Burgundy, especially red Burgundy, can be quite a difficult wine to understand. It has a light colour, highish 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. We get more complaints about red Burgundy than any other wine. Part of this is due to Burgundy's variable style and quality but much is due to expectations which are at odds with reality.
I studied and worked in Bordeaux for two years and love the wines, and have been buying Burgundy for The Wine Society since 1996. I have learnt that a very different approach is needed to enjoy Burgundy and Bordeaux because they are so markedly different.
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 monocépage, 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.
Background to Burgundy with reference to Bordeaux
Variation due to the Style of the owner: Family companies and corporate giants
When buying Burgundy we suggest you get to know a few growers' wines, then follow the growers you like. This is 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 philiosophy 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.
Burgundy domaines 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. In the "Buyers' Guide" which follows you will see mentions of how the domaine style has changed as children take over from their parents. A good sized domaine may reach a size of 10ha, with about 15 wines made.
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.
So in Gevrey Chambertin one can have big and powerful wines, for example those of Denis Mortet. His last vintage was 2005. But his son Arnaud is now making still quite concentrated wines but in a finer, less extracted and less oaky style. Rousseau make elegant, medium bodied wines that seem to grow in stature with age. Fourrier make some of the finest, lightest-boned and most ethereal Gevreys of all. There is a much bigger span of styles within in the commune of Gevrey than in the style of say St Julien (Bordeaux) properties Châteaux Ducru-Beaucaillou, Gruaud-Larose or Beychevelle.
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 sélection massale. In vinification there is still a huge debate about whether to use whole bunches or destem, whereas I would say almost everyone destems in Bordeaux. The owner can take whatever risks he wants too, 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.
In Bordeaux, a Médoc château can be 70ha, many are owned by large corporations, and usually makes only one or two wines. In Bordeaux there are owners, consultants, winemakers and viticulturists all who have an input into these much larger, more corporate enterprises, so one usually sees less the vision of one person. There is perhaps a higher average quality in Bordeaux with less variation than in Burgundy. In Bordeaux there is more homogeneity of style. An employee will not want to make mistakes and so will take fewer risks than an owner.
Winemakers and viticulturists are usually well-educated hired hands, not members of the owner's family, often overseen at key moments such as blending by consultants, including the low profile Jacques Boissenot or the high profile Michel Rolland. Winemaking is more orthodox, generally following the precepts laid down by the influential teacher and consultant Emile Peynaud, with a few more recent variations such as malolactic fermentation in barrel.
It is thus because the grower exerts such an influence over the style and quality of a wine that we suggest you buy Burgundy by grower not appellation.
Quality variation: Watercolours and Oils
There is much more quality variation in Burgundy than in Bordeaux.
When visiting a cellar in Burgundy, you will frequently see open topped wooden red wine fermentation vats made to measure for the size of the grower's holding, often with the name of the cru scribbled on it in chalk. He may have 0.6 ha of Vosne-Romanée villages, 0.30 ha of Vosne-Romanée Premiers Cru Malconsorts, 0.20ha of Romanée St Vivant etc.The vats are made to receive this quantity of grapes.
For most growers, there is usually just one picking date for each vineyard (the whole harvest probably lasts 6-8 days), which will usually fill one vat. All of course is pinot noir and he is virtually never going to be able to declassify say his Vosne-Romanée Premier Cru Malconsorts to straight Vosne-Romanée if the crop got a little rot or he picked too early or the fermentation did not go to plan. Thus he has one shot at choosing the picking date and just one shot at the only fermentation vat of that wine. It's like painting with watercolours, you get one go at it. It can scale the heights when a risk-taking owner pushes decisions to the limits and it all comes off, and vice versa.
Compare this to the option of a Bordeaux winemaker who has 70ha, two or three grape varieties, and a harvest that may last three weeks, and just two wines to make: the grand and second vin. He has a serried rank of vats, often filling say three or more from the same picking date, maybe many more from the same vineyard. The harvest lasts about three weeks. There is bound to be a decent percentage of the vineyards picked at the optimum time. There are different grape varieties, the softer merlot, firmer cabernet sauvignon, cedary cabernet franc etc.
