FAQ: Reign of Terroir

From the May 31, 2016, issue

The wines of Burgundy, highly prized (and priced) for their rarity and ability to transmit a sense of place, are built on Roman conquest, Catholic guilt, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Code and Jurassic dirt.

DR. VINNY
Dear Dr. Vinny,
Are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay the only grapes permitted in Burgundy?
—Robbie
Adelaide, Australia

Dear Robbie,
No, but Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are certainly the most famous, the most popular and the most widely planted grapes of Burgundy. For the most part, when someone refers to "red Burgundy" they mean Pinot Noir, and "white Burgundy" usually means Chardonnay.

But it's never that simple, is it? Even though those two grapes dominate the landscape, there are other grapes grown, perhaps the most important being Gamay, grown in the Beaujolais region. Aligoté is a white grape that you'll find in some value-priced wines from Burgundy, and in the small appellation of St.-Bris, near Chablis, Sauvignon Blanc is the primary grape.
—Dr. Vinny

Separation of Church and Grape
Viticulture in Burgundy began not long after Julius Caeser conquered Gaul in 51 B.C., and accelerated under the rule of Charlemagne, who had united western Europe under Christianity by the close of the 8th century. Encouraged by the church, many landowners bequeathed their vineyards in pursuit of posthumous good graces; other vineyards were simply handed over by the crown. And those monks were mighty fine farmers!

The Benedictines at the Abbey of Cluny (est. 910) and the Cistercians at Cîteaux (est. 1098) paid meticulous attention to how grapes grew in Burgundy's geologically diverse 150 million-year-old limestone, chalk and clay soils, dividing the land up into what would become many of the 33 grands crus and nearly 600 premiers crus that today indicate Burgundy's most highly regarded appellations.

Having figured all that out, the church was relieved of its vineyard holdings during the French Revolution. With most of Burgundy's vineyards in the hands of private landowners by the end of the 18th century, Napoleonic inheritance law worked its diversifying magic, further splitting vineyard parcels (equally among heirs), so that, for example, the grand cru Clos de Vougeot, once owned entirely by the Cistercians, is now divided up into more than 80 individually owned parcels, some no larger than a single row of vines.

Dr. Conti & Les Faux Ponsots
Burgundy's rarest crus are some of the most expensive collectible wines in the world, which made them the favorite target of fine wine's most notorious convicted counterfeiter, Rudy Kurniawan. The enigmatic enophile burst onto the high-end wine scene in the early 2000s, earning the nickname "Dr. Conti" for his love-and too-good-to-be-true collection-of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

Some of his "Burgundies" hit the auction blocks in 2006, netting more than $35 million; in 2008 he was set to make another big haul, off a stash of Domaine Ponsot Clos St.-Denis and Clos de la Roche estimated at more than $600,000. The highly anticipated auction drew the attention-and incredulity-of Laurent Ponsot, who wasn't buying what Dr. Conti was selling and flew to New York to make sure no one else could either. That's because the vintages for sale had never been made at Domaine Ponsot. Asked where he'd gotten the wines, Kurniawan said, "Sometimes shit happens." And sometimes it hits the fan: He was sued by billionaire collector William Koch in 2009, arrested by the FBI in 2012 and convicted of fraud in 2013. Scheduled for release from prison in 2021, Dr. Conti now goes by the nickname "Inmate No. 62470-112."

France Burgundy Chardonnay Pinot Noir
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