Burgundy - some notes on this great wine
NOTES ON BURGUNDY – ESPECIALLY FOR CLARET LOVERS!
The title of Hugh Johnson’s book is “Hugh Johnson on Wine “.
The Burgundy extracts are from an article “The Ultimate Guide to Burgundy “ on the Wine Society website by Toby Morrhall.
Burgundy can be quite a difficult wine to understand. It has a light colour, high-ish acidity, light tannins and 65-70% of its pleasure comes from its aroma. This is very different to say Bordeaux's darker, richer and more structured wine.
Indeed if you see red Burgundy through Claret tinted glasses you will miss much of the joy of Burgundy. Part of this is due to style and quality but much is due to expectations which are at odds with reality.
Top red Burgundy one can enjoy young, top Bordeaux one has to wait a decade. Burgundy should be enjoyed cool, at 14-16ºC, Bordeaux at 18ºC. Burgundy is sensual, Bordeaux more cerebral. Burgundy classified the land, Bordeaux the property. Burgundy holdings are small, Bordeaux generally large. Burgundy is made from one grape variety and usually one vineyard. Bordeaux is a wine of assemblage, a blend of different grape varieties and vineyards. Burgundy has only a few good cheap red wines. Bordeaux has hundreds of good petits châteaux.
When buying Burgundy, get to know a few growers' wines, then follow the growers you like because the influence of the grower is huge in Burgundy. It frequently produces a characterful wine with a distinct personality and may often reflect the producer's philosophy even more strongly than his terroir. In Bordeaux, making the wine is a team effort, and less the reflection of one person's philosophy, so the wines are perhaps more homogenous in style. They have less distinct personalities but also vary much less in quality.
Domaines in Burgundy are, or operate like, small family firms. As ownership is handed from one generation to another he, or she who succeeds may be brilliant, awful or anything in between. The owner will have carte blanche to make whatever style of wine he wants. Growers will have perhaps a couple of workers, or other family members, to help them but are fully hands on, and will prune their own vines, drive the tractors and plough the vineyards. They make the decision when to harvest, how to make the wine, when to bottle and then sell it, sampling from barrel and deciding prices and allocations. They influence the whole process. Their name or parent's name is on the label, their fingerprint marks the style and quality.
There are big differences in Burgundy between producers which begin right from the vineyard. Pinot noir readily mutates. There are thousands of different pinot noir plants, each domaine has different plant selections, some preferring clones, some using cuttings from around the vineyard. In vinification there is still a huge debate about whether to use whole bunches or de-stem, as almost everyone does in Bordeaux. The owner can take whatever risks he wants to, as he is answerable to himself (and perhaps his clients!). With a few, quite rare exceptions, Burgundians tend to rather disparage consultants as "salesmen", as they may sell yeasts, or services such as wine analyses. They use them for specific, often technical questions to do with how much sulphur dioxide to use at bottling but not as to when to pick or how to make the wine.
Burgundy is expensive!
Why is there so little red Burgundy under £10, or even £15, yet so many excellent red Bordeaux petits châteaux? Pinot noir versus cabernet sauvignon and merlot:
There are three principal reasons for this.
Firstly pinot noir is a grape variety where quality suddenly reduces when you go above a yield of about 50-55hl/ha (in Burgundy). Indeed, it falls at such a rate that the inherent quality and character of the grape is lost quickly. Great pinot is made at around 30-35hl/ha. Below £15, most red Burgundies will be made from yields of 55 - 60hl. This is quite different from most other varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot or syrah, where you can make great wine up to 50hl/ha, excellent wine between 50-65 hl, good wine at 65-90 h/l, and acceptable wine of 90-110 hl/ha. Thus it is possible to make a cabernet-based wine in Bordeaux from 90 hl/ha and sell it for £5-7 a bottle, aided by economies of scale of a big 60ha château compared to a smaller 15ha Burgundy domaine.
