Aspen Times Weekly: Burgundy, the winemakers’ favorite wines
A Good Read: ‘The Wines of Burgundy’ by Clive Coates
Coates has made a life and a living off of the lands of Burgundy while never making wine. His “Côte D’Or: A Celebration of the Great Wines of Burgundy” canonized the vineyards. This book, published in 2008, provides a broader overview of the region. A must-have for those who are fascinated by the wines and the vineyards of Burgundy.
Over the past few weeks I have had a chance to sit with a number of winemakers and ask them an obvious question. I first asked a Canadian winemaker between ski runs on Aspen Mountain. Then, the next day, I posed the question to a winemaker from Washington as we rode a chairlift on Snowmass. Similarly, on a trip to California the following week, I again asked the same question of three winemakers in their respective caves and barrel rooms. “What are your favorite wines?”
All five responded with one word: Burgundy.
Now, all five of these winemakers have dabbled in the production of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but their primary wines range from Port to Cabernet. And yet, when asked, they all answered with the same response. Why are the wines from Burgundy considered by those who make wines to be the finest in the world?
Well, if you have ever tasted a Grand Cru Burgundy, I’m sure that you will have some clue based on your own experiences. The nuances of a great Pinot Noir can be revelatory, and the silkiness of a Chardonnay from the region can change how one thinks about wine. Not just a wine from Burgundy itself, but any wine. There are more people in the wine world who have their world rocked by wines from the Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy then those from just about anywhere else. Yes, including Champagne and Bordeaux.
When these five winemakers answered my question with the word “Burgundy” they are generally speaking of very specific selections of wines from a tiny section of a much larger region that produces many styles of wines. They are specifically referring to the amazing wines of the Grand Cru vineyards, the most valuable and sought-after vineyard land on Earth. In the classification system of Burgundy, a tiny percentage of wines qualify as Grand Cru. These are wines that originate in the 1,400 or so acres that have been officially designated as the very best, the creme de la creme, of Burgundy. They total less than 2 percent of all the vineyards in Burgundy and account for less than 1.5 percent of the region’s total production.
The names of these vineyards are legendary to Burghounds, or Burgophiles, as those who dabble in the rarefied air of the Grand Cru world are occasionally referred. Romanée-Conti, Richebourg, La Tâche and Échezeaux are tiny vineyards, all under a 100 acres (Romanée-Conti itself is less than five acres), and are the cradles of the great red wines of the Côte de Nuits.
And to the south, in the Côte de Beaune, the Grand Cru vineyards of Corton-Charlemagne, Bâtard Montrachet and Montrachet play host to the beautiful and much sought-after Chardonnays that are the basis for the white wines of Burgundy. If you have the means to afford these wines and to drink them on a regular basis, then you do indeed have means. A love affair with these wines can and has become an obsession for many.
The attraction for these wines is myriad. There is the taste — and that is an inexplicable thing as it changes from vineyard to vineyard, from maker to maker and from vintage to vintage. Great Burgundy defies description although the words power and delicacy, fruity and flowery, balanced and intense often alternate in any conversation of the wines. Then there is the cost and prestige that make drinking Burgundy a rite of habit for those who prefer the very best. Even if they are not necessarily certain why it is the best.
But you can drink Burgundy without having to pay the price of the Grand Crus. 98 percent of all Burgundy does not carry the prestige of the Grand Cru, nor does it carry the price. Below the Grand Cru are the Premier Cru designations and then come the Village wines.
Burgundy lies to the east of Paris, and the northern-most portion of the region, Chablis, is just over two hours away by car. This area is well known for the production of dry white wines made from the Chardonnay grapes. At the southern end of Burgundy is Beaujolais, a region that is best known for making fruity young red wines from the Gamay grape. These wines can be fun, easy-drinking reds and you can find a good Beaujolais for less than $15 a bottle.
But it is the wines from the heart of the region that truly inspire. I suggest that if you wish to learn about Burgundy, find a producer with a range of wines from the region. Start with the Village wines, then move up the ladder. Try the wines from Chablis and Beaujolais. Read a book or two. Eventually, the region will begin to make sense and you’ll start wondering what a ’37 Volnay or a ’42 La Tache tastes like.
But I warn you, like winemakers from all over the world, you may become hooked.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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