Extravagant Reds

Date October 31, 2005 at 11:00 PM

Author Pierre D. Seronde

Publication localflavor magazine

Categories Health & Beauty

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Miles, one of the characters in that wonderfully silly movie Sideways, is asked to explain his obsession with Pinot Noir. His answer, from the heart, is eloquent: "it's a hard grape to grow"€¦thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early-it's not a survivor, like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it's neglected-Pinot needs constant care and attention; in fact it can only grow in these really specific and tucked away corners of the world, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, oh! its flavors are the most haunting, and brilliant, and thrilling, and subtle, and ancient on the planet"€¦"€

What a cry from the heart! Don't we all wish that in our own thin-skinned and temperamental way, somebody would recognize how brilliant, and thrilling, and subtle we are? And Pinot Noir is like that; Miles is right. The most heart-stopping, sense-fulfilling wine experiences I have ever had have all involved Pinot Noir from Burgundy. There are increasingly delicious Pinot Noirs coming from the New World and the Even Newer World (Woodenhead in Sonoma and Dog Point in Marlborough are among my favorites) but the very best of red Burgundies are the most luscious, layered, complex, and exciting wines I have ever enjoyed. As I age and senility creeps in, I may forget my siblings' birthdays, my Social Security number, and my email address, but I remember in great detail that magnum of 1971 Corton Cuvée Docteur Peste and the special folks who shared it with me, that 1947 Clos des Lambrays, also in mag, that needed decanting hours beforehand to achieve its noble potential, the remarkably well-preserved 1874 La Romanée from Chauvenet (I think it was Chauvenet; the label wasn't in great shape), the 1964 Charmes Chambertin from Pierre Bourée that graced a faraway Christmas table, the 1990 Musigny from de Vogüé, that welcomed back to greatness one of the stars of the Burgundy firmament after nineteen inexplicable years of trashy production, the 1991 Nuits Saint Georges les Cailles from Robert Chévillon, made from 70+ year old vines, and drunk at Encore Provence with a dear friend, the 1993 Romanée Saint Vivant from Robert Arnoux that showed that even in a dismal year, a great producer will make great wine, the 1959 Romanée Conti that, although it hadn't been stored well, still had fifteen minutes of glory before it fell apart.

All of these wines have this in common. Not only were they all made from the Pinot Noir grape, but they all came from a tiny wine region called the Coast of Gold, a sub-region of Burgundy, in France.

Winemaking Burgundy is one of the most confusingly gerrymandered regions of France, strung out over an area starting two hours southeast of Paris, in Chablis, then jumping another two hours to Dijon, the north end of a tiny, half-mile-narrow, glorious corridor (the Côte d'Or, or Coast of Gold) which extends less than sixty miles to Santenay. Then Burgundy continues with the Côte Chalonnaise, then extends south to the Maconnais and Beaujolais, and ends at Lyon on the Rhône River. But it is from that Coast of Gold, the Côte d'Or, that come the greatest wines of Burgundy.

Although Burgundy produces a good deal of wine under generic appellations like Bourgogne and Hautes Côtes de Nuits, the more interesting wines are generally associated with a village name. The French government has divided the vineyards of these villages into three classification levels:

Grand Cru: truly great and expensive wines, nearly all from a strip of land that travels along the middle of that western slope, usually so famous that their names stand alone, without the name of the village where the vineyard is located: Examples: Musigny, Bonnes Mares, Romanée Conti, La Tâche, Richebourg, Chambertin, Clos de Tart, Clos de la Roche, Corton, etc.

Premier Cru (or 1er Cru): wines of high quality, the name appearing after the village's name, e.g. Chambolle Musigny Les Amoureuses, Gevrey Chambertin Clos Saint Jacques, Nuits Saint Georges Les Vaucrains, Morey Saint Denis Clos des Ormes, Beaune Marconnets, Pommard Clos des Epéneaux, Volnay Taillepieds, etc.

