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Burgundy: Bold & Beautiful

The Theme

Burgundy is one of the great wine regions of the world, and a fantastic theme for a wine tasting party.  Many wine drinkers like chardonnay and pinot noir but feel intimidated by Burgundy.  This wine tasting party will open up the bold and beautiful wines of Burgundy to your guests and give them the confidence to discover these great wines!

The Angle

The angle of this tasting is to unlock the mystery of this region’s wines so that your guests learn what they need to know to start exploring Burgundy’s wines for themselves.  It’s easier than it seems: white Burgundy is 100% chardonnay and red Burgundy is 100% pinot noir.  Serve four whites and four reds that span different towns, well-known winemakers, and all four of the Burgundy classifications.   Walk through them in order as a way to explain the subtleties of how Burgundy characterizes their wines.  You and your guests will learn a ton and enjoy some delicious wines along this way.

Sample Lineup

  1. Maison Champy, Bourgogne Blanc Signature, 2006 ($19)
  2. Louis Latour, Chassagne-Montrachet, 2006 ($33)
  3. Olivier Leflaive, Puligny-Montrachet “Les Referts” 1er Cru ($60)
  4. Marc Rougeot, Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, 2006 ($90)
  5. Louis Jadot, Cote de Beaune Villages (a Bourgogne blend), 2006 ($20)
  6. Louis Jadot, Nuits-St. Georges, 2004 ($35)
  7. Louis Jadot, Vosne-Romanee “Les Suchots” 1er Cru, 2004 ($62)
  8. Louis Jadot, Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru, 2004 ($110)

The Wines

While they usually don’t say “chardonnay” or “pinot noir” anywhere on the labels, the most basic fact to know about Burgundy is that white Burgundy is 100% chardonnay and red Burgundy is 100% pinot noir, almost without exception.  Note: that’s unusual for France, a nation where wines are usually blends of several different grapes.  What makes each bottle of Burgundy unique has to do with which grapes are used to make the wine – and specifically, exactly where those grapes are grown.  As you walk your guests through the wines, you’ll be progressing from wines made from grapes blended throughout the region to wines made from very specific individual vineyards.

Start with an inexpensive basic “Bourgogne” white blend, which will be made from chardonnay grapes blended from various sites around the Burgundy region.  Next move up to a higher-quality “Villages” wine that is made entirely from chardonnay grapes located in a specific town (village), such as the town of Puligny-Montrachet.  This wine should be a little better, and will be a bit more expensive.  Third, serve a “Premier Cru” white Burgundy, which is made from one of over [500] specially-designated, high-quality vineyards throughout Burgundy.  Finish with a “Grand Cru” white Burgundy, made exclusively from chardonnay grapes grown in one of the [50] or so most prestigious vineyards in Burgundy.  Repeat this tour with your four Red Burgundies – from basic Bourgogne, to a Villages, to a Premier Cru and then finally to a Grand Cru.  It works the same way – as you work your way upward, the wines are made from pinot noir that is grown in more specific (and higher-quality) vineyards.

When it comes to price, Grand Cru Burgundies are expensive, both for whites and reds.  Even Premier (1er) Cru Burgundies are a splurge at $40-60/bottle.  If you want to ease up on the budget for your event, swap out the Grand Cru wine with another “Villages” wine, which in our view are where you’ll find the best quality for the money among Burgundy’s wines.  If you do this, choose two villages that are different in style, to emphasize the point about terroir – your local wine merchant can provide advice on this.

Music

This is a really nice tasting, and we would recommend your music choice complement the classy juice you’re serving!  While classical music wouldn’t be out of place, it’s still a party – we’d go with classic jazz.  Start with Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out” and then progress to some Miles Davis.  Finish with something lively but less well-known, perhaps John Coltrane or Charlie Parker.

Pairings

We’d prepare two different cheese plates for this tasting – one showcasing cheeses to pair with your White Burgundy (chardonnay) and a second that highlights cheeses that pair well with Red Burgundy (pinot noir).  We’d recommend setting up your party space such that the whites are in one area, together with their cheeses, and the reds are in a second area (ditto).

Chardonnay pairs great with a number of cheeses.  Our friends at Wine Spectator recommend a cheese plate that shows off a diversityof mild-flavored cheeses, including Triple-Cream Brie, Valencay (a goat’s cheese loved by Napoleon), and a Gruyere.  Meanwhile, pinot noir goes very well with a variety of cheeses, but we would not recommend a blue cheese.  For your red Burgundy we’d add either a light Cheddar or the big full-flavored French Epoisses to round out your cheese board.   A sliced baguette would be an elegant (and French!) choice to accompany your cheese, though of course crackers always work fine.  We’d prefer mild crackers such as Carr’s water table crackers.

