkey and other slightly gamy, woodsy flavors. Alsatian wines aren't bone-dry, but they don't come across as sweet, either - most have just a touch of residual sugar to balance their lively acidity. The result is a wine that doesn't taste completely flat next to dishes with some sweetness and that remains bracing and fresh on the palate.
Pinot Noir is a great Thanksgiving wine because its lighter body complements fowl and its moderate tannins minimize conflict with other parts of the meal. While many producers in Oregon, California, New Zealand, and Australia now make delicious Pinot Noirs, red Burgundy remains the Pinot Noir benchmark, especially as a food wine. (That's in part because the wine-with-food tradition is centuries older in France.) The earthy, "mushroom-and-forest-floor" qualities of red Burgundy highlight those woodsy food flavors. Maybe if those original pilgrims had come from Burgundy instead of England, they would have brought their wine with them.
Without further ado, here's a selection of all-purpose Thanksgiving wines.
2001 Lucien Albrecht Pinot Blanc ($11.99): It's ripe and generous, as Pinot Blanc should be, but also fresh and lively, as all good white wine must be. Chardonnay lovers will gulp it down, while those who are looking for A.B.C. (Anything But Chardonnay) will be happy to sip P.B.
2000 Albert Boxler Edelzwicker Réserve ($13.99): "Edelz-what?!", you ask? Well, the name means "noble blend", but in Alsace it refers to an everyday wine made from blended grapes. In the hands of a good producer like Boxler, Edelzwicker becomes a delicious quaffer. Honey, chalk, and spice aromas anticipate capacious fruity-spicy-minerally flavors and a nice, zingy finish. It works great as an aperitif, as well as with all that stuff on your Turkey Day plate. As a bonus, the bottle has one of those "drawing of a quaint Alsatian village and impossibly scroll-y script" labels that will look cool on your Thanksgiving table.
2000 Dirler Gewürztraminer ($20.00): If you like that rich, exotic, almost unctuous quality of Gewürtztraminer, then this is your wine. "Gewürtz" means "spice" in German, and there's nothing shy about this spice-meister. All of those exotic fruit and wildflower aromas fairly fly out of the glass (allergy sufferers, consider yourself forewarned). The palate is equally dense, yet the wine remains balanced and demonstrates real breed. If this wine doesn't stand up to your menu, then nothing will.
2000 Manciat-Poncet Mâcon Rouge ($12.99): Paul C. likes to call it "the red wine that you can drink with foods that go with white wine". Turkey swings both ways, so you're covered in any case. Mâcon Rouge is a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes. Think Burgundy earthiness and Beaujolais brightness, all rolled into one beautiful, balanced bottle of wine. Here's something to pour when the fruity luster of Beaujolais Nouveau begins to pale. Mâcon Rouge is equally fun, but it's serious wine, too.
2000 Chevalier Bourgogne ($17.00): The moment we first smelled this wine, all of us had the same reaction: "Wow, this is good!" Ordinary Bourgogne rouge is often serviceable but lacking in character. This one, on the other hand, exhibits some real personality. There's dark fruit, some characteristically Burgundian earthiness, and just enough smokiness to lend depth (but not enough to get in the way of the fruit). On the palate, it's supple and suave - friendly enough for fruity Pinot lovers and elegant enough for those who want a little more.
2000 Fery-Meunier Savigny-lès-Beaune ($25.00): Savigny-lès-Beaune sits just north of the city of Beaune in the Côte de Beaune and produces elegant, lighter red Burgundies. Fery-Meunier's version is fleshy and generous. It's easy to like, but more than just skin-deep.
1999 Charlopin-Poruzots Fixin ($28.00): A beguiling, densely fruity nose hints at the exuberant, full-bodied charm of this wine from the Fixin village in the northern end of the Côte de Nuit. And if you serve several bottles on Thanksgiving, you can have turkey with all the Fixins....
1999 Nicolas Potel Beaune 1er Cru 'Les Epenotes' ($35.00): The Beaune appellation lies just west of the city of the same name. Like Savigny-lès-Beaune to the north, Beaune generally produces lively but gentle wines that speak of red fruits and a hint of earth. Les Epenotes vineyard, however, sits next door to the Pommard appellation, which produces heftier wines. The result is a wine that's powerful but elegant, with enough tannin to play off any meat on your holiday table.
2000 Albert Morot Beaune-Teurons 1er Cru ($38.00): Morot is a great Beaune producer, and this premier cru from Les Teurons vineyard is one of his best wines. Lovely perfume, delicacy, weight, elegance, breed, length - this wine is the complete package.
