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The World's Most Exclusive $20 Wines: Cru Burgundy

Is it possible to buy bona-fide, single-vineyard Côte d'Or Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for 20 bucks?
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 25, 2014 3:00pm ET

By Ben O'Donnell

In this ongoing series, I halt at the gates of the world's finest appellations, where most wines start at $40, and find a way to slip past for $20 or less.

Maybe you don't fully buy into what Burgundian monks, dukes and cellarmasters have tried to tell us for hundreds of years—that Burgundy wine quality is determined near-exclusively by which extremely small patch of land the vines were grown in. Still, if we can't rely on Burgundy to show us how hundreds of tiny parcels of vineyards reveal their unique personalities in the glass, we might as well throw out the idea of terroir altogether and stick to wines whose country of origin and appellation are one and the same.

Unfortunately, those Burgundians have convinced enough of us that those itty-bitty slices of land, so long as they are in the Côte d'Or—the middle part of Burgundy—can justify prices as high as $5,000 a bottle on release. Even plain old "village"-level Burgundy, which can be sourced from a higgledy-piggledy mix of vineyards around a village, can push $200—and anyway, the whole fun of Burgundy is to zero in on those precious little plots.

So could anyone make off with a bona fide single-cru Côte d'Or Pinot Noir or Chardonnay for $20 or less?

My colleague Matt Kramer wrote last week about finding value in the plain ol' Bourgogne appellation, for which producers may source grapes from all over the appellation. Not all do, though.

Domaine Jean Chartron—whose grand cru Chardonnays from Bâtard-Montrachet and Chevalier-Montrachet will easily set you back $300—makes an under-$20 Bourgogne that may not be from the toniest address on the wine list, but has an address all the same: Clos de la Combe is the name of the 6-acre vineyard, right in the village of Puligny-Montrachet.

"That's the thing with the classification of the AOC of Puligny-Montrachet in [1937]," Jean-Michel Chartron says. "Some of the vineyards that were in the village were classified as Puligny-Montrachet and some others, unfortunately, were classified Bourgogne." Clos de la Combe isn't far from where they grow $100 wines, but alas, it's on the wrong side of the tracks. "It's a good Bourgogne, but a Bourgogne." And like good Burgundies that reside in loftier appellations, it's an expression of a singular place.

"I am very lucky that my ancestors bought and had top crus in Puligny and Chassagne, and the strategy of the last 10 years for me were on the contrary: Find more affordable villages, and try to make wine with the same style and same technique as what we've been using for years on the premiers crus and grands crus." Aside from shorter aging, sometimes in larger barrels, Chartron says he gives the same love to his little kids as his big boys: "From the vineyard up to the bottling, it's the same."

Village-level wines, considered a step up from Bourgogne, are hard to come by at $20, even from the value villages such as Savigny-lès-Beaune. But way up in the farthest north of the Côte d'Or, you'll find Marsannay, where the INAO's reticence to bestow AOC status is your friend: Marsannay was just plain Bourgogne until 1987. (There's hope for you yet, Clos de la Combe!)

"Marsannay is a newer name and less prestigious," explains Isabelle Collotte, whose Domaine Collotte makes Pinot Noir cuvées from vineyards like Les Clos de Jeu, Les Champsalomon and En Combereau that will usually set you back about a Hamilton and change. "In a few years, these wines will be recognized at fair value," Collotte adds—rather ominously.

"These three terroirs are in the hills that produce very svelte and powerful wines," she continues. Each is slightly different in soil and situation, even though the latter vineyards are literally side by side and Jeu is a few hundred paces away. But that's the beauty of Burgundy.

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter at twitter.com/BenODonn.

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