Dessert Wines

Theme

Sweets for the sweet!  This tasting caters both to the wine lover and the sweet tooth, and is a real crowd-pleaser.  Many of the main wine regions of the world are known for at least one “dessert wine” that is sweeter and works perfectly as an after-dinner treat or as an accompaniment to your dessert course.  You’ll go through all the most famous dessert wines in the world, learning a ton while enjoying some serious and sweet wine!

Angle

This is a “getting to know you” style tasting where you want your guests to focus on one wine at a time.  It’s done best as a horizontal tasting where each guest gets a class and you pour a taste of each wine to everyone in the room and discuss it before moving on.  We’d go from lightest to richest, roughly according to the order we’ve laid out below.

Sample Lineup

  1. Saracco, Moscato d’Asti ($15)
  2. Selbach, Eiswein, Germany, 375ml ($55)
  3. Royal Tokaji, Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos, 500ml ($35)
  4. Chateau d’Yquem 1996, Sauternes, 375 ml ($140)
    or
    Chateau de Farques 2005, Sauternes, 375 ml ($60)
  5. Rocca di Montegrossi 2001, Vin Santo, Tuscany, 375ml ($80)
  6. Inniskillin, Cabernet Franc Ice Wine, Canada, ($85)
  7. Allegrini, Recioto della Valpolicella “Giovanni Allegrini,” 500ml ($70)
  8. Graham’s Vintage Port 2007 ($80)
  9. Osborne, Pedro Ximenez 1837, Sherry ($18)

The Wines

This tasting presents a wide range of dessert wines from around the world.  What’s important here is to find examples of the varietals, not necessarily the specific wines we recommend above.  The fun of this tasting is to compare just how different the wines are from one another stylistically, given that they’re all dessert wines with relatively high levels of residual sugar that will probably all be popular with your guests who happen to have a sweet tooth.  We included nine wines above – five white and four red – though you certainly don’t need that many.

Start out with a range of white dessert wines.  Kick your party off with a Moscato from Italy, which is slightly sparkling and really refreshing – a perfect palate-cleanser with notes of peach and pear.  From there, move to a Riesling Eiswein (German for “ice wine”) if you can find it, made from Riesling grapes left on the vine in Germany until they are literally harvested frozen, in the snow.  Eiswein can be very expensive; the Selbach we recommend represents excellent value, relatively speaking, with great apple notes.  Then move to the sensational Sauternes.  You can pay as little as $15 or as much as $125+ for a half-bottle of Sauternes, depending on whether you want a value-priced offering or the celebrated “First-Growth” Chateau d’Yquem.  From there, move to Sauternes’ Hungarian counterpart; we think you should definitely try to find a Tokaji Aszu if you can (spelled and pronounced “Tokay” in English).  Tokaji is a rich, honeyed nectar that was revered by kings in the 17th century and is making a comeback after nearly disappearing to disease and Communist ownership of the vines in the 20th century.  Finally, as the wines you’re tasting are getting progressively richer, finish with Vin Santo, the traditional after-dinner, after-espresso dessert wine in Tuscany, which is traditionally served with biscotti cookies that you dip in the sweet wine.

From there, include a few reds in your tasting.  Among fine-wine lovers, Canada is known principally for their Ice Wine, made in the same style as the German Eiswein above.  Canada’s biggest producer, Inniskillin, produces a fascinating and delicious copper-colored Ice Wine from Cabernet Franc that would introduce something completely different to your tasting.  Another red dessert wine option, if you can find it, would be a Recioto della Valpolicella from Italy, a thick red that looks like a dry wine but tastes surprisingly rich & sweet.  From there, move to Port, the ubiquitous after-dinner drink loved by the British and made in Portugal’s Douro region.   Vintage Port is a serious wine, made only from the best vineyards in the best years (and priced accordingly).   We’d finish with a Pedro Ximenez, a particularly rich, sweet sherry from Jerez, Spain.

Music

We held this tasting recently and decided on a “sweet” iTunes mix.  I mean, a dessert wines tasting should be fun and light-hearted, not pretentious.  But to make it theme-appropriate…well, we compiled an admittedly ridiculous mix of songs that had the word “sweet,” the word “sugar” and/or the word “candy” in the title.  This seems lame until you realize how many great songs fit this description.  We kicked off the event with “Bittersweet Symphony” by the Verve, before hitting golden oldies “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” and “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies.  From there we segued into the contemporary with Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams are Made of This,” Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams,” Guns n Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine,” Sara Bareilles’ “One Sweet Love,” Amos Lee’s “Sweet Pea,” and Gwen Stefani’s “The Sweet Escape.”  And why stop there, when you can move to classics like Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” and Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”  This mix is admittedly cheesy but your guests will be having fun by the end of this set, and will appreciate your effort to pick theme-appropriate music.  Trust us.  We tried it.

