Why Burgundy?

OK. So you've heard me talk a lot about Burgundy lately—in Paris, while hanging out in my hotel room; actually over the past few years, here and there as time permits, even though this is supposed to be a spirits blog. I know some of you are curious as a result. I know this because I get emails from readers every day, asking what in my opinion would be a good Burgundy to explore; just something to help them understand what all the fuss is about. That's a tough task, however, because—the truth is—it's not simply the taste of Burgundy that draws you in. It's everything. It's the history, the mystique, the untouched expression of place, and the dedication to a completely different philosophy of winemaking than most of the world. That's what draws you in. Sure—it's all just pinot noir and chardonnay; two grapes you can find in California, New Zealand, and most wine-making regions of the world. But the problem is: the wines from those places are not Burgundy. They're not the original. They're not nearly as storied or ancient. There's a thousand years of history behind the vineyards in Burgundy, dating back to the Cisterian monks who planted many of them in the first century of the last millenium. Some of these vineyards were famous long before we even knew what California or New Zealand were. The more you think about that, the more you start wanting to know more about it. 

Did you know that winemakers in Burgundy are called vignerons? There's nothing related to the actual practice of "wine-making" in that term because in Burgundy you don't make the wine. The vineyard makes the wine, and God made the earth, so the expressions are considered divine in origin. One simply cares for the vines in the vineyard—hence, they're called vignerons. Plots within a vineyard are called climats, which literally means exactly what it looks like: climate. The terroir in Burgundy—the combination of weather, soil, and place—changes drastically from vineyard to vineyard, so it's no surprise they use that term. On one hill you could have a vineyard known for making $1000 bottles of wine of supreme elegance. Immediately next to it, a standard village-grade vineyard that makes daily-drinkers. That type of intimate variance blows my mind—that just those little things can make such a difference. The extra bit of sun exposure. The gust of breeze that helps prevent rot. The slight elevation that promotes drainage. All of these tiny things matter in Burgundy and they make the difference between Grand Cru grandeur and standard swill. There are books dedicated to their comprehension; terrifying tomes of esoteric plonk that would bore the hell out of most people. It's this dedication to a pureness of expression, however, that prevents the Burgundians from blending their vineyard wines together in the name of flavor. They want singularity of place. God's will is what it is and it's their job to honor that. They're just along for the ride.

Americans like me hear this type of talk and get absolutely romantic. We long for a thousand years of any kind of tradition; let alone a millennium of glorious wine spirituality. Did you know that when the monks planted many of these vineyards originally they actually tasted the earth? They literally put the dirt in their mouths and analyzed the flavors because they knew there was a connection between great earth and great wine. What's crazy is that there was a study done a while back to see if the actual science of the soil backed up their decisions. It did, of course. Those monks knew their stuff without any of the technology we now have today. Like anything great however (Pappy, Pliny...cough, cough), the word will always get out. When the wealthy landowners realized that the monks had all the good shit, they decided to tax the hell out of their vineyards. "We can't afford the land if you tax it," said the monks. "Yeah....we know," said the aristocracy. For centuries after that these vineyards would be collected and cultivated by serious connoisseurs of the elite, even the cousin of Louis XV—the Prince of Conti—who lusted after the famed Romanée vineyard (which even then was known as the best vineyard in the world) wanted in on the action; eventually purchasing the land and instantly pulling the wines from general availability. He would drink it all himself, occasionally sharing it with his guests. Like—you know—Mozart. (Read Maximillian Potter's Shadows in the Vineyard for an exciting romp through Burgundy, told through the theme of an eco-terrorist plot)

And still today in 2015 all of that intrigue and romanticism continues to run wild. We long to know: what is it exactly that makes people go crazy for this stuff? Is it really that complicated? It is and it isn't. It's not complicated when a pureness of red fruit explodes on your tongue like nothing you've ever tasted before. That's not complicated in the slightest. There's also nothing complicated about the way a great white wine glides over your tongue, simultaneously evoking a minerality and a salinity derived from the remnants of the ancient sea that once covered the region. That's obvious, instantaneous understanding. But what exactly makes it taste that way? Ah...now that's something else entirely. 

Understanding the nuances of Burgundy requires a lifetime of study. That's what gets my head spinning. That's what keeps me coming back for more. It's such an adventure.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll