Burgundy: A Journey to the end of the Rainbow.

Burgundy is a much vaunted, but often disappointing wine. It sometimes seems like the proverbial pot of gold that we are told lies at the end of the rainbow, yet never manage to reach. Even so, people become infatuated with it, continually chasing the beautiful but elusive experience of great Burgundy.

As a young man, I heard it said – usually by claret drinkers – that Bordeaux is a wife, but Burgundy is a mistress. What they didn’t say, though perhaps it could be considered obvious, is that Burgundy is a perplexing, expensive and often frustrating mistress.

But the warnings fell on deaf ears – my time came, and I fell in love. Entranced by my first touch of Burgundy magic, it is as though all my senses were heightened. I can still recall every detail of that dinner, and of course the wine: the 1985 Tastevinage labelled Vosne-Romanée – a “modest” village wine. There followed several years of disappointing (and expensive) experimentation as I tried to find the magic again, before my “Road to Damascus” moment arrived in the fortunate guise of a 1961 Échezeaux from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. The lesson I learned (which seemed to be a closely guarded secret) was that good Burgundy ages fantastically well, and far longer than most merchants or wine writers would dare tell you. Even more than that, the good ones are so much better when mature than in their youth.

So I went on to buy more and ever more Burgundy, but I soon discovered that it was very hard to find Burgundy which was both good and ready to drink. But I assure you, it can be done, and I hope to offer you here a few pointers to help you find your way to Burgundian pleasure. On the way we will encounter a few of the facts of Burgundy and of its making, but only in passing. If you want to go deeper into the details, you can find some recommendations for further reading at my links page and at the end of this article.

We will focus here entirely on the great red wines of the “Côte d’Or” – the ‘golden slope’ centred on Beaune and Nuits-St.- Georges (the whites deserve an article of their own). Whilst some lovely wines are made in the regions of Macon, the Côte Chalonnaise and Chablis, none – for me at least – has the ethereal beauty that can be found in the Côte d’Or.

These wines – due to a limited supply and increasing demand – are never cheap. To be frank, a worthwhile wine is probably going to cost you around £ 60 – 100 today. For that you will get a village Vosne-Romanée or Gevrey-Chambertin from a good producer, or a very good 1er cru from the less fashionable appellations such as Marsannay or Ladoix. To get something really special, you should think of at least doubling that figure.

Furthermore, the scarcity of these wines makes the good ones hard to find. You are going to need to find a wine merchant who has access to the best wines. It is catastrophically easy to venture onto the high street and spend £45, only to be utterly disappointed. The Côte d’Or, as Jay McInerney so delightfully put it, is “the source of more tears and heartache than country-music radio”. Burgundy has been described many times as a “minefield”, and with good cause. But with knowledge and experience you can pick you way through it and minimise the risk of disappointment. As to the mines themselves, there are many factors that determine the quality of wine in a bottle, which are common to all wines. It is often said – and I cannot argue – that the producer is the most important. However, the producer makes many choices on his way, and the critical determinants of what ends up in your bottle are:

    • Choice of grape
    • The age of the vines
    • The climate, the soil and the microclimate – together “terroir”
    • Vineyard management
    • The harvest date
    • Treatment in the winery
    • Additions made to the wine
    • The aging process
    • The closure

Of these, those highlighted are the ones that I believe have an impact on the quality of Burgundy far greater than they have on other wines. Let’s quickly review them one by one.

The choice of grape might seem straightforward – after all in red Burgundy we are dealing almost entirely with Pinot Noir. Yet describing the grape used to make Burgundy as Pinot Noir is like describing you or I as “human”. Pinot Noir is genetically unstable: it continually throws off new variants (or mutations) as it reproduces – perhaps with bigger berries, better resistance to mould, sweeter flavour etc. The genetic code (or genome) of Pinot Noir was mapped in 2007 and found to contain almost 30,000 genes (humans have 20 to 25,000). Perhaps more importantly, single nucleotide variations were present in 87% of those genes, giving more than 2 million variants. I hope you can imagine then how the vines which gave birth to an Otago Pinot Noir may be startlingly different to those which produced a Savigny-lès-Beaune. And in fact, those making the Chambolle-Musigny from Monsieur Mugnier may be quite different to those responsible for Monsieur Rion’s.

