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mixed case: opinion and advice

How Much Do You Need to Know About Burgundy?

No, really, how much? (Because there are a lot of things to memorize!)
Photo by: Mark Weinberg

Posted: Jan 17, 2013 10:30am ET

By Jennifer Fiedler

Here's the bad news first: "There is no real shortcut," said David Gordon, wine director of the Myriad Group, on how to learn about wines from Burgundy.

"It's a difficult subject to grasp for most people," he said, counting out the sizable number of variables. "There are the main villages, then so many vineyards—hundreds of premier cru vineyards—and on top of that, so many producers and many of them are related, with the same last name." Add in that some villages are known for whites, some for reds and some for both, depending on the vineyard, and it seems like "difficult" might be an understatement.

Even experts get tangled in Burgundy's epically complicated web. Alleged counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan enticed top collectors and auctioneers for nearly a decade with bottles they believed to be rare Burgundy. What finally brought his consignments into question? He tried to auction several Domaine Ponsot bottles from the grand cru Clos St.-Denis from the years 1945 to 1971, only Ponsot (which has been producing wine under its own label since 1934) didn't bottle wine from that particular cru until the early 1980s.

All the nuances are enough to make you swap Puligny-Montrachet for Paso Robles, especially considering the high prices of many bottles. But to pass up the region because it's complicated would be to miss out, like giving up the whole of literature because grammar and conjugation are tricky.

The super-basic steps to mastering the region are straightforward: Most of the Burgundy wines imported into the United States are made from Chardonnay or Pinot Noir (though Aligoté is popping up more these days), and at least in the beginning, it's reasonable to concentrate on the districts in the Côte d'Or, the heart of Burgundy.

The question then becomes "How much do you really need to know before you can feel confident buying a bottle?" I posed this to Gordon, who has trained a long list of sommeliers in his tenure overseeing the Burgundy-heavy wine lists for Wine Spectator Grand Award winner Tribeca Grill and Nobu, among many others.

First, Gordon said, learn the main villages. This will help with geography and orientation. (Check out Wine Spectator's free regional maps for reference.)

Then, pick out a couple of producers (maybe through reading about them or talking to a reputable merchant or sommelier), find one or two that you like and stick with them. (Members of WineSpectatator.com can access this list for top value white Burgundies that cost less than $30.) Even though villages will set the baseline for characteristics, "producers do have styles," said Gordon. "The best are better year in and year out."

You could stop there and feel reasonably confident about your purchases if you're at a solid restaurant or wine store. But if you want to go further, Gordon recommends memorizing the vintages next. "There's quite a bit of vintage variation," he said of the region. "In California, it's either a good vintage or a great vintage." Burgundy, he said, is much less consistent. (For a starting point, check out Wine Spectator's vintage charts, which list separate ratings for reds in the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits subregions and for whites, or download our WineRatings+ app for iPhone, with its free charts.)

Then, if you really want to take it to the next level, memorize the vineyards. This is one of the more complicated aspects. Unlike Bordeaux, vineyards in Burgundy are split between many owners, with some owning no more than one or two rows of vines. While wines from the top vineyard of Montrachet may be great, not all Montrachets are created equally.

With vineyards, I'd add that just memorizing a two-dimensional map is only the beginning when it comes to geography. When I was in Burgundy last spring researching a few articles, senior editor Bruce Sanderson pointed out that learning the topography is important too. (For that, nothing beats touring the region to see everything in 3D.) Vineyards can lie inside small mountain spurs and receive less sunlight, which means grapes from those vineyards would have a harder time ripening in more inclement years, such as 2004.

As for learning too much? No such thing, said Gordon. "There's always something to learn, producers you don't know." And that, he said, is the good news: "That's what makes it fun. If you know everything, it's not fun anymore."

How about you? Do you agree or disagree on how to tackle the region? Do any of you have tips for learning about Burgundy?