Of course we have lots of other Thanksgiving-friendly wines in all price ranges in stock. As always, we're here to talk with you about your menu and the wines that will go best with it.
Beaujolais--Nouveau or Not
by Paul Cortright
Beaujolais is in eastern France. Technically it resides in the Rhône departement, but spiritually and stylistically, it has more to do with its nearest neighbor to the north - Burgundy. Beaujolais proper lies north of Lyon (the traditional gastronomical center of France) near the convergence of the Rhone and Saône rivers. The rolling green hills are home to one of the largest land areas devoted almost entirely to a single grape variety: Gamay. Through hundreds of years of experimentation, Beaujolais winegrowers discovered that the Gamay grape is ideally suited to the area's sandy clay soil. In the right hands, Gamay produces fresh, vibrant, fruity wines that are as easy to match with food as they are to drink
Within the Beaujolais region there are several different grades of wine made. A bottle that is labeled simply Beaujolais can come from anywhere within the region, but it generally comes from the south. These are the simplest wines, and they're usually made from young vines in less ideal vineyards. The next step up are wines labeled Beaujolais Villages, which come from a relatively large area that has been recognized as producing finer wines.
The top of the region, both geographically and qualitatively, are the Crus. There are ten villages, with names like Morgon, Chiroubles, and Moulin-à-Vent, whose vineyards have distinguished themselves over time for making the most distinctive wines. These ten Crus (literally "growths") all reside in the northern part of the region, some of them only kilometers from the farthest southern vineyards of Burgundy's Mâconnais. At their best, Cru Beaujolais balance drinkability with rewarding complexity.
There is of course another important wine produced in Beaujolais: Nouveau. The idea is that nouveau is the first wine of the new vintage, celebrating the harvest and the fruit of everyone's labors. It's also conveniently a way for winemakers to sell a bunch of wine quickly without any of the cellaring and ageing of their regular production wines. The wines are made using a technique (carbonic maceration) that allows a significant portion of the juice to ferment inside the skins of the fruit. The resulting wine is very fresh and grapey, with light color and mild tannins. The wines are released every year, by law, on the third Thursday of November.
All wines from Beaujolais have a few things in common: light to medium body, low tannin, and pleasing acidity. They also tend to be very good wines with food. Cru wines like the 2000 Dominique Piron Morgon ($15.00), and the 2001 Jean-Marc Burgaud Régnié ($12.99) show off the individual characters of their crus - the Morgon with its firm meatiness and the Régnié with its clean, stony notes. Both are great wines to serve with medium-bodied flavors like pork and tomato based dishes (nothing too spicy though). Trénel is consistently one of our favorite producers, and his 2001 Beaujolais Villages ($9.99) is an excellent all-purpose wine; its bright strawberry and red cherry notes make it fun for parties but also the ideal match for salmon and chicken. Nouveau's release a week before Thanksgiving is a happy coincidence for us here in the States. The fruity, low-alcohol wines are a no-brainer on the table with your turkey and stuffing, and they won't scare off your non-wine-drinking relatives. Dominique Piron and Trénel both make nouveaus that are true to the style, yet still taste like wine.
Whichever you choose, these wines are eager to please. During these busy times, it's nice to have something that satisfies without taxing your already weary mind. Save the introspective wines for special meals with your closest friends and let the simple charms of these great Beaujolais keep your spirits up for the holidays to come.
Chad's Truly Excellent Thanksgiving
by Chad Arnold
I don't think of myself as a wine and food guy per se, and by this I mean that I am not obsessed with the perfect match of each dish with each wine. I do, however, love the synergy when a particular wine meshes seamlessly with a particular dish. Who wouldn't?
So this year, as is true every year, the crowd will be slightly different, and the dishes will vary somewhat from last year's. The idea, however, will most certainly be the same: A group of family, friends, and acquaintances gathered around a table (or two) sharing the same foods, the same wines, and telling stories that most likely implicate or incriminate those seated within earshot.
This year my wife, Susanne, and I will host the meal (which is not always the case) and likely serve most of the wine (which is usually the case). We will start with some non-vintage Champagne, something crisp and bright to waken the palate, say a bottle of Agrapart ($25.00) followed by a bottle of Pierre Peters ($34.00). These are both Blanc de Blancs, meaning they are made exclusively with Chardonnay grapes. Beautiful. Try these sparklers with a small piece of Explorateur or triple crème Brie. Wow! Even if you decide to skip the cheese interlude, these Champagnes are great conversation-enhancers as you're standing around waiting for the meal to begin.
We will then open a lighter style Chardonnay, usually something from the Mâconnais that works well as a "transition" wine, a wine that can successfully bridge two courses. We have about ten different bottlings in the store and all of them are inexpensive and delicious. We open this transition wine in part because not everyone eats and drinks at the same rate - those who are still on their second glass of Champagne can skip the third wine, while the rest of us have something new to titillate our taste buds. Furthermore, a lighter style wine acts as a "palate-prepper" when followed by a richer, more sophisticated bottling of the same grape. So, this year, we will then likely pour a Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet from 1998 because they are ripe, rich, and long on the palate. And they are drinking beautifully right now. The Premier Cru 'Les Poruzots' from Domaine du Château de Puligny-Montrachet ($47.00) would work perfectly.
Now you may have noticed that, so far, no red wines have been opened. Well to resolve this temporary predicament, we will open a red Burgundy not long after the white Burgundies (unless they are already gone?). We'll pour some into our glasses, swirl it a bit and Voilà - we now have a terrific dark meat wine, not to mention the perfect mushroom stuffing wine. Really.
So, What Red Burgundies, you ask? Well the first wines that come to mind are the bright, expressive 1999s, something from Charlopin-Parizot, say, his Vosne-Romanee ($40.00). What a wine - silky and rich while maintaining that Pinot Noir-defining elegance. For best results, let this bottle open up and relax in the glass for an hour or so before drinking it.
And finally to Germany and the Noble Rieslings therein. We'll start with a Trocken (dry) wine to re-tune and brighten our palates. A Spätlese Trocken would be perfect. Something from Muller-Catoir will be ideal - like the 2000 Gimmeldinger Mandelgarten Kabinett ($33) or the 2000 Haardter Herrenletten Kabinett($29). Either will be a revelation in wine. This wine has tremendous body with rich, complex flavors, and racing acidity, but it finishes dry as a drum.
The next (and possibly last) bottle will be a Spätlese from the 1999 or 2000 vintage, as they are both unctuous vintages for Riesling and will match well with the foods of Thanksgiving. There are many fine examples from an equally wide array of producers, so we will have our choice. Two current favorites are the 1999 Koehler-Ruprecht Kallstadter Saumagen Riesling Spätlese ($26.00) and 2000 Dönhoff Hermannshöhle Riesling Spätlese ($39.00). This style of wine also works well with pumpkin or apple pie.
At this point we may open a desert wine, although if past Thanksgivings are any guide, the only thing we'll want is a couch. However, if we finish our couch-time and still want yet another course (or slice of pie) or glass, then we'll go for the utterly delicious Coteaux du Layon Beaulieu 1999 'Les Rouannières' from Chateau Pierre-Bise. A real knockout and at $20.00 a real bargain. Amazing, no kidding.
Wines for the Thanksgiving Iconoclast
A crisp, clean, simple Chablis is a nice starter and great with the bird. 2001 Domaine Le Verger Chablis Cuvée Vieilles Vignes is just the ticket at $13.99, with some of that limestony Chablis minerality and a kiss of oak to make things interesting. If you want something with real Chablis class, try the2000 Jean-Marc Brocard Chablis 1er Cru 'Côte de Jouan' ($22) - it's pure and clean and a great deal in a premier cru wine.
If you can't decide between white and red, why not think pink, such as the 2001 Château La Rouvière Bandol Rosé ($20.00). It's pink and it's good - what more need we say?
Nebbiolo, the noble grape of Piemonte's Barolo and Barbaresco, finds its way into simpler, lighter, and cheaper red wines that will cozy right up to your Thanksgiving repast. 2001 Mauro Molino Nebbiolo Langhe ($16.00) showcases the pretty, floral side of Nebbiolo. Its strawberry fruit and lovely aromatics make it a real crowd-pleaser. The 1998 Claudio Alario Nebbiolo d'Alba 'Cascinotto' ($18.00) is more muscular Nebbiolo. It's got a tad if that tar-and-violets Barolo intensity, but not so much that it will overwhelm the food.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is another red wine that suits well the semi-gamy flavors of roast turkey. 2000 Domaine Grand Veneur Châteauneuf-du-Pape($25.00) shows off the plush fruit and pure pleasure of young Châteauneuf. The 1999 Mas de Boislauzon Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($33.00) is spicy and elegant - a clean and delicious example of this most noble of southern Rhône wines.