Secondly there is very little appropriate land for pinot noir in Burgundy. In the Côte D'Or, the best vineyards, grands crus, premiers crus and villages are planted on the narrow east and south-east facing slopes of an escarpment (la côte, or 'slope', which has given its name to the department La Côte D'Or) which is just 55km or so in length, and usually between 0.5-1.5km wide. This terroir forms a virtuous circle where there is the potential to produce high quality wine with low yields and all is in harmony. The south-east orientation protects them from the westerly winds and maximises exposure to the sun. On these slopes vines intercept more sunlight than flat lands and are protected from frost. The soil of the slope is poor in fertility, so yields are naturally low, and the well drained soil is warmer and so grapes ripen more quickly. Burgundy is the most northerly fine red wine vineyard in Europe and so precocity has always been a big advantage because many promising vintages have been spoilt by Autumn rains.
Thirdly, supply and demand come into play. Not only does Bordeaux produce about four times the amount of Burgundy, but each Burgundian producer has tiny holdings of each appellation. Many top growers produce very little Bourgogne and good co-operatives are rare.
In Burgundy it is the vineyards that have been classified, not the producers. The classification is broadly very accurate. It divided the land into into four ascending grades, bourgogne, village, premier cru and grand cru.
So far so good.
What is difficult for many people to understand is that the vineyards in Burgundy often have many owners. So Le Chambertin, for example, is owned by 21 producers, who may bottle some or all of the production or sell some to a negociant (wine trader).
Thus, in Burgundy, to identify a wine you need two bits of information: the name of the vineyard and the name of the grower, in this case, for example, Le Chambertin Domaine Armand Rousseau, or Le Chambertin Domaine Dujac etc. Many producers put the name of the appellation in the largest type on the label and their name in quite small type at the bottom.
One last complication in the naming of vineyards is that a tradition developed where the villages of Burgundy decided to add the name of their best vineyard to the end of their name. Thus Gevrey added the name of Le Chambertin to become Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle added Le Musigny to become Chambolle-Musigny. Le Montrachet straddles two communes, Puligny and Chassagne, hence Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet etc.
What should red Burgundy taste like?
Young, modest Burgundy
A simple, young red Burgundy should have a light ruby red colour, a pretty aroma of cherries, a medium-bodied palate of highish, refreshing acidity and light and soft tannins. Its structure comes more from its acidity than its tannins. As we have seen previously, most are produced from highish yields for pinot in cool, wet soils so one cannot expect too muc of a modest wine.
Vintage and hierarchical variations
Pinot noir at its best has a haunting perfume. When young, cooler vintages smell of red fruits, such as cherries, redcurrants or raspberries, warmer ones smell of more black fruits, such as black cherries, and have sweeter and denser palates. As one moves up the quality hierarchy, one should be rewarded by greater complexity, aromatic intensity and a finer or richer texture on the palate. Frequently in the best wines there may be a kirsch-like or almondy note of a cherry kernel. A hint of vanilla from a proportion of new oak can be attractive, but the oak should not dominate the wine.
As it ages it develops earthy aromas the French call ‘sous bois’, the wonderful amalgam of smells you take in walking through a wood in autumn: leaf mould, undergrowth, freshly turned earth, mushrooms, truffles and perhaps some smoke from a bonfire. (What is wine but decaying vegetal matter?) Towards full maturity it can taste more animal, leathery and like hung game. Some exceptional wines keep the purity of fruit throughout their life, overlaying it wth hints of the vegetable and animal
Nuances of terroir
Côte de Beaune wines are generally lighter than those from the Côte de Nuits. Beaunes are soft and round, Volnays fine and silky. Pommards are the exception: due to more clay in the soil, they can be notably tannic and in need of considerable bottle age.
Côte de Nuits wines usually have more sophisticated tannins which contribute extra body and a more sumptuous texture. Gevrey-Chambertin is a complete and balanced wine, full and harmonious. Wines from Nuits-St-Georges are the most tannic and, like Pommards, need long maturation. For many Vosne-Romanée is the summit. Its wines have beautiful velvety palates: dense and soft, sensuous and tactile. Chambolle-Musigny is the lightest yet one of the most fragrant wines of the Côte de Nuits. It is perhaps Nuits's equivalent of Volnay; a pretty, fine boned wine with exquisite perfume and a silky palate.
As one reaches the rarified levels of top premiers crus and grands crus from the producers who are aiming at yields of 35-40 hl and harvest relatively late, one can in ripe years achieve a profound richness and density of texture. But these wines are rare.