Village wines: Traditionally, other wines in the village would be lumped together to make a wine just called by the village's name, such as Chambolle Musigny, Pommard, Nuits Saint Georges, and so on. More and more these days, however, winemakers are putting the individual vineyard name on the label; these designations, when they are not a Grand Cru or a Premier Cru, are known as lieu dit; literally, spoken area. It has been suggested that, since lieu dit wines sell for less than Premier Cru wines, it's misleading to the consumer to so designate a wine. There are two ways to tell, however, if you aren't sure whether you're looking at a Premier Cru or not; first, it might say "Premier Cru,"€ kind of a dead giveaway. If you're still not sure, look at the type size in which the vineyard name is printed; if it's a lieu dit, French law says the typeface cannot be bigger than one half the type size of the Village name.

These classifications reflect the aggregate opinion of the terroir quality of each vineyard site, said opinion garnered from vineyard owners, vignerons, and government workers, and codified by government decree. The system simply admits that there are distinct differences between vineyards, and certain vineyards produce better wine than others. That's fine: anybody who has struggled with an uneven lawn knows that the same plant will do different things in different soils and climates. The problems arise when we realize that, due in great part to the French inheritance laws, these same vineyards are split up into often-tiny portions, and that different winemakers make wine differently from the same raw material within a vineyard site. The Clos de Vougeot, for example, a Grand Cru vineyard in the village of Vougeot, is large by Burgundian standards, all of 125 acres, and is divided (or was, as of 1986) among 69 owners*, with plots ranging from about 7.5 acres to one third of an acre. One owner has 13.5 acres, but it is spread between five different parcels, scattered throughout the vineyard. The vineyard is on a slope going down to flatland beside the highway N7; it would be unreasonable to think that, with so many producers and such different terroir, the wines would be all of the same quality. They're not. In fact, prior to 1789 when the entire Clos de Vougeot belonged to the Church, the monks made eight separate wines from eight separate climates, and blended together the best of the eight, selling off the rest as lesser wine. This system insured the quality of the Clos de Vougeot from year to year, and is similar to what famed Hermitage producer Jean-Louis Chave does in the south. Needless to say, this is impossible with Clos de Vougeot as it is currently divided, and we can only guess at how the wine used to be.

The multiplicity of owners within single vineyards insures, in fact, that the resulting wines will be different from each other, depending on the competence (or lack thereof) and greed of the individual winemakers, but it is generally accepted that there will be a certain range of quality commensurate with the wine's origin. A winemaker who ignores this by overcropping, for example, and thus raising his yields, makes inferior wine; if he continues to do so, he gets less money for his wine than his more conscientious neighbor. You can usually recognize these guys as you travel through the area-they're the ones with the big tasting room signs. A general rule of thumb in Burgundy: if they have to advertise it, they haven't sold it through word of mouth, and it may not be as good as it could be. Production is tiny in this part of Burgundy: the good stuff often disappears fast. The best place to find and evaluate a lot of great Burgundy, in Burgundy, is at the finer restaurants. Winemakers consider it a plus to sell their best wines to the two and three-star restaurants, and give these customers priority over American importers or walk-in customers.

Fortunately, although it's not easy to find great red Burgundy in situ, somebody has to do it; I'll volunteer anytime. However, we here in New Mexico don't have to go traveling to find some of these gems; we have a goodly contingent of Burgundy fanatics among the local wine trade, and they made brilliant efforts to provide us with these extraordinary wines. (For more details, see the sidebar.)

