At a recent dinner in New York, I had the opportunity to taste some wines made by Burgundy vintner Francois Faiveley. I went with a good measure of anticipation: A Domaine Faiveley wine was the first true Burgundy I had ever purchased. In addition, most of the wines were from the 1991 vintage. Initially, 1991 did not score that impressively, but it has since gained recognition for providing good-quality wines.
The wines were indeed a welcome surprise. One of the best was a '91 grand cru white wine from Corton-Charlemagne. It went a long way to remind me about the allure of Burgundy, and its pleasant mysteries as well.
I'm the first to admit that my job offers opportunities unrivaled for a wine lover. I usually can't afford to buy many Burgundies myself, but I have had plenty of chances to taste and enjoy them with their winemakers--both here and in France. If I had just one wine region to recommend for a visit in France, it would be Burgundy. It is one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world, but a bit complicated to understand at first due to the sheer numbers and styles of wines involved.
For me, the heart of Burgundy is the hill of Corton. Before I had ever been to Burgundy, I had seen the pictures of its dome-like slope capped by a crown of trees. I had pored over the detailed maps of its various vineyards. But it wasn't until I actually visited Burgundy that I realized the full measure of its power.
Like many wine lovers, I have read and studied numerous books on the various types of wine from around the world and the wine districts from which they issue. For those regions I have yet to visit, I usually construct a vision in my mind of the lay of the land.
Usually, my imaginings bear only a fleeting resemblance to reality. Despite all my research, there's nothing like seeing the land in person. There before you are the vines in full, living color. You begin to understand the connection between the land and the grape--which many vintners, such as Faiveley, say is the most critical aspect of winemaking. "Ninety-five percent of the quality of the wine depends on the quality of the grapes," he said at the dinner, held at the famed "21" Club in midtown Manhattan.
Faiveley makes a wide range of wines, from the simplest Bourgogne Rouge to heavyweight grand crus. His company is the largest vineyard owner in Burgundy, with approximately 300 acres under cultivation. This in a region dominated by thousands of small growers for whom five acres is an impressive parcel of land.
So it was bit of good fortune that he was pouring a wine whose geographical roots I was most familiar with. The hill of Corton rises just north of the medieval town of Beaune and is clearly visible from the high-speed auto route that leads from Paris. Corton-Charlemagne comes from a site on the southwestern slopes of the Corton, insuring that its Chardonnay grapes will have the maximum exposure to the ripening rays of the sun. I've drunk more than one bottle of wine in a pleasant restaurant at its base--called, appropriately enough, Le Charlemagne--that affords a magnificent view of almost the entire vineyard.
The vines march up the hill in close array. An occasional stone terrace is the only break in the manicured rows. It's a verdant setting, with the broad plains and vineyards of the Cote de Beaune stretching out from the bottom of the slope and the lush woodlands of the Burgundy hilltops providing a serene backdrop.
These images came back to my mind as the first bottle of '91 Corton-Charlemagne was poured. Brought by Faiveley from France, it proved luscious and rich, filled with the mature flavors of honey and butterscotch. It was served at the beginning of a long evening, filled with many courses. Near the end, however, Faiveley wanted a second look at that wine. He ordered a bottle from the restaurant's cellar, and this time had it decanted. The aromatics and power of the wine intensified with the additional exposure to air. This time, the wine had not only those rich flavors I had enjoyed previously, but an appealing and complex mineral quality that I have come to associate with the best white Burgundies. We didn't have much to drink after the sole bottle was passed around the table, but once the glasses were emptied, the show wasn't over. As the powerful aroma of this wine wafted from the stemware, I found myself drifting back to a warm summer's day at the base of the Corton and realizing that Burgundy wasn't so remote after all.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from assistant managing editor Kim Marcus. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.