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?