A few simple things to look at when you buy Burgundy:

  1. Vineyard designations, and their proportionate pricing. If a Village wine costs $40, a Premier Cru will be about $60, and a Grand Cru over $100.
  2. Producer. Get to know producers; they vary enormously in quality. A great producer's Village wine will be better than a ho-hum producer's Premier Cru.
  3. Vintage. Out of every decade, Burgundy will typically have three great years, three okay years, and four ho-hum or disastrous years. Recently, 2002 and 1999 are excellent. On the other hand, a great producer will make the best of a bad situation, and off-years are often bargains.
  4. Cork-dork factor. Find a local retailer or restaurant sommelier who's one of the aforementioned Burgundy fanatics. There's a mad gleam in the eye, obvious when you bring the subject around to Burgundy. They just won't shut up. Pay attention; they've already done a lot of the hard work for you. Good hunting!

For most wine drinkers, this is the time of year of the special occasion, the time to pull out all the stops, to bring the incredibly extravagant wines to the table, to make the stuff of future tall tales. Great red Burgundies are my favorite way to do this. If I were to paraphrase Maya in Sideways, I'd say, When you open a bottle of great red Burgundy, that's the special occasion. Cheers!

*Clos de Vougeot stats taken from listings in Matt Kramer's excellent book Making Sense of Burgundy, William Morrow & Company, New York 1990

What's your favorite red Burgundy:

a) for $60 or less retail or $100 or less on a restaurant list, and
b) when the sky's the limit?

2002 Volnay 1er Cru Taillepieds, Domaine Bitouzet-Prieur, for $56.95
2002 Grands Echézeaux Grand Cru, Domaine de la Romanée Conti, for $650.00.
-Tara Lanich-LaBrie, Casa Sena Wine Shop, Santa Fe

2000 Nuits Saint Georges 1er Cru Les Vaucrains, Robert Chévillon for $59.99
2000 Musigny Grand Cru vieilles vignes, Comte de Vogüé for $328.99.
-Geno Flores, Quarters Wine Shop Westside, Albuquerque

1999 Nuits Saint Georges 1er Cru, Domaine de l'Arlot, for $65.00, and
1999 Musigny Grand Cru vieilles vignes, Comte de Vogüé for $400.00.
-David Heath, Rancho de San Juan, Española

2002 Nuits Saint Georges 1er Cru Les Bousselots, Jean Chauvenet for $53.99
2002 Clos de la Roche Grand Cru, Hubert Lignier for $219.99.
-Jim Cook, Liquor Barn, Santa Fe

2002 Vosne Romanée, Jean Grivot for $45.99, and
2002 Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru Clos Saint Jacques, Domaine Fourrier for $86.99.
-Laurie Strain, Whole Foods Market, Santa Fe

2002 Morey Saint Denis 1er Cru Les Millandes, Domaine Pierre Amiot for $42.99
2002 Chambolle Musigny, Domaine Hudelot-Noëllat for $62.99
-Kent Crider, Sunflower Market, Albuquerque

2002 Pommard, Nicolas Potel for $95.00
1985 Nuits Saint Georges 1er Cru Aux Murgers, Henri Jayer for $1,800.00.
-Eric Stapleman, Trattoria Nostrani, Santa Fe

1999 Le Corton Grand Cru, Bonneau de Martray for $71.99 (well, a bit over sixty bucks), and
2002 Mazis Chambertin Grand Cru, Domaine Maume for $119.99.
-Keith Obermaier and Jamie O'Neill, Kokoman, Pojoaque

2003 Hautes Côtes de Nuits Villages, Gachot-Monot for $45.00, and
1995 Bonnes Mares Grand Cru, Comte de Vogüé for $450.00.
-Louis Moskow, 315 and the Railyard Restaurant and Saloon, Santa Fe

2002 Vero Pinot Noir, Joseph Drouhin for $23.99, and
2003 Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru Rouge Morgeot, Philippe Deleger for $79.99.
-John Zonski, Jubilation, Albuquerque

1999 Volnay Les Aussey, Domaine-Bitouzet-Prieur for $87.00,
and 2002 Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru Les Cazetiers, Bruno Clair for $170.00.
-Diane Hébert, La Posada Resort and Spa, Santa Fe

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