You can of course serve any type of food you like, but in our view this is a tasting where the wines should take center stage.  We wouldn’t go with heavy apps.  Some elegant and appropriate accompaniments to your cheese board would include nuts, dates, and maybe some dried apricots or dried cranberries.

Tasting Notes

Burgundy has a lot of small producers making great wine.  But for your tasting party, you’re hoping to introduce your guests to wines they’ll then go out looking to purchase for themselves.  For that reason, we believe you should use this opportunity to introduce your guests to some of the largest and most well-known makers / distributors of Burgundy (often known as negociants).  Louis Jadot, Louis Latour, Olivier Leflaive, Maison Champy, and Bouchard Pere et Fils are great choices.  Fortunately, they all own some fantastic vineyard real estate and make delicious wines.  They’re a great starting point for your exploration of this wonderful region.

Cite a few statistics for your guests to put the whole “Bourgogne,” “Villages,” “Premier Cru” and “Grand Cru” discussion in context.  Roughly 52% of all wine made in Burgundy are regional “Bourgogne” red or white blends.  Another 35% of all Burgundy wines are “Village” wines where all the grapes are sourced from that specific village.  There are just over 560 Premier Cru vineyards, the wines from which make up 11% of Burgundy production.  Finally, the 30+ Grand Cru vineyards make up just 2% of all Burgundy wines.

Burgundy makes great chardonnay that is crisp and creamy, but not buttery in the way many Californian wineries produce chardonnay.  White Burgundy also can taste minerally as a result of the limestone in the land where the vines are planted.  Burgundians like to let the clean fruit flavors from the grape shine through, rather than to make a huge wine reminiscent of butterscotch pudding.  Similarly, Red Burgundy typically has more subtle fruit flavors than the pinot noir you and your guests might have tried from America.  Whereas the warmer weather in California produces many full-bodied, very fruit-forward pinot noir, it’s much cooler in Burgundy and so the fruit flavors are more refined and complex (some would say elegant).

Note also that Premier Cru (displayed as “1er Cru” on many labels) and Grand Cru wines always include the name of the vineyard itself on the label.  For a 1er Cru, it’s usually in quotes and/or listed after the name of the village.  For the two 1er Cru wines in our sample lineup above, the white is from the “Les Referts” vineyard in the village of Puligny-Montrachet, while the red is from the “Les Suchots” vineyard in the village of Vosne-Romanee.  You will also be able to find the phrase “1er Cru” or “Premier Cru” somewhere in tiny print on the label.

So how will you know a Grand Cru when you see it?  The smart-aleck answer is, “by its price tag.”  There are no undiscovered affordable gems among Grand Cru Burgundy vineyards; they’re usually more expensive than their 1er Cru neighbors.   But also, the Grand Cru Burgundy wines have the name of the vineyard itself on the label, and often omit the name of the town.  In our sample lineup above, “Corton-Charlemagne” and “Mazis-Chambertin” are vineyards, not towns.  Finally, in case this all gets too confusing, the words “grand cru” will most likely be on the label as well, for the avoidance of doubt.

We would also recommend printing out a list for your guests of the major Burgundy villages.  This may seem like extra trouble, but the villages are so prominently displayed on Burgundy wine labels that it’s helpful to know one when you see it.  Maps are helpful here too.  Let your guests know that most great Burgundy is made along a one-mile-wide by forty-five mile long stretch called the “Cote d’Or,” basically a long valley with hills on either side.  One half is known as the “Cote de Nuits” and includes well-known villages such as Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-St.-Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Vougeot, and Vosnee-Romanee.  The adjacent half of this long/narrow stretch is called the “Cote de Beaune” and includes the villages of  Pommard, Volnay, Beaune, Savigny-les-Beaune, and Aloxe-Corton (among others).  So when you see these words on a label, it’s referring to the town the grapes are grown in.

While the Cote d’Or is the largest Burgundy region, the other three worth noting are Chablis, the Maconnais, and the Cote de Chalonnais.   Your guests will have heard of “Chablis” but may not realize it’s just a specific area of Burgundy that produces very minerally (and often unbelievably great) chardonnay.  Some of your guests may also have heard of “Pouilly-Fuisse” which is a brand, if you will, of white Burgundy made in the Maconnais region.  It too is simply a variety of Chardonnay made in a specific part of Burgundy.

There is plenty more to learn about Burgundy than this quick summary, and plenty of places on the Web to keep studying.  But in our experience, if you and your friends are really interested in learning about wine, this can be one of the most rewarding tastings you can do.

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