Derrick Schubert
Minneapolis, MN USA —  January 17, 2013 3:03pm ET
When I started drinking red burgundy, I began by trying to find a producer I could trust. I purchased Serena Sutcliffe's book "The Wines of Burgundy" to learn about the various domaines, and then chose a few and tried to find their wines locally or online. Sutcliffe's book is not pricey, and it has some nice maps of the Cote d'Or, and very succinct descriptions of producers & their wines. As I became more enthralled with the region, I spent some more coin on Clive Coates "Cote d'Or" and later, his "Wines of Burgundy". They are essentially the same book, but the later is more recent. These books have detailed maps of the region and break down the Grand Cru & Premier Cru vineyards quite nicely. About five years ago, I began an online subscription to "Burghound", which is an invaluable resource for researching Burgundies. In the end, your own taste dictates what you buy, and you really only learn by trying the wine. Even a Bourgogne is rarely ready to drink upon release, so if you're starting out you want to be sure to ask your retailer what the drinking window is for the Burgundy you are purchasing. Right now, some of the 2009 Bourgogne's are drinking well (Hudellot-Noellat & Denis Bachelet), but 2009 is an atypical vintage in that regard. If I were starting out, I'd probably try to find a 2007 or earlier Bourgogne from a good producer. You can usually find Joseph Faiveley's Bourgogne for around $20, and it's a decent example of an entry level Bourgogne that can be found at many retailers. As for a good village level wine, I'd go with Jean Marc Pavlelot's Savigny Les Beaune Village, which you can find in the $30-$35 range. Unless you have deep pockets, I wouldn't be buying Premier Cru or Grand Cru Burgundies until I had some concept of the lay of the land.
Hoyt Hill
Nashville, TN USA —  January 17, 2013 3:07pm ET
I think your advice is spot on. I would add that developing a relationship with a wine merchant and/or sommelier who is knowledgeable about Burgundy will pay huge dividends. Because Burgundy wineries produce so little wine, they cannot spend the money on marketing and education that Bordeaux Chateaux do.
As a result, many wine merchants and sommeliers are not as informed about Burgundy as they are about other wine regions.
The ones that are tend to be very passionate and are eager to share their tips
Adam Aldrich
Denver —  January 17, 2013 3:13pm ET
I made my first trip to Burgundy last year and quickly realized how much I didn't know. Just being there and talking with growers and producers helped me learn a lot. If you cannot make the trip, look at an atlas or the region or use google maps to explore the villages. I purchased an atlas of the region and I am constantly referencing it.
Jennifer Fiedler
New York —  January 17, 2013 3:31pm ET
Great advice everyone! Thanks so much for your comments. If you think of anything else, please continue to share!