After the fermentation, and perhaps after sometime in barrel, the winemaker, and occasionally the owner and consultant, have a number of decisions to make for the assemblage, the final blend. Poor vats can be sold off. In a lesser/greater year more or less wine can be declassified to the second wine. It might have been a poor year for merlot and a better one for cabernet, and different percentages of these can be tried in a blend to soften the wine or contribute more structure. Thus there are many options to manage the quality of the grand vin, and maintain a certain house style. It is like painting with oils.
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.
Chardonnay follows a similar pattern to cabernet, hence why one finds a broader range of cheaper white Burgundy, usually from the Mâconnais where a warmer climate can ripen larger yields than in the north.
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. Global warming may change the climate and require a different terroir. But that is for the future
Conversely most of Burgundy's most reasonably priced wines, under £15 or so, which are classified as straight "Bourgogne", mostly come from the flat vineyards to the east of the N974, the road at the base of the slope, where the Bresse plain begins. Here there are pastures and small ponds. This land constitutes a vicious circle. It is less favourable for ripening, and yet yields are higher so grapes rarely ripen sufficiently to make attractive wine. These flat lands intercept less sunlight than slopes and are more frost prone. The soil at the bottom of the slope is richer, so encourages yield, yet is wetter, so colder. The wine sells for much less than the best wines, yet the cost of production is often the same. There is thus the need to produce higher yields to be commercially viable, but, fatally, bigger crops delay ripening in a terroir which is already less capable of ripening grapes than the slopes. Only with ripe grapes can you make decent wine. And, as we have seen, pinot can lose all its quality over 55hl/ha. This is why Burgundy is expensive and why there are there are so few good "cheap" red Burgundies.
There is pinot noir in the Côte Chalonnaise, situated to the south of La Côte D'Or, but only some of it is of interesting quality, even for Bourgogne. It is an area of mixed farming, with arable land and pastures grazed by creamy white Charollais cattle. Only some land is suitable for vineyards. We work with a good co-operative in Buxy to produce our Society's Red Burgundy and are allowed to taste through the cellar to select the best vats and barrels. The Buxy co-op pays more for lower yields of grapes and visit the vineyards and grade them for size of yield and lack of disease and ferment the different lots separately. This separation of differing qualities is key to the success of this co-operative. Poor co-operatives mix the good with the bad and achieve a middling quality.
Contrast this with Bordeaux, where there are a number of different terroirs capable of producing a range of quality of good to superb quality wines because there are a number of different grape varieties with different requirements. Cabernet sauvignon is a late ripener which is most at home in the warm, well drained gravel banks of the Médoc. It is only found elsewhere in the "graves St Emilion" where pockets of gravel appear such as at Figeac. Cabernet franc is less picky and will ripen in the soils of intermediate warmth in the limestone escarpment of St Emilion. Merlot is the earliest ripener of the three varieties and when mature has up to a degree more alcohol than cabernet sauvignon. It is the only one that will ripen in the very cold clay soil of Pomerol. Merlot is also able to adapt well to the lesser quality soils in Bourg, Blaye, Castillon and Entre-deux-Mers and still ripen acceptably to produce attractive Petits Châteaux. This adaption of variety to soil type explains why in the Médoc cabernet sauvignon dominates, St Emilions are blends of cabernet franc and merlot, why Pomerol is mostly merlot and why the lesser petits Châteaux from Bourg etc are predominantly merlot.
Thirdly, supply and demand come in to 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.
Classification and Naming of wines in Burgundy and Bordeaux
Simple Bordeaux, confusing Burgundy
The two things of greatest importance in producing quality wine are the producer (ability, motivation and resources) and quality of their vineyards. The ideal would be to classify both, but this is very difficult. Bordeaux chose to classify by the producer and Burgundy by the vineyards. Both have advantages and disadvantages, but that of Bordeaux is simpler and, of course, that of Burgundy is more difficult!
Classification and Naming of Bordeaux
In Bordeaux it is the producer or château that is classified, not the land. The 1855 classification was done on price.
The weakness of the system is when properties become badly run or change hands, and that over time wine from different vineyards bought from other properties post classification can be included in a château's bottling. Château Margaux was producing poor wines under the Cruse ownership not worthy of its status. That changed overnight in 1978 when the new owner, Mentzelopoulos, bought it, installed Emile Peynaud as consultant, introduced a second wine, invested a lot of money and then ran it with high standards. But in the end the market makes a judgement on the price, so changes since 1855 are reflected in the market price.
The great advantage is that Bordeaux wines can usually be uniquely identified by their name, usually preceeded by the name of a château, which appears in the largest letters on the label. For example, you don't need to know Château Montrose is a St Estephe or who the producer is.
The only possible confusion is that some châteaux produce second wines, a cheaper wine usually containing younger vines. But the Bordelais usually carefully avoid using the name "château" in the title of second wines so the relationship is clear. Thus one has: Ch Latour and Forts de Latour, Ch Lafite and Carruades de Lafite, Ch Montrose and Dame de Montrose, Ch Palmer and Alter Ego de Palmer.
Classification and Naming of Burgundy
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.
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.
In a tiny number of cases the whole vineyard is owned by one producer, which is known as a monopole, or monopoly. For example, Clos de Tart is owned 100% by the Mommessin family, La Grande Rue by Lamarche and La Tâche is owned by Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. There is thus only one Clos de Tart, La Grande Rue and La Tâche.
The disadvantage of this system is that the producers are not classified. So for example, of the 21 Le Chambertins there is a big difference in quality and style, with some producers such as Armand Rousseau making superb quality and others making poor quality not worthy of the grand cru appellation on the label.
This variation in quality as well as style, as we have seen above, is another reason why we suggest you choose Burgundy by producer first, then appellation.
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.
This can lead to confusion. When you see a Gevrey-Chambertin and a Le Chambertin which is the village wine and which is the grand cru? The latter will have Grand Cru on the label.
Thus the hierarchy is as follows:
Villages, premier cru and grand cru
Gevrey-Chambertin is a wine from the villages appellation (£25-45)
Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru Les Cazetiers (£45-80)
Le Chambertin Grand Cru (£80-350)
Tasting Burgundian Pinot Noir: Great expectations infrequently met
We probably get more complaints about red Burgundy than any other wine we sell, especially the cheapest ones. In many cases this is because expectations are out of kilter with reality. Some people expect red Burgundy to look and taste like Châteauneuf-du-Pape; dark, rich, sweet, full bodied, alcoholic and powerful. It doesn't. It is almost its polar opposite.This is because Burgundy is the most northerly fine red wine region in Europe and pinot noir has thin skins. Thus, red Burgundy is generally light in colour, intensely fragrant, medium-bodied wine with a fruity, elegant palate redolent of cherries, with highish acidity and low levels of tannins. The notion that Burgundy is dark and rich derives from the wines of the 1950s and 1960s which were often "doctored" with wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or Algeria, to sweeten and darken them.
Red Burgundy's particularities and how best to serve it
Burgundy is perhaps the most difficult of all red wines to appreciate because so much of its joy is in its lovely perfume. Some people do not take pleasure in and examine the aromas of a wine before, after and while drinking it. Red Burgundy is also quite delicate and gentle on the palate, and has highish acidity, like refreshing Tay raspberries or crisp English Cox's Orange Pippin apples. Served at the wrong temperature and quickly swallowed, most of red Burgundy's attributes are bypassed. Burgundy lovers know what to expect, but those brought up on other varieties such as cabernet are often surprised by pinot noir.
Also, as we have seen with the above example of Gevrey-Chambertin, Burgundy varies enormously in style, even within the same commune, because the influence of the grower is so strong in shaping the wine style and because each grower's idea of what constitutes good Burgundy can be very different. It can de difficult to know what to expect. Etienne Grivot suggests that terroir is like a music score and the grower is like the conductor, and so many and varied interpretations are possible.
To begin with, pinot noir has a thin skin, where the colour and tannins reside, which means it has a relatively light colour and less tannins than most red wines. Don't judge a pinot negatively if it has a light colour.
Secondly, and as mentioned, about 65-70% of the pleasure of a pinot noir comes from its exquisite aromas and bouquet. To appreciate this you need to serve pinot at between 14-16ºC, the bottle should be cool to the touch, in a large glass (I use Riedel Chianti glases for all wines at home) filled about a third full. Unless you serve Burgundy in this way you will lose its wonderful perfume. It is remarkable how a wine at 20ºC can appear to have little or confused aromas and yet, after putting it in the fridge for 15 or so minutes suddenly the aromas can appear, as if by magic, intense and focused.
Bordeaux has more abundant and firm tannins whose astringent sensation is exaggerated when served cool. It is better served at 18ºC. These small differences make a great impact on the palate. Given domestic fridges are about 8ºC and centrally heated room temperature is about 20-22ºC a thermometer and a bit of trial and error is called for. Although this sounds tedious, after a little experimentation this temperature will soon become second nature to you and you will be able to do away with the thermometer and go by feel.
