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Understanding Wine from Burgundy

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Have you ever wondered what it is like to attend the oldest and possibly most prestigious wine auction in the history of the world? Well, I am right here at the center of action in Burgundy at the festivities leading up to the Hospices de Beaune auction.

I just finished a fantastic lunch — a great way to understand and taste wine to be auctioned and gear up for the auction ahead. I also had the opportunity to get to know Nellie Blau-Picard, the manager of export marketing and communications for the BIVB (an official promotion and marketing site for the Burgundy region). I know that some of Burgundy’s objectives are to promote tourism in the region, create awareness for some overlooked yet excellent-quality regions such as Fixin, and promote the idea that wines from Burgundy are “everyday wines.”

Now, in America, we use the phrase “everyday wine” to refer to wines inexpensive yet delicious enough to drink without running to the bank for a cash infusion. Typically this means less than $20, $15, and these days even $10. Given the expense of Burgundian soil (it is so rare and special that it is the most expensive in the world) and the care taken in making the wine, it is impossible to sell it at this “everyday” under-$20 price.

So in discussing the issue with Nellie, I realize the BIVB’s message is to splurge, indulge, and celebrate life with wine from Burgundy, with the understanding that it does not have to be First Cru or Premier Cru (which can sell for thousands of dollars per case). Make friends with the clerk or owner of your local wine store and she or he can point you to excellent Burgundy wine that represents value for the dollar (you can find it as low as $35). Typically, these wines represent overlooked, small regions that lack the “famous” names of their Grand Cru siblings. And a secret in the wine world is that in a good vintage, even wines from lesser appellations can be top quality.

Now you may be wondering how it comes to be that a case of First Cru Burgundy can sell for upwards of $10,000 a case, and a box of village-level wine from Fixin or another appellation can sell for around $400 or less. Perhaps the best way to think of this drastic difference is that wine from Burgundy, for centuries now, has been thought of as a commodity, something to buy and sell and that will increase with value over the years.

The wine from Grand Cru and Premier Cru wine is not ready to drink until at least a decade has gone by, as it improves with time in the bottle. The tiny, famous vineyards these wines are grown in, unlike those that grow village-level wines, contain specific soil types that give the wines their racing acidity, one of the many ingredients involved in creating a long-lived wine.

One of the interesting things to remember about Burgundy is that large earthquakes millions of years ago shook the plates of the earth together. If the different soil types were once evenly on different layers, these earthquakes shook them all up so that it is possible that every few inches of Grand Cru vineyard has a different exposed soil type. Beyond the soil, the slope of the hill and the direction it faces are also important. Some of the best vineyards get good sun and are located halfway down the slope.

So is Burgundy an everyday wine? Whatever your answer right now, it will change when you take the time to read an article or book about Burgundy, and ask your wine store clerk to suggest a Burgundy wine he or she likes within your price range. And when you do, use the comment feature to share your thoughts.

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  • Yes — agreed.

  • Marisa, I couldn’t agree more (with your suggestion to read a book about Burgundy) and there are some great value wines..the biggest problem is that many of the larger importers usually don’t carry the lesser known wines (not enough profit), they are cutting back on what they do carry and the smaller importers usually don’t get much shelf space. Finding that special (small village) but excellent Burgundy is getting harder and harder.