Jennifer Fiedler
Wine Spectator
Gerry Ansel
Fullerton, California, USA —  January 17, 2013 5:42pm ET
Excellent article, Jennifer! Thank you for putting this complex, complicated appellation into perspective. I couldn't agree with you more about visiting the place to get a real sense of the terroir. My wife and I toured the Cote d'Or in 2006. We stayed in Beaune, walked through those ancient vineyards and enjoyed private tastings with some of its most well-known producers, and other who fly below the radar. I came back from that trip with a deeper understanding of the region's wine. Where wine is concerned, Burgundy is, and always will be my first love.
Dave And Eva Malone
Tallahassee —  January 17, 2013 10:52pm ET
I have worked in the trade for nearly twelve years and made my first trip to Burgundy in May, 2012. It was not until this trip that I really had a great understanding of the region. I agree 150% with Bruce: to really get a good grasp on Burgundy, you really need to go there, talk to producers, and walk the vineyards. If you love wine, are interested in Burgundy, and have the opportunity to visit, jump all over it!
Tomas Marimon
Miami, Fl —  January 18, 2013 2:24am ET
Great article! Best Burgundy reference book, without a doubt, is: Inside Burgundy by Jasper Morris. I saw this book while visiting Burgundy's wineries and I noticed many producers and winemaker use it for their own reference. You would find descriptions, with map, of every vineyard, their wine and producer. It includes all appellations of Cote de Nuits, Cote de Beaune and Greater Burgundy.
William Matarese
Florida, USA —  January 18, 2013 11:36am ET
Yes, the Grand Crus - and even many of the Premier Crus - are among the most over-priced wines on the planet. Add to this the insanely complicated maze of appelations and producers and it is no wonder that so many wine lovers just avoid Burgundies, as Jennifer points out. That's too bad, because once you have experienced the "really good stuff" from Burgundy, you will quickly realize that there is nothing else like it.
David A Zajac
Akron, Ohio —  January 22, 2013 6:23am ET
William, surprised by your comment of overpriced...not that they are cheap, but you can easily have the lesser grand cru's at under $150/bottle. If that is overpriced, when the average production is probably south of maybe 300-400 cases, then what are all the Napa cabs and Bordeaux where case production is literally in the thousands and selling for two-three times that amount? I agree they are expensive, but when you compare them to other top wines, they are no more expensive than most and I feel their reputation for being grossly overpriced is unfair. Classic supply and demand scenario.
William Matarese
Florida, USA —  January 23, 2013 12:38pm ET
David,

OK, I'm over-generalizing by using the term "over-priced". Certainly the First Growth Bordeaux and some of the pricier Napa Cabs (ie Screaming Eagle) make even the priciest Burgundies look cheap. And It is possible to find relative bargains - even among the Grand Crus - if you are willing to buy a difficult vintage. Last year I was able to purchase half a case of Maison Champy 2004 Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru for $55/bottle - a discount of more than 60% from its $140 release price! Apparently even after receiving a 96 point score from Wine Spectator, this still had to be practically given away because it was a 2004.
David A Zajac
Akron, Ohio —  January 24, 2013 10:01am ET
And last night I have a 2001 village Vosne Romanee from Cathiard and it was just singing...could easily be found for under $50 today I suspect, probably less. All regions have their gems that break the bank, and all regions have excellent wines for reasonable prices. Like you said, grand cru for $55, even from 2004, not bad! Grand cru for $750, no matter what vintage, I will pass. Ok, maybe for Romanee Conti...lol
Dr Harry Rakowski
Toronto Canada —  January 29, 2013 2:29pm ET
Learning to understand and love Burgundian wines is a lifelong challenge and adventure. While I agree that there is nothing better than visiting the region, most readers won't have the opportunity. I wanted to build on some of the good advice given already. There are many wine critics and publications out there, the wine advocate, wine spectator, Clive Coates, Alan Meadows of Burghound, James Suckling. It is no longer surprising to see the large range in variability of wine description and scores for the same wine. Find a critic whose palate matches yours and follow their advice. If you are starting out buy less expensive wine from great vintages like 2009 when almost anyone could make good wine. Start with reliable if not always spectacular producers such as Jadot who make a tremendous range of wine. Start with less expensive red and white village wine from 4 or 5 different sub-regions to understand the regional variations. As price and taste dictate slowly move up to trying some Premier Cru's such as a Puligny Montrachet. Find a friend or retailer who can act as a mentor. Best of all be lucky enough to have a friend with deep pockets who will introduce you to great Grand Cru's or even DRC and then you will understand what the excitement and passion is all about. If you are willing to take risks and can handle expensive failure learn about Burgundy. The great experiences make it all worthwhile.
Joe Domaney
gt.barrington,ma u.s.a. —  February 26, 2013 5:25pm ET
i own a large fine wine store and burgundy is and always will be confusing to someone learning about wine..i recommend the book windows of the world by kevin zraly..it is the best wine book bar none..simple /enjoyable / and easy to read ..this is the way to go if you want a crash course on burgundy..italy ..spain etc!!! ed domaney( domaneys..gt barrington,ma)

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