What should red Burgundy taste like?
Young, modest Burgundy
A simple, young Bourgogne rouge 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 much 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 mold, 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.
The greatest Burgundies are not necessarily the richest wines. What is remarkable about great Burgundy is how this elegant, fine flavoured wine can impress by the intensity, beauty and persistence of the aromas and flavours rather than sheer power. It has more of the grace and elegance of a dancer, or the sinewy physique of a middle distance runner than the bulging muscularity of a sprinter. Great wines can have an ethereal character, a captivating perfume difficult to describe but easy to recognise and a caressing, velvety texure on the palate. It leads one to ask how can such beautiful aromas and textures be derived from mere grapes? Sadly words, or rather my words, cannot do it justice. But you'll know when you taste it.
Poor red Burgundy is made from high yielding, poorly tended vineyards, which delay ripening and encourage disease. Green grapes produce green wines, lacking in fruit and body, and with rather too much astringent tannin. These unattractive characteristics can be further compounded in the winery, by those who force extraction of colour and tannin. Burgundy really begins and ends in the vineyard. If you overcop pinot and then try to extract a lot of colour and tannin you get a hollow wine, with little fruit and harsh tannins. As it ages the fruit fades but the green tannin remains. You cannot compensate for diluted grapes in the vineyard by overextraction in the winery.
Back to the source of quality: the vineyard
Low yields and careful, vigilant management of the vineyard to avoid disease and promote ripening are what is necessary. Good producers intervene frequently in the vineyard and little in the winery. (Interestingly, there is no French word for winemaker!). Ripe, concentrated and healthy grapes need little extration in the winery. Indeed one could say that winemaking is a damage limitation exercise. It tries to translate as much of the potential quality of the grapes into wine, losing as little as possible.
Buyers' guide to Burgundy
The way to buy well in Burgundy is to experiment by tasting the wines of different producers to find one or some you like. This is because a producer has such a determining influence on style and quality that it may override that of both appellation and quality hierarchy. I have written a guide to the style of wine typically produced by the different villages and described the character of the grower's wines. Sometimes a producer's style is untypical of the village. There are some contradictions. That is Burgundy for you!
In Burgundy it is the vineyards not the producers which are classified, unlike Bordeaux. The classification of the vineyards into 4 ascending grades is from bourgogne, village, premier cru to grand cru is a broadly a very accurate and helpful vineyard classification. But in Burgundy vineyards are usually co-owned by a number of growers, eg the 50ha Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru has about 80 owners.
To describe or identify a wine from Burgundy accurately you need two bits of information: the name of the grower and the appellation or vineyard. Thus if you just say I had a lovely Gevrey-Chambertin it could have been made by 100 or so producers. It is like saying I had a lovely Pauillac, and not stating if it was Ch Lafite or Ch Batailley. The Gevrey-Chambertin may have been a rich and sweet wine from Alain Burguet, or an ethereal, fine boned wine from Domaine Fourrier.
On labels, producers usually put the appellation name in large characters and their own in small print at the bottom. This is changing a little for the better, and the name of the producer is now often more visible.
Thus looking at some labels from some producers from Vosne-Romanée, they would be worded as follows, ascending the four scale hierarchy of appellation quality:
Bourgogne, ie Bourgogne Domaine Grivot
Village, ie Vosne-Romanée Domaine Sylvain Cathiard
Premier Cru, ie Vosne-Romanée Premier Cru Les Malconsorts Domaine Lamarche
Grand Cru, ie Richebourg Grand Cru Domaine Jean Grivot
Unlike red Burgundy, white Burgundy is relatively easy to understand, and there are many delicious wines below £10 because it can be made successfully from much higher yields than pinot noir. It is made from the chardonnay grape which has no particularly distinctive typical aroma or flavour, but quite a broad palate. Instead it reflects where it is grown and how it is made.
The cooler northerly vineyards of Chablis produce a firm, steely wine, more mineral than fruity, with a refreshing acidty. Its subtle minerality can be masked by too much new oak so it is fermented in stainless steel tanks or old wood barrels or foudres.