Moving on, I regret to inform you that terroir is not a marketing myth. Pinot Noir is a delicate grape, in all sorts of ways. Thin-skinned, it is very vulnerable to rot. More importantly – unless over-extracted – it is quite low in tannins and has naturally delicate flavours. This makes it quite “transparent” – meaning that the imprint of the climate and soil can be more easily perceived than they would be in a “denser” wine such as Cabernet Sauvignon.

The first element of terroir – the climate – is critical; Pinot Noir is a relatively early ripening grape, and in too warm a climate can get “rushed along” to ripeness without developing any depth of flavour or character. A cool climate gives a long growing season (100 days is the age-old Burgundian standard from flowering to harvest) allowing greater flavour development. Such a cool climate exists in Burgundy of course, but also in coastal Chile, high altitude California and New Zealand’s South Island just to mention a few.

So what differentiates all these places with a suitable climate? The most important answer (other than the producer) is the soil. For whatever reason, it seems to me that Pinot Noir reaches its best, most subtle expression when planted on a limestone baserock, such as exists in Burgundy. The topsoil can be alluvial gravels or clays (so long as the drainage is reasonably good) presenting more subtle differences. Even at the level of individual vineyards only a few metres apart, the difference in the wine arising from slightly different soils and microclimates can be astonishing. This is something I have experienced many times when sampling two different vineyards from the same producer in the same vintage. But let’s not get carried away – these differences are relatively small compared to those that arise from major climatic differences and from wine-making choices. It is all too easy for terroir to get submerged beneath heavy-handed winemaking techniques, our next key issue.

The thin-skinned Pinot Noir tends to give lighter colours and lower tannin levels in the wine than thicker-skinned grapes. Also, as a result of the climate, it is quite rare for Burgundy to naturally exceed 12.5 or 13% alcohol. Indeed, Burgundy has long had a reputation for lightness and delicacy. Yet over the last 20 or 30 years – perhaps driven by the emergence of “points” and by the increasing taste of wine consumers for richer, sweeter more alcoholic wines – we have seen some domaines shifting their winemaking style to produce bigger, more immediately impressive, wines.

The most important wine-making choices in this regard are:

  • Cold maceration – leaving the crushed grapes on their skins before fermentation to get deeper colours and richer fruit
  • Longer cuvaison – leaving the fermented wine on the skins for longer before pressing to get deeper colours and more tannins
  • Removing the stalks – which give more tannins, but lighter coloured wines
  • Hotter fermentation – up to 30 or even 35C to get richer flavour and deeper colour
  • Chaptalisation – adding sugar to increase alcohol levels and to prolong the fermentation (thus getting deeper colours and more tannins).

So, one man’s Corton can be medium red, fragrant and earthy, whilst the next is black, dense, rich and sweet. You need to know which is which – and which you like.

Finally, aging: an apparently simple affair when the finished wine is left in wooden barrels until bottling. The essential choice here is of the amount and type of “new oak” used in the barrels. Oak barrels that are 2 or 3 years old become virtually neutral, but new oak can bring extra complexity, with flavours of vanilla, spice, chocolate or even coffee, as well as more tannins. Too much new oak, relative to the density of the wine, can dry it out and overwhelm it. The second choice is how long to leave the wine in the barrel before bottling, which will affect the depth of imprint the oak has on the wine.

After all that, the good news: most of these critical issues tend to remain the same for any individual domaine – they don’t change their vineyards (soil or microclimate) often, they don’t replant (i.e. change the clonal selection) often, they tend to stick with their wine-making style (or at least experiment gradually) and to maintain the barrel regime.

So, the golden rule of Burgundy is Producer, Producer, Producer! If you find a producer that you like, then you can be assured of a similar style of wine over time … the only question will be how successful they were in a particular vintage. Once you have settled on a producer you like, then Burgundy-loving friends or knowledgeable merchants will be able to recommend others for you to try. By producer, I also mean the better, quality-oriented, négociant houses (“Maisons”) as well as individual estates (“Domaines”). The good négociants too, have their house style, and often have long-standing relationships with growers which provides continuity of vines and terroir.