Pairings

Dessert wines pair best with dessert – why fight the theme?  Make some sweets!  You have enough styles of wine at this tasting to pair with light desserts as well as rich desserts, so serve a variety.  We’d definitely include some Italian biscotti cookies, if for no other reason than that your Vin Santo is designed to be served alongside biscotti for dipping.  You also can’t go wrong with brownies – they’re bite-sized and go well with many of your wines (particularly the reds).  Maybe make some chocolate chip cookies, which should work nicely alongside the white dessert wines.  And maybe round out the solution with a fruit-based dessert, like angel food cake with berries, or a fruit tart.  If you want to include a cheese, we’d go with English Stilton, which is a perfect match for Port.  Your guests will have a great time trying different wines with the different sweets.

Tasting Notes

Dessert wines are sweet because of their residual sugar content; while dry wines have residual sugar of 3% or less, dessert wines can have from 5-30% residual sugar.  The best dessert wines don’t taste overly syrupy because the wines have enough acidity to balance out the sugar.  In many cases, the wines achieve this higher sugar content because the winemakers leave the grapes on the vine longer, which makes the wines ripen more and become sweeter.

We’d recommend printing out some tasting notes that give a little background on each of the wine varietals you’ll be serving.  Each of the wines has an interesting back story.  Sauternes, for example, is made when the benevolent fungus Botrytis cinerea (also known as “noble rot”) takes hold of the grapes and concentrates the sugars.  Tokaji Aszu is made sweet in the same way, in fact “Aszu” is Hungarian for “rot.”  Ice wine, meanwhile (both the Canadian version and German Eiswein) are made by letting the grapes stay on the vine so long they actually freeze on the vine with the arrival of winter.  Vin Santo is made by letting the Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes partially dry out for three to six months, during which time half the liquid in the grapes (the water) evaporates, concentrating the sugar.  Moscato is traditionally enjoyed at Christmas in Piedmont, Italy, whereas Port is a classic Christmas drink in Britain (paired with Stilton cheese).  And Pedro Ximenez is a particularly sweet, rich variety of sherry often used as a blending wine to add sweetness to lighter sherries, or used as a dessert treat on its own.  Rumor has it that Spanish men in Jerez pour it over ice cream and enjoy it after dinner with a cigar.

The most famous and celebrated dessert wine in the world is Chateau d’Yquem, the only Sauternes rated as ”Premier Cru Superieur” (Great First Growth) in the original 1855 classification of Bordeaux chateaux.  Wines from Château d’Yquem are characterised by their complexity, concentration and sweetness.  In addition, the wine is famously age-worthy; in a good year, a bottle will only begin to show its true qualities after a decade or two of cellaring.  Several vintages of Chateau d’Yquem have rated perfect scores from critics like Robert Parker.  Not surprisingly, this pedigree comes with a high price point; half-bottles of Chateau d’Yquem typically start at $130, and can cost significantly more in a particularly good vintage.  It would be great fun to include Yquem in your tasting, but if your budget doesn’t permit it, worry not; a bottle of Sauternes can be enjoyed for less than $20.  The other Sauternes we recommend for your event, Chateau de Farques, is a bit pricier, and was named one of Wine Spectator’s top 100 wines in 2008.

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Must-Know Bordeaux

Theme

Bordeaux is considered by many to be the most important fine wine region in the world.  This tasting is designed to introduce your guests to some of the great wines of Bordeaux: the “Super Seconds.” These wineries of the Left Bank of Bordeaux are known year-in and year-out as some of the best quality, most complex and age-worthy wines in the region, and whose super wines are perceived second only in relation to the five famous “First Growths” that are too expensive for most of us to enjoy regularly (if ever!).  We consider the Super Seconds to be the “must-know” wines of Bordeaux for any wine lover who wants to become seriously familiar with this great region.

Angle

The angle of this event is to introduce and familiarize your guests with each of these wines.  Prices for these wines vary enormously by vintage; your goal here is to find good lower-priced versions from years that were fine but not spectacular (and priced accordingly).  We would recommend you display the wines clearly as you serve them, but we would not hide the wines in a “blind” format.  You want your guests to see the labels as they taste each wine, so they can begin to associate each bottle with its unique character, and perhaps pick a personal favorite or two as the styles do differ from wine to wine.  There is, however, a price range here; we’d recommend withholding the prices of each until the end, and then seeing if the less expensive wines rate as highly among your group as the pricier chateaux!