The most southerly region, the Mâconnais, is warmer and the wines are richer, rounder, sometimes buttery. There is more alcohol and less acidity. Simple Mâcons are made from highish yields and are therefore cheaper. St Véran, Viré-Clessé and Pouilly-Fuissé are superior appellations of higher quality.
The Côte D'Or is situated geographically and stylistically between Chablis and the Mâconnais and produces some of the greatest wines in the world. They exhibit a pleasing tension between richness and freshness. They are usually fermented and aged, often for 10-12 months, in 228 litre Burgundian barrels called pièces, although larger barrels are now being used to preserve greater freshness.
Of the most famous villages, Puligny-Montrachet is more floral and appley while Meursault is richer and more buttery. As they age their flavours verge towards honey and nuts.
There is a separate appellation for wines made from the aligoté grape, Bourgogne Aligoté. This is a high yielding grape usually planted in the cooler vineyards and which can produce a tense and refreshing wine. The less good ones with very high acidity are drunk in the region with a small shot of crème de cassis, a sweet liqueur made from blackcurrants.
Red Burgundy is one of the world's greatest wines. However, because pinot noir produces good quality only from relatively low yields it is necessarily expensive and there is little good wine under £15 a bottle. It is also a relatively elegant wine.
Some expect Burgundy to look and taste like Châteauneuf-du-Pape: dark, rich sweet and powerful. It doesn't. Indeed it is its polar opposite. Burgundy is made from the thin-skinned pinot noir grape and from the most northerly, and hence coldest, fine red wine region in Europe, so its wines are relatively light in colour and low in tannins. Modest Burgundy is a light ruby colour, fragrant, with a cherry like aroma, and with noticeable acidity lending a refreshing medium bodied palate with slight tannins. We probably get more complaints about red Burgundy below £15 a bottle than any other wine because of this mismatch of expectation and reality.
At this price level, unlike Bordeaux, there is not usually much good Burgundy available. However, the 2009 vintage is an exception. This very warm year somewhat rewrote the quality map. The modest 2009 Burgundies are as ripe and sweet as they will ever be. These will become available later in the year and chiefly from 2012.
My advice to those beginning their exploration of red Burgundy is to start at a more elevated price level, say a £25-60 bottle premier cru from a ripe year and a producer who makes relatively rich wines. Producers such as Sylvain Pataille, Alain Burguet, Denis Mortet, Louis Jadot, Comte Armand all make quite rich and accessible wines. (In the guide to Domaines below the wines are arranged in ascending order of richness). If you like this then work your way down in quality.
Red Burgundy offers a quality and complexity from £25-60 that few New World pinot noirs have achieved (so far!). Below £15 Burgundy offers less good value for money and the style of the wine, fragrant and relatively austere, is for the Burgundy lover not the beginner. For those starting to understand pinot noir, the sweeter and softer wines from Chile, at £6-15 a bottle, New Zealand at £12-20 and California or Oregon at £18-30 a bottle are easier to begin to develop a palate for pinot noir.
Just to be absolutely clear, I do not mean that red Burgundy below £25 a bottle is not worth drinking: it is. My point is that red Burgundy offers its greatest "relative" value for money between £25-60, which comprises most premiers crus, the perfectly situated, well exposed vineyards that are able to ripen their lower yields of grapes most years to an attractive level of concentration. Below this price the wines are often made with higher yields and from less good land and the wines are usually a little lighter and leaner and offer a slightly less good price/quality ratio, especially in the cooler years. Burgundy lovers will love and enjoy them, but novices trying to get the hang of Burgundy wll find them more of a challenge, so the sweeter pinot noirs from Chile and New Zealand are easier to understand in this price category. Above £60 one starts to get into the grands crus which are relatively rare so, although they are made from lower yields and do taste correspondingly richer, supply, which is already an issue in Burgundy, becomes even further restricted and relative demand increases with the obvious effects on price. Again, I am not saying do not buy them ! If you want and can afford the best then these are generally Burgundy's best wines.
The cheaper red Burgundies come from La Côte Chalonnaise, a region of mixed farming as some land is better suited to pasture and cattle than vines. There are also some good Bourgognes from La Côte D'Or, made by the best producers who keep yields low.
La Côte D'Or is composed of the lighter wines of La Côte de Beaune and the richer wines of La Côte de Nuits. A detailed description of the differing styles can be found below. Unfortunately good red Burgundy is produced only at low yields from very restricted vineyards and is necessarily expensive.
Browse wines from Burgundy