If you are yet to identify a maker you like, then I suggest you deliberately explore the different styles of Burgundy available and work out what you prefer. A good starting point is to look at the array of what I call “modern” winemaking (dark, highly extracted, richly fruited) versus “traditional” (leaner, purer, lighter coloured) and of highly oaked versus less oaked.

Once you have discovered what style of wine you like, and succeeded in buying it, then the final facet of the mysterious experience that can be Burgundy is in the drinking. The most critical issue here, which doesn’t seem to be widely publicised, is the choice of when to drink it.

As a novice I bought 1993 Burgundy “en primeur” intending to keep it until it was mature. I started drinking my stash around 1998 and was heartily disappointed: my carefully aged wines had no beauty to them at all. Please don’t make this mistake! Burgundy should be drunk young or old, but NOT in between. Anthony Hanson in his book “Burgundy” describes the ‘window of undrinkability’ when the youthful fruit begins to fade, and nothing appears to take its place. This is often referred to as “closing down” and really does happen. So many disappointments – for me and I guess many others – have come about because that treasured bottle has been kept for 5 or 6 years and then opened with anticipation at precisely the wrong time.

So, when is the right time? Certainly, for the first year or two after bottling, when the wines are lovely and fresh with succulent fruit to hide the structure. How quickly, and how much, they shut down depends on the wine. My experience is that more tannic vintages shut down faster, and wines with richer fruit (in general the higher appellations, and the more “modern” wines) don’t shut down as hard. In essence they have more fat to see through the lean times! Do keep in mind that even though these richer wines may weather the “window of undrinkability” well, they will be even better when they reach maturity.

Maturity is an imprecise term, with wildly differing interpretations. I use it explicitly to mean that the wine has emerged from its closed state and is drinking nicely. You may have to wait a further 10 or even 20 years for the wine to be “fully mature”, by which I mean not capable of further improvement. Even then, a few top Burgundies may last well for another 20 years. Those 1961s that so transfixed me really are still drinking well!

When a Burgundy achieves maturity depends on the character of the wine and the vintage, though as a general guideline I would not usually expect it to be less than 8 or 10 years after the vintage. But it’s no good keeping your wine for these 10 years (or more) if you don’t keep it well. Good cellaring is even more critical than for other wines – it seems that our “tender” Pinot Noir is also very susceptible to damage once in bottle, both through oxidation (due to poor corks) and heat damage. There are a lot of bad bottles of Burgundy around that didn’t start out that way – so you need to be very careful over provenance and condition if you are buying old Burgundy. Or over storage conditions if you are buying it young!

Finally, after all these tribulations, spend time with your bottle. Remember, Burgundy is a mistress, and you should aim to spend a few hours with one, not to squeeze ten into an evening and compare them! But seriously, each wine is different, and each bottle is different – it may be more or less advanced than the last. Open your bottle, and smell, and taste. Be ready to start drinking straight away if the wine is ready, and be prepared to wait for it to come out if it seems tight still. And don’t be afraid to decant; old Burgundy throws a very fine sediment which – for me at least – detracts from the wine. If you don’t like it then decant, but do it gently and carefully, and just before serving.

I hope you enjoy a good Burgundy soon – as Gerald Asher wrote “A great bottle of Burgundy is one of the strongest arguments we have in favour of wine … The problem for most of us, though, is to find that great bottle of Burgundy.”

© Peter Sidebotham, 2009

This article was originally published in Grapestalk, the magazine of ASDW.

Recommendations for Additional Reading

    1. “Burgundy” by Anthony Hanson
    2. “The Finest Wines of Burgundy” by Bill Nanson
    3. “Inside Burgundy” by Jasper Morris
    4. “Making Sense of Burgundy” by Matt Kramer
    5. “In Search of Pinot Noir” by Benjamin Lewin
    6. “Grand Cru” by Remington Norman