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The Majestic Wine's Of Burgundy

Fri, 07/24/2015

Burgundy is a quiet region of tiny, medieval, stone villages along narrow country roads, unpretentious farm houses and mostly pocket-sized vineyards. There are no grand chateaux, no Paris-based winery owners flying down for a weekend of dinners and parties and rarely, crowds. It is rustic countryside that seems to look back, not forward, in time. Yet, from this modest setting come some of the world's most celebrated wines, among them, Chambertin, Montrachet, Musigny, Richebourg, Romanée-Conti, Corton-Charlemagne. Names that elicit wonder. Wines as sensuous as liquid silk. And each of them produced totally from one grape - reds from Pinot Noir, whites from Chardonnay. They are grapes that found their natural home in Burgundy long ago.

Many countries plant the same grapes, and many make exceptionally fine wines from them. But not even the best of these wines evokes quite the aura, the finesse, the mystique that these same grapes produce in Burgundy.

Part of Burgundy's individuality comes from its climate. Winters are cold and summers are generally warm, rarely hot, allowing grapes to ripen slowly and retain their acidity; a climate in which Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive. Grapes that need a more benign climate such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot would never be able to ripen here. Nor do Burgundy's grapes develop their mystical qualities when they're grown in warmer, milder conditions.

Another  major reason for Burgundy's specialness is that more than any wine region in the world, it pays close attention to terroir, the combination of soil and climate in a particular vineyard that gives wine made from grapes grown there its distinctive character and flavor, its sense of place, its exclusive quality. In Burgundy, vineyards may lie next to each other, and yet, each is considered capable of producing a wine that distinguishes itself, often in the most subtle way, from its neighbor. This adherence to miniscule differences between neighboring plots accounts for why Burgundy's small vineyards are usually slivered and owned by several vignerons.  Montrachet, for instance, all of 18.5 acres, is divided among thirteen owners. There are a few exceptions to small vineyards.  The largest Grand Cru in the Côte de Nuits, for instance, is Clos de Vougeot. Enclosed by a stone wall, it covers 125 acres.  But it is divided into nearly 100 plots owned by over 80 owners, each working his own small piece of land. It is this attention to the character of each miniscule patch of earth that adds to the uniqueness of Burgundy's wine. Another facet in its mystique.

Add to Burgundy's individuality, the smallness of the region. While Bordeaux, France's other great table wine region, has nearly 300,000 acres of relatively large vineyards, each with one owner, Burgundy has only 69,000 acres of vineyards, mostly in small patches.

No wonder Burgundy's Pinot Noir-based and Chardonnay-based wines are called elusive, elegant, complex, refined and often, a bit mysterious.

Like all of France's wine regions, Burgundy's vineyards are controlled by the A.O.C., appellation laws that name and limit the size of each vineyard. As the size of the appellation grows smaller, the quality of the wine is expected to be higher.  In Burgundy, the broadest appellation is the regional one, Bourgogne, which encompasses wines whose grapes were grown in the region of Burgundy. Next are village appellations which apply to wines made from grapes grown in a given village - Meursault or Volnay, for example.

Premier Cru, or First Growth, are wines made from specific, high quality vineyards and produce about 18 percent of Burgundy's wines. At the top are Grand Cru, or Great Growth, 33 vineyards that account for about three percent of the region's wines and are considered the greatest vineyards of Burgundy and among the greatest wines in the world.

Burgundy lies in eastern France, beginning with the isolated white wine sub-region, Chablis, north of the city of Dijon and separated from the heart of Burgundy by some 70 miles. Then, starting just south of Dijon is the Côte d'Or, the 30-mile stretch that is the core of Burgundy. The Côte d'Or itself is divided into two parts: the Côte de Nuits, home of many of Burgundy's most famous reds, running from below Dijon south to the city of Beaune in the center of the Côte d'Or; and the Côte de Beaune, stretching from the city of Beaune south, known for some of the region's most exalted whites. Below the Côte de Beaune are the Côte Chalonnaise and below it, the Mâconnais. Still father south is Beaujolais whose red wine is made of the Gamay grape.

Considering how small the region is, how small many of its vineyards are, thus, how small its production is and how exalted its wines are, the best of Burgundy is expensive. But to enjoy a bottle of fine Burgundy is to learn that size does not matter, to know that only quality does and to savor an experience not easily forgotten.