The Lineup: Bordeaux’s “Super Seconds”

  1. Chateau Montrose 2004, St.-Estephe ($59)
  2. Chateau Leoville-Barton 2001, St.-Julien ($79)
  3. Chateau Pichon-Baron 1999, Pauillac ($89)
  4. Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou 1998, St.-Julien ($90)
  5. Chateau Pichon-Lalande 2001, Pauillac ($99)
  6. Chateau Cos d’Estournel 1999, St.-Estephe ($99)
  7. Chateau Palmer 2003, Margaux ($139)
  8. Chateau Leoville Las Cases 1991, St.-Julien ($159)

Note: the prices above were found on the web recently from one or more of the following retailers: K&L Wine Merchants (San Francisco Bay Area), Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits (New York City), Wally’s Wine & Spirits (Los Angeles).  We chose vintages/years deliberately to keep prices down.  These same wines from years like 1989, 1990, 1995, 1996, 2000 or 2005 are significantly more expensive.

The Wines

This is a spectacular wine tasting.  We first hosted this one for 30-40 friends in 2005 and a number of them still talk about it.  This event, for many of us, was the wine tasting party that opened our eyes to the world of Bordeaux and familiarized us with some wines that are now among our favorites.  They set a benchmark for quality; for those trying to understand what all the fuss is about, these are a good place to start.  These are also great wines for aging, so they make a very thoughtful wedding or first-child gift that you can open up years later.  With that said, it is also an ambitious tasting – finding the wines for this event will take a little legwork.  Trust us, it will be worth it.

 

Depending on where you live, you will likely need to shop online to replicate this event and find all the wines above (or similar vintages that are also good prices).  Check out our “Buying Guide” page for some helpful hints on finding good merchants and good deals on wine in your area.  For most of the tastings on this website, the theme is more important than finding the specific wines we recommend in our sample lineup.   For this tasting, the wines we are recommending are the theme.

In 1855, Napoleon III called upon the Bordeaux wine industry to rate the various wines from best to worst in preparation for the Paris Exhibition.  The Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce ultimately grouped the various chateaux into five categories (based on selling price!) led by the Premiers Crus, or “First Growths.”  There are today five “First Growths” in Bordeaux – Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut-Brion, and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild.  They occupy some of the best terroir in Bordeaux and every year make wines that are among the most sought-after in the world.  They are priced accordingly – First Growths rarely sell for less then $300/bottle.

The wines presented in this tasting are often collectively referred to as the “Super Seconds” – the wines from Bordeaux’s Left Bank that are perennial superstars of outstanding quality, but that do not command the lofty prices of the “First Growths.”  Many wine connoisseurs today agree that the 1855 classification is largely outdated, and in particular the quality level of some wines ranked lower then has improved significantly over the years.  On any given year, each of the wineries in this tasting has the potential to produce a wine considered perfect by the all-powerful wine critics.  They very rarely disappoint.

Though there is no formal definition of the exact list of wines that rate as “Super Seconds,” these wines are usually named:

  • Chateau Leoville-Las-Cases
  • Chateau Pichon-Lalande
  • Chateau Pichon-Baron
  • Chateau Cos d’Estournel
  • Chateau Palmer
  • Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou
  • Chateau Montrose
  • Chateau Leoville-Barton

Music

This is an epic, classy event featuring some of the world’s biggest, most renowned wines that are benchmarks for quality, tradition & power.  We’d play music that is suitably heightened, rich, powerful, and name-worthy: The Three Tenors.  Of course, you’re tasting French wines, so we’d choose to play the 1998 Paris concert that Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti sang to ring in the World Cup.  The big, lush, soaring operatic music should set the perfect backdrop for your tasting.  You can always choose something different if opera’s not your thing – classic jazz would work as well – but we’ll bet your guests get into your choice of the Three Tenors in Paris, and it matches your “Bordeaux Super Seconds” theme perfectly.

Pairings

The purpose of whatever food you serve at this event should be to blend in and stay out of the way!  When you’re serving serious wines like this and introducing your guests to the nuances of how Pichon Lalande differs from Pichon Baron, you don’t want hummus or ranch dip getting in the way of your palate.   We’d recommend serving a few cheeses with relatively mild but complex flavors, served with sliced baguette (preferably) or mild crackers like Carr’s water biscuits.   French Cantal cheese is a great pairing with Bordeaux that we’d highly recommend, if you can find it.  Havarti is easier to find and also pairs nicely with Bordeaux.  Manchego pairs well with Cabernet and Merlot (the dominant grapes in these blended wines) and is always a crowd-pleaser.  A selection of mixed olives is a nice accompaniment as well to any wine tasting, and goes particularly well with the Cabernet in these wines.

