Bertrand Russell, seeking to encapsulate different theories about the mathematical evaluation of ‘infinity’, refers to something ‘immeasurably subtle and profound’. Trying to find a suitable analogy to convey the subtle differences between the wines produced from the 1,500 named vineyards in Burgundy, I could come up with nothing better.
The starting point for understanding Burgundy, is simply to accept that it is simply too extensive to be understood. Once that hurdle is breached, the rest, as they say, is child’s play.
Bordeaux has five first growths, each of which is an individual wine estate. Chateau Margaux, Chateau Lafite, Chateau Latour, Haut Brion and Mouton-Rothschild. The equivalent of a First Growth in Burgundy is a Grand Cru. In Burgundy however, the designation attaches to the vineyard, rather than the estate. Of the 37 Burgundy Grand Cru vineyards, the vast majority are subject to multiple ownerships. In the 50 hectare plot of Clos de Vougeot for example, there are so many owners, nobody is quite sure how many there are at any particular time, but estimated somewhere between 80 and 100.
So just focussing on the top level of wines, which represent no more than 2% of the overall Burgundy production, we are already into hundreds of different labels, compared to the Bordeaux five. As we descend further down the ladder, the numbers multiply out, so that by the time we get to the end of the third classification in Burgundy, we are into literally thousands of different labels, compared to 29 in Bordeaux. Bordeaux is just easier to understand. However, each unto their own, and while some prefer predictability and order, others are inclined a bit more on the wild side, where the element of surprise adds a touch of spice to the drinking experience.
Burgundy is the natural home of the Chardonnay grape for white wines, and Pinot Noir for reds. There are a few other indigenous grape varieties making a come back, Aligote for example for whites, and with the ever warmer summers, we are likely to see Gamay expanding its presence in Burgundy.
The Romans, as with everything else they touched, introduced a more methodical approach to wine making in Burgundy. However it was the Benedictine and Cistercian monks, from the 6c onwards, who really laid the foundations for wine making in Burgundy as it is today. The Order of St Benedict required the monasteries to be self reliant, no going to the market to stock up with supplies for their weekly requirements! And as one of their needs was wine, for the Eucharist, to serve for themselves and to the poor, they needed vineyards. While they could trade their other crops for land to plant vines, they actually had something far more valuable to sell. An intangible commodity which was much in demand in these turbulent times. Forgiveness. The barbaric practices of the local warlords did not die out with the arrival of Christian beliefs and practices. Power and control enforced by brutal and violent means, were still the order of the day. How to reconcile their actions with the teachings of the Church? Impossible. So they looked for another solution, and asked the religious men for forgiveness and absolution for their dastardly deeds. In return, the monks would accept noble donations of land and vines. Over hundreds of years, the monks became the main force in Burgundy wine making. A trade in redemptions! Until the Revolution!
The Revolution changed the viticultural topography of Burgundy for ever. The Church and the monasteries were dispossessed, and a new order of owners introduced. The French inheritance laws of the Napoleonic era, thereafter led to an ever increasing fragmentation of ownership, so that today, it is quite common for small vineyards to be divided between 10 or more proprietors, some with only two or three rows of vines. And so the analogy with the mathematical definition of infinity. An endless process of sub division.
As might be expected, with so many producers, there are vast discrepancies in quality. So much so, that it is perfectly possible to stay in Burgundy for a few days, and never find out what the fuss is all about. The village tourist traps that are always open for tastings, tend to fall into the ‘wines to avoid’ category. However there had to be some other way of narrowing the field.
When we moved to Burgundy in 2013, our knowledge of the wines of Burgundy did not even scratch the surface. Where to start? In Gevrey Chambertin, the most famous and prolific wine village of the Cote, which wines to buy to serve and sell to our guests? We had already committed ourselves to sustainable practices for the hotel, and choosing organic wines seemed like a logical step. But would we be giving something up in terms of quality? Some time tasting the wines of the organic producers in the village was all the confirmation we needed, but if we had the slightest doubt, the sight of moon vehicles and men in space suits, spraying chemicals on vineyards that had performed perfectly satisfactorily for over a thousand years, was the final confirmation. Our cellar was going to be organic. It has proved an excellent guide to quality in all the villages where we buy our wines.
In property, they say the key to value is ‘location, location, location’. Well the same goes for Burgundy wine. It is all about the producer. And once you find a good one, hold on to them. Buy some wine, tell them you like it, and would like to buy some more. Get on their mailing list if they have one. Put yourself down for an allocation if they will let you. Persistence will be rewarded, with the pleasure of evaluating different vintages from the same plots, year in year out. It creates a special experience. A wine with a story, something that everyone likes and appreciates. The wine moves from being simply the bottle on the table, to a focal point of the entertainment.
Simple or what?