Wednesday, 04 April 2012

Adventures in wine: Burgundy

Finding a good value Red Burgundy can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. But don’t worry, says our wine columnist, there are some affordable classics out there…

Written by Henry Jeffreys

Red Burgundy is unreliable. The accepted view is amusingly summed up by the novelist and wine writer Jay McInerney:

‘Burgundy, a region whose wines sometimes reminded me of British sports cars of the Sixties in their fickleness and undependability…’

The joke is that a cheap bottle costs you £100: that’s £15 for the one that’s decent and £85 for all the disappointing ones you bought getting to the good one; like most wine jokes, it’s not very funny.

I remember the first time I tried this most difficult of wines. It was while working as a wine merchant in the late 1990s. After work one day, the manager took me into the back office and with a gesture that implied I was being initiated into an arcane order, opened a bottle of Mercurey. He poured me a glass and we both took a sniff. It smelt good. Then I had a sip – nothing. It tasted of nothing whatsoever. When I commented on this, the manager smiled and said, ‘that’s Burgundy!’ From then on Burgundy seemed to be some sort of cosmic joke played on the gullible. The number of times I would try wines for large amounts of money and be unmoved. At the time I was discovering claret with its easily decipherable hierarchy, and reliable wines. Claret – red Bordeaux – made sense to me; a good Chateau in a good year rarely disappointed.

Wine-00-176Wine connoisseur Henry JeffreysEventually, I did have a red Burgundy – a 2000 Clos Vougeot that made me realise what all the fuss was about. It tasted wonderful but even here there was a note of uneasiness for my budding wine brain as I was unable to describe why it was so good. Bordeaux can be broken down into easily describable flavours – blackcurrants, tobacco, leather, pepper. Burgundy’s pleasures are more ethereal. Nevertheless I was hooked. I wanted more of that indescribable pleasure but knew that this habit could bankrupt me. Time and time again, I was told that cheap red Burgundy was an oxymoron.

So why is this? Red Burgundy is made from a grape variety, Pinot Noir, that is to put it politely a bit of a bastard: it’s picky about where it is grown, it’s thin-skinned and susceptible to disease. It turns to boozy jam if it gets too ripe, which is why New World examples rarely thrill. This isn’t a problem in Burgundy’s cool climate where it often doesn’t ripen at all resulting in thin acidic wine. Oh, and it tastes of nothing if overcropped (too many grapes from one vine). Pinot Noir is about fragrance which is lost if things aren’t just right. Which explains why good Burgundy is expensive and often not all that good.

Or so I thought.

Last week I went to a tasting that made me thnk again. It was arranged by a company which imports wines made with the kind of obsessive care that goes into a top Nuits-Saint- Georges, but because they are from obscure parts of Burgundy such as Maranges, Epineuil or Vezelay, most of the wines cost no more than £15 a bottle (these wines are only comparatively cheap – you’re not going to find them in Aldi).

 The importer, Fingal-Rock, is based in South Wales so don’t have the overheads of a swanky St James’s shop. It’s not easy to make money from these sort of wines because they can’t be bought at rock-bottom prices and marked up, but nor do they command a premium. They’re the wine equivalent of the mid-list author, and just as the greatest reading pleasure can come from reading a novel with no hype that you pick up on a whim, these wines provide joy without any of the snobberies and expectations of grander wines. The wines listed below are to drink, not to impress.

Try these for starters...

Bourgogne Epineuil 2009 Domaine Leger
This comes from right up in the North of Burgundy near Chablis. White wine country you would think, reds will be tart and thin. It’s light, yes, but it also has the sweetest fruit to go with the more typical herby flavours of Northern Pinot Noir. This is made from perfectly ripened fruit. Oddly, it reminded me a little of the pricey (at least £25 a bottle) Californian Pinot Noirs from Au Bon Climat. But it’s £11.85! I’m not sure how they do it for the price. It’s amazing. I would buy cases and cases of this stuff.

Maranges 2009 Domaine Claude Nouveau
This is from nearer the heart of Burgundy but it’s still unknown so is sold entirely on its own merits. The smell brings to mind smoke and the whiff of the farmyard (in a good way). It’s quite tannic and structured, but underneath there’s a good seam of fruit. ‘Un vin masculin’ as the producer called it. It’s serious stuff and will repay keeping – £14.75.

Santenay 1er Cru ‘Grand Clos Rousseau’ 2009 Domaine Claude Nouveau
Another step up in quality – a premier cru (meaning from a legally designated quality vineyard) – from the Cote d’Or (the famous bit of Burgundy) for £17.85 a bottle. This is all grace, perfume and ethereal qualities – ‘feminine.’ The sort of wine to fall in love with and with a finish that goes on for ages.

All the wines above are available from Fingal- Rock: 01600-712372,

Now a word of warning: most cheap Burgundy really is awful. Don’t go striding into your local supermarket expecting that their £10 Bourgogne Rouge is going to be any good. Another warning, don’t expect all the wines from the obscure areas I have listed above to be any good. Burgundy is complicated; you will need a guide so you’ll just have to keep reading this column.

I’ll finish with a wine that turns everything I have written on its head. It’s made in vast quantities, it’s cheap and yet, it really tastes like Pinot Noir if not a lot like classic Burgundy: Cono Sur Pinot Noir 2010 from Chile, from around £7 at every supermarket (Tesco, £7.49) and corner shop in the country. This is fragrant, simple and delicious.

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