Tasting Notes

For those new to Bordeaux, the key concept to know about the wines is that red Bordeaux is almost always a blend of several different grapes.  The two major grapes used in the blends are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; the Cabernet provides great structure and flavor, while Merlot provides a round, supple texture.   Cabernet Franc is the next most important and prevalent grape in these blends, typically used in smaller quantities to provide aromas of violet and spice to the wine.  The other two grapes found in red Bordeaux blends are Malbec and Petit Verdot, which tend to be used in smaller amounts, if at all.

Bordeaux is widely considered the most important wine region in the world.  As Karen MacNeil points out her excellent book The Wine Bible, “No other wine region is more powerful, more commercially clever, or more important as a source of profoundly complex, ageworthy wines.  The challenge is to comprehend it all, for Bordeaux is the largest fine wine vineyard on the globe.  This single region covers more territory than all of the vineyard areas of Germany put together and is ten times larger than the vineyard acreage of New Zealand…[Bordeaux wineries] produce a daunting 700 million bottles of wine every year, including many of the priciest wines in the world.”

We’d recommend printing out a map of Bordeaux for your guests so they can see the geography from which these famous wines hail.  Bordeaux lies alongside three rivers – the Gironde, the Dordogne and the Garonne – and all the “Super Seconds” are on the “Left Bank,” the term for the Haut-Medoc region that sits on the West (Left) Bank of the Girdone River.  This area includes villages that are home to some of the world’s most famous wines.  The town of  Pauillac is probably Bordeaux’s most famous village, where you’ll find 1st growths Lafite-Rothschild, Latour and Mouton-Rothschild as well as Super Seconds Pichon-Lalande and Pichon-Baron.  Its southern neighbor Saint Julien features several wineries classified as 2nd growths in 1855, including Gruaud Larose, Leoville Poyferre, and our “Super Seconds” Leoville-Las-Cases, Leoville-Barton and Ducru Beaucaillou.  To the north of Pauillac is Saint Estephe, home to Super Seconds Montrose and Cos d’Estournel, as well as many up-and-coming wineries known for offering excellent value given the quality.  The southernmost of the Haut-Medoc appellations is Margaux, where more of the “classified” wines from 1855 reside than any other.  These include first-growth Chateau Margaux, a number of second-growths, and Chateau Palmer which was originally ranked as a third-growth but is widely regarded as a “Super Second.”

This tasting is just an introduction to Bordeaux, one that focuses on some of the most famous villages of the region and on wines that have long been classified as some of France’s very best.  Bordeaux, however, doesn’t end with the 1855 classification.  Many of Bordeaux’s most celebrated wines were never classified in the first place, notably those on the “Right Bank” villages of Pomerol and St.-Emilion.

Whereas “Left Bank” wines like those in our tasting tend to include a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon, the “Right Bank” stars are often Merlot-dominated, or even 50/50 Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  St.-Emilion has two wines that received the highest ranking in its own 1954 classification: Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau Ausone.  These wines, too, command worldwide admiration and lofty price points.  Fans of the 2004 movie Sideways will note that the main character Miles was saving a 1961 Cheval Blanc for a special occasion.  Pomerol, meanwhile, never bothered to classify its wines, which include the most expensive Bordeaux wine in the world:  Chateau Petrus.   Made in small quantities to great acclaim, Chateau Petrus typically costs several thousand dollars a bottle!

Once you’ve introduced yourself and your guests to Bordeaux with this tasting, use the Super Second wines as a springboard to learn more.  If you found you liked wines from a specific village (for example, all the St.-Julien wines), head out to your local wine merchant and pick out some more affordable wines from that village that could become everyday favorites.  If you loved the wines and are anxious to explore Bordeaux further, put together a tasting of Right Bank wines – possibly comparing the bounty of St. Emilion and Pomerol to their Left Bank neighbors in a blind tasting format.  Also – a number of the “Super Seconds” above also produce a second wine from the chateau based on grapes not used in the “Grand Vin.”  These wines can be delicious in their own right, obviously come from great terroir, and are far more affordable. Examples include Clos du Marquis (from Leoville Las Cases), La Dame de Montrose, and Alter Ego de Palmer.  Finally, we think you’d have a blast putting together a blind tasting of red Bordeaux blends against Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from California.  See if your guests can tell the difference or have a clear favorite.

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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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