Burgundy's Overwhelming Complexity

From the title of this article you may think this is a piece about the amazing depth of flavor present in many of Burgundy's finest wines.  It is not.  This post is the result of my feelings after another week in which I drank one absolutely stunning bottle of pinot noir from the Marsannay, only to follow it up with massive disappointment from a premier cru Beaune.  Regarding the second wine, however, the blame is entirely on me.  I simply don't know enough about what I am opening and it's this complex level of knowledge needed to understand great Burgundy that I am referencing in the above title.  Because both the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune are broken up into a vast landscape of tiny vineyard sites, each with its own microclimate and terroir, truly knowing the wines of Burgundy requires years of tasting, experience, and patience.  Unlike Bordeaux, where one can memorize the various chateaux and their particular house style (much like single malt distilleries), Burgundy can be single vineyard, single commune, or a blend of many different wines (much like independent bottles of single malt).

With so many different owners and producers making wine in Burgundy, there has always been work for those with specialized knowledge of the terrain. One also needs to be familiar with the winemaking practices of each producer.  Two wines may come from the same vintage, region, and vineyard site, however, one may ferment with stems and create a tannic, earthy wine, while another chooses to destem and make a more light-bodied style.  Unlike California, where a winery like Ridge owns the entirety of the famed Monte Bello vineyard, Burgundy vineyards are usually divided up into parcels with as many as 85 different owners presiding over different rows of vines! How do you know who owns which plots and which plots make the best wines?!

For this reason, up until the 1980s, Burgundy was primarily run by brokers and négociants rather than domaine-bottled estates. To put it into whisky terms, think more indy bottlings and blended brands, rather than actual distillery bottlings.  After the French Revolution, the formerly church-owned vineyards were seized and divided up, only to be further fragmented by inheritance laws.  The négociants would buy the grapes or even the wines from many of these small owners and bottle them under their own name.  If they bought lots from a single vineyard, the wine could be bottled as such, must like A.D. Rattray can bottle a single barrel of Highland Park, or blend it with other whiskies to create a blend.  Therefore, the names of Nicolas Potel, Louis Jadot and Drouhin adorne many of the bottles you'll see in the Burgundy section, rather than the names of actual wineries like you'd see in the California department.

What has changed in Burgundy, however, is that many of these small owners are now deciding to bottle their own wine rather than sell it off to the négociants.  Faced with a shortage of available wine to purchase, the négociants needed to purchase their own vineyards to ensure supply.  The exact same phenomenon is happening right now in Scotland, with Signatory buying Edradour, Gordon & MacPhail buying Benromach, and Chieftain's buying Glengoyne. WhenI look at a wine from Burgundian négociant now, I'm not sure if they made the wine or if they bought it from someone else.  Whose winemaking style am I purchasing?  It’s like buying a bottle of Mortlach and not knowing if it’s been sherry-aged or not.  On top of all this information, one still needs to be aware of vintage, weather, and the nuance of each particular locale.  It's enough to make your head explode, which is why many people are intimidated by Burgundy to begin with.

Last night I opened a bottle of 2005 Nicolas Potel Beaune 1er Cru Les Bressandes.  Here's what I knew going in: Potel is a reputable négociant with a penchant for quality Bourgogne, 2005 was perhaps the best vintage of the decade for Burgundy, this bottle had about six years of bottle age, and all the fruit was from a premier cru vineyard.  I didn't know much about the Les Bressandes vineyard itself, but the Beaune appellation usually produces lighter, cherry-filled pinot noirs that I typcially enjoy.  That led me to believe that this would be a fantastic pairing for my salmon fillet.  We decanted the bottle for over an hour and enjoyed a cocktail before we finally sat down to dine.  I took a sip of the wine – it was just not there.  The palate was too earthy, the fruit was buried under the acidity, and, more importantly, it was definitely not the wine for this meal.  My real frustration, however, besides the fact that I no longer had any wine to drink, was that I wasn’t sure if I had opened the bottle too soon, not decanted it long enough, or if this was actually how the wine was supposed to taste.

The amount of work required to enjoy good Burgundy can be infinite, but it’s exactly that challenge that excites me and many other wine enthusiasts.  I've long heard of Burgundy chasers, the guys who had that one great bottle and spend the rest of their lives trying to find that same high again, and I can empathize to a certain extent.  Great bottles of Burgundy are enough to make one revel in splendor.  To me, it’s worth wading through the sea of disappointments, especially if the experience gained through drinking them helps to avoid future let-downs.  Even with the experience I accrue working in a fantastic wine store, I still don't know enough about these wines to dodge the occasional bullet.  There's simply an overwhelming amount of information to absorb and I wish I had more time to take it all in.  There's a reason why people earn their livelihood in the Burgundy trade - it's a specialized skill that most people don't have the time to master and therefore are willing to pay for.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll