Comparative Lit: Burgundy

When I was a grad student applying to PhD literature programs (a path I never followed through on), I had to decide between focusing solely on German text, or possibly applying to a "comparative" lit program––a department that takes writings from different origins and compares them to create a better understanding of literature as a whole. It's nice to be seen as an expert in a particular subject, but I've always striven for the greater overall meanings in life. Using another similar subject as a comparative mirror or a point of contrast can be really helpful in gaining further understanding of a topic you're interested in––especially when that topic is booze. Even if you don't drink it, it helps to know a little about wine if you're a fan of whisky.

While we've all become used to the rising prices of single malt whisky, I can assure you that these pale in comparison to the hikes we've seen in the high-end wine world. In fact, when you dabble in the wine business all day like David and I do, the whisky industry looks down right sunny. For one, you can keep a bottle of whisky open indefinitely––choosing to enjoy it as quickly or as slowly as you please. With a bottle of wine you've got a couple of days, if you're lucky (and, let's be honest, most of us are downing that thing in an hour or less). Older bottles can fall apart in minutes after the cork is popped. $50 can buy you a bottle of Glendronach 12 to enjoy over many weeks, or a bottle of mid-range Bordeaux to enjoy over the course of an evening. The thing about whisky is that it's stable. Other than the rare corked bottle, there's not a whole lot that can go wrong once the liquid is in the bottle. Wine, on the other hand, is temperamental and fussy. It can taste differently the longer the bottle is left open, and morph on you completely depending on the temperature in which it is stored and how long it's been allowed to sit. And then there's the whole vintage thing. You might really have enjoyed a specific wine one year, but you came the following vintage to realize that it stinks. 

These are the obvious differences. Wine isn't whisky, and whisky isn't wine, but what about the similarities in the marketplace? What about Burgundy, for example? 

I've become something of a nut for Burgundy over the last year or so––so much so that I volunteered to be our buyer's assistant here in the Redwood City store (a position usually reserved for non-buyers). My owner thought I was crazy. "On top of all the other work you do, you're going to add that responsibility on as well?" he asked rather unconvinced. 

"Yes, sir," I answered.

I really want to learn more about Burgundy because it's the most mysterious of all wines (and the most expensive, so getting to taste samples with vendors goes a long way). It's sensual, hypnotic, and capable of greatness in ways that other wines are not. More importantly, understanding the way Burgundy works has really helped me to put various spirits categories into much better perspective. It's completely terroir-driven, convoluted and difficult to understand, and it can often be a giant minefield in terms of quality. As Karen MacNeil wrote in her Wine Bible: "As spellbinding as a great Burgundy is, a poor one is almost depressing. Burgundy keeps you guessing." I've poured hundreds of dollars into bottles that should have been great (good vintage, good producer, good location), but tasted God-awful. On the flip side, I've had bottles so good they made me want to cry––both whites and reds. In an age where more and more consumers are demanding a guarantee when plopping down their hard-earned money for booze (points, ratings, etc), Burgundy doesn't allow you to be petty or cheap. You've gotta man up and plunk down your money if you want to party in the Burgundy VIP lounge. And there's absolutely no guarantee that you're going to have a good time.

The beauty of Burgundy is its simplicity; really just two grapes: chardonnay and pinot noir. White and red. One or the other. Like the real estate world, it's all about location, location, location. Burgundy's best wines have been determined before they're even made. We know about these special places, these terroirs extraordinaires, due to the painstaking detail in which the Benedictine monks documented their winemaking when they planted the region. They spent most of the Middle Ages systematically going plot-by-plot, planting grapes, studying the wines made from each one, until they determined which sites were best. It took them more than 500 years. The Cistercian monks would later clear and cultivate some of the steepest slopes, understanding that the heavy limestone in the soil made a huge difference. These vineyards all have names and the wines of Burgundy are known by these micro-regions. Yet, it gets crazier because when Napoleon came into power he decided that all inheritances (including property) had to be split evenly among all surviving children. That means that, after centuries of handing down property, one vineyard might have 80 to 100 different owners. They might own a few rows, or maybe as little as a few vines.

This is where the similarities to Scotch whisky start to occur. When a vintner owns only a few measly vines in a number of different vineyards, it sometimes isn't worth the effort to label and market his own wine. That's how the negociants came into play (the blending houses of the Burgundy world)––buying grapes, must, and wine from smaller growers and blending them together to create larger-scale, more-available products. Burgundy is tiny and its wines are coveted around the globe; the most revered being the Domaine de la Romanée Conti wines, where 400 cases a year are expected to satiate collectors world-wide (hence their gigantic, four-figure price tags). Much like the Scotch whisky industry, the 1960s and 70s brought on a demand for Burgundy from smaller producers, rather than blending houses. Much like whisky drinkers wanted to taste and understand the whisky from each single malt distillery, Burgundy nuts wanted to taste the specifics of each vineyard site from a single producer. Even if the producer possessed only a row of vines from the heralded Chambertin vineyard, it was (and still is) in his best interest to make a few cases of Chambertin wine, rather than blend the juice with other vineyards. Consumers were (and still are) willing to pay for quality and scarcity.

If you think the allocations for Pappy are stressful, you haven't been around K&L when the DRC or Domaine Dujac wines get parcelled out. Keith about has a heart attack before it's all said and done. There are only 62,000 total acres of grapes growing in Burgundy. Compare that to 100,000 acres of just chardonnay in California alone. With more than a millennium of demand built up for Burgundian wines (the hype really growing when the papal residence moved to Avignon in 1309), consumer lust far outweighs anything we're witnessing in the whisky world––even with a new vintage around the corner each year. You see, part of what makes Burgundy special is that it lies in a relatively cold, inland climate, which means getting the grapes to ripen each year is a challenge. Many growers have to decide whether to pick before or after the Fall rain. Pick early and you might end up with thin, flavorless wine. Pick later and risk the waterlog and rot caused by rainy weather. This is where vintage comes into play. The great wines of Burgundy are going to sell every year, regardless. Great vintages, however, will only double that demand and triple the price tags. For example, a bottle of 1989 La Tache will run you $1700, whereas the incredible 1990 vintage will cost you $4200.

As a consumer looking to expand your horizons, the ways one can attack Burgundy highly resemble the strategies applied to single malt: region, age, producer. Most vigneron have multiple properties, so one can get a sense for the winemaker's signature style––heavy oak or stainless steel (similar to sherry-aged or hogshead)? Ripe, juicy fruit or more savory, earthy notes? Since terroir is so important, many producers use the hands-off approach and let the wines speak for themselves. In these cases, it's good to use the regional approach––choosing hands-off producers from the various communes and vineyard sites to understand what makes them different. How does Volnay differ from Chorey-les-Beaune? Or how does a premier cru site differ from a grand cru site? Then, of course, there are maturity levels. While whisky ages in the barrel before it's bottled, wine ages only after it's been put into glass. Many (if not all) of the best Burgundian wines will taste better 3-10 years after the vintage (even the whites). This is where a vertical tasting can be absolutely mindblowing; tasting the the same wine from the same site year after year to see how it progresses and changes.

Much like hardcore whisky fans are grumbling at the price hikes, long-time fans of Burgundy have already dealt with rising costs and increased demand. Much like whisky fans, they're still waiting for the bubble to pop and for prices to go back down where they used to be. I don't think it's going to, however, because Burgundy is all a matter of fixed real estate––terroir is about location and there aren't enough penthouses to go around. My friend Brian, who works in the SF property business, once told me, "You're never going to see too big of a dip in San Francisco property prices because, as soon as they even slightly drop, all those people who moved to Oakland are going to move right back over and we'll be back where we started. There's no room for growth." The increased demand for Burgundy isn't just about the free market, however, it's also due to consumer education and increased awareness. With the internet and its wine blogs, forums, and rating sites, more wine afficionados are aware of what's going on in Burgundy than ever before (even with the smallest little upstarts). Once you're aware that there's a better and more interesting way of drinking available to you, it's difficult to ever go back.

So why even deal with Burgundy? Why waste your time and money on the possibility of severe disappointment, inconsistent quality, and rising costs? Because it's all about the hunt. It's about using newly-acquired knowledge and experience to help guide you towards better bottles and new flavors. It's about the enjoyment of an incredible wine that might have taken you years to find, and that you've been saving for the right moment. It's about the highs and lows that come from any type of of hobby or collection. In the wine world, Burgundy is the ultimate high and, sometimes, the lowest of lows.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll