Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
September 2, 2011
“I don’t know that I ever really got Burgundy before.”
That line was uttered by a dear friend, an extremely savvy food and wine professional, who owns (I actually have seen them in her office which doubles as her wine cellar) a number of great wines from the region.
She drinks Pinot Noir from all over the world and the comment came after she attended the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Ore. While there, she had tasted what could best be described as a revelatory red from the Burgundy region of France.
With apologies to Bordeaux, Burgundy is the most iconic wine region in all the world. While Bordeaux is built on a backbone of Cabernet Sauvignon and commerce, Burgundy is all about limestone and artistry. But “getting” Burgundy can require years of study and tasting, a visit or three, and unfortunately, money. Lots of it. That is the price to be paid for art, especially art that is in short supply.
First, the basics.
Bourgogne, known as the “heart of France,” is a province that lies south and east of Paris. While it harbors some of France’s best farmland and is home to some of its most admired culinary products, its fame stems from the production of wine in the region known throughout the world as Burgundy.
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The Burgundy wine region begins near the city of Dijon (yes, home of the mustard) and runs 120 miles or so south to Lyon, which sits in the shadow of the Alps. Oh, and don’t forget Chablis, a district which is not really attached to the rest of Burgundy, but is still considered an important part of the region.
The grapes that are grown in Burgundy are predominately Pinot and Noir and Chardonnay which make up all of the great wines. There is also a grape called Gamay which is grown in Beaujolais in the southern portion of Burgundy and is the basis for the fruity wines called, you guessed it, Beaujolais.
The region has five districts with the most significant being the Côte d’Or, (Golden Hillside), home to some of the most sought after and expensive Pinot Noir made. The Côte d’Or itself is broken into two regions, the Côte d’Nuits and the Côte d’Beaune, which sit to the north and south respectively of the city of Beaune. Further south are the Côte Chalonnaise and Maconnais regions which are home to the great White Burgundies that are produced from Chardonnay grapes.
If any of this seems complicated, you have just begun to be confused. There are politics, classification systems, hundreds of different land owners with their own agendas and winemaking styles, perhaps a thousand separate micro-climates, 200 years of vintage minutia and more that go in to making Burgundy, Burgundy. And beyond that it is so … so … French, that for an outsider to “get” Burgundy can take a lifetime or more.
And yet, that was not what my friend meant when she said that she had never really understood Burgundy before her revelatory taste. Rather, what she meant was that in all of her years of tasting the wines, and she has been exposed to many of the most expensive and desired vintages from many of the most exclusive and desired winemakers of the region, she never really got what all the fuss was about.
Certainly the wines she had tasted before were wonderful to drink. But, like many who come upon the Burgundies, especially Americans, with expectations of being blown away by a simple sip of Pinot, she had not had her bell rung. That is until the taste she had in Oregon. She can’t even tell you what the wine was, it was just one in a line-up of a dozen wines or so. But when she put the glass to her lips it … well, as she explained it: “It had a depth of flavor, a texture and yet a finesse that I felt was so utterly compelling that I had to keep sipping even though there were so many other wines to taste.”
To quote Jimi Hendrix, she became “experienced.” In one taste of a well-made Pinot Noir she came to the inexpressible, unexplainable realization of what the wines from Burgundy can be about. It is ethereal and special. If you haven’t gotten it then you don’t know what it is like to be experienced. But if you have …
We don’t say that we don’t “get” Sonoma or the Barossa or other regions of the wine world. But there is something about Burgundy that sets it apart and makes it one of the most unique places in this or any other universe.