Introducing Burgundy: Generic to grand cru
From the low end to the high, in Burgundy as in real estate, the three things that count are location, location, and location. Well, maybe with a nod to the producer. And vintage. But to understand this confusing region most clearly, it helps to get a grasp on its geography.
We've seen this repeatedly during this 12-week series on Burgundy, in which I've used a random selection of bottles from an on-sale box to illustrate a number of the region's appellations and the way they relate. Today we reach the final selection, the priciest wine of the bunch and the only one labeled "Grand cru" ("great growth"), the designation reserved for the Burgundy vineyards that, on the basis of their location and their long-term track record, produce the finest wines.
With this wine we move to the village Gevrey-Chambertin, near the north end of the Côte d'Or, a village that incorporates one of the most important names in all the world of wine: "Chambertin," a name of ancient but surprisingly humble history - originally, it was simply "Le Champ de Bertin," or Bertin's Field, after its 10th century landowner; later, it gained fame because of the wine's reputation as Napoleon's favorite drink. The Chambertin vineyard itself lies on the uphill side of a stretch of highway nicknamed "Route des Grands Crus" because more grand cru vineyards are concentrated here than in any other village in Burgundy.
Today's wine comes from the largest of Gevrey's grand cru vineyards, Aux Charmes, whose wines are labeled Charmes-Chambertin. Although it's just across the highway from Chambertin, its wines are rarely mentioned in the same reverent breath. The largest of the grand crus, in fact, it produces wines of somewhat variable quality, prompting careful consumers to remember that location is important, but the producer is, too. Happily, Arlaud has presented us a good one, a 2000 vintage wine of power and complexity. It's well short of mature, the rare Burgundy that provides mostly intellectual enjoyment now. Emotional joy will come after a few years, for those with the patience to cellar it.
To wrap up this series, after the Charmes-Chambertin was all gone, I came back another night to "recalibrate" my palate with a simple, relatively affordable Pinot Noir from the most broadly generic Burgundy appellation, "Bourgogne," which may be made from grapes sourced anywhere in the entire Burgundy region. A 2000 wine made by a large but respected Beaune producer, Louis Jadot, it cost about one-fifth the full-retail toll of the Charmes. Would my palate be too spoiled by recent exposure to pricey Burgundies for me to enjoy this simple stuff? Naaah. It's not a grand cru, but it's a good wine, showing plenty of Pinot character, great with food. I can live with that.
Next week we'll return to the usual random romp through the wider worlds of wine in the Friday Wine Advisor. But I hope you've enjoyed reading - and perhaps tasting - this excursion through Burgundy as much as I have writing it.
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Domaine Arlaud 2000 Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru ($45)
This wine is dark ruby in color, clear but not brilliant, likely reflecting its naturally unfiltered status. Deep and rich aromas are complex but difficult to parse out: Dark fruit, plums and black cherries, add wisps of smoke and brown spice. Flavors are consistent with the nose, ripe black fruit and lemony acidity, hints of spice and incense to add complexity, with something fruity and tart like pomegranate juice and cranberries in a very long finish. Tannins are present, but so smooth that they don't intrude. Fine but tightly wound, time is on its side. U. S. importer: North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, Calif. (Feb. 18, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: Sticking with the premise that the finer the wine, the simpler the accompaniment should be, we topped a simple salad with duck confit and a garnish of pecans and California Point Reyes blue cheese, with a dressing made wine-friendly by substituting meyer lemon juice in an otherwise traditional vinaigrette.
VALUE: Reaching at last the high end of the 12-bottle case that has formed the outline for this Burgundy series, the list price of this grand cru gets us into short-of-breath territory at $89.95. Even as part of a special half-price sale, the $45 that I paid will place this bottle among the most expensive I'm likely to consume all year. That being said, North Berkeley's list price remains $10 below current quotes for Arlaud 2000 Charmes-Chambertin at Wine-Searcher.com, starkly portraying the reality that great Burgundy is not a poor man's hobby.
WHEN TO DRINK: You're wasting your money if you drink Burgundies at this level too young. Don't buy it unless you can keep it under good cellar conditions; if you do, plan to hold it until at least 2010, and you won't need to be in any hurry to polish it off then.
WEB LINK: The importer's Website features Arlaud, with information about more recent releases, in its November 2003 newsletter:
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: Compare prices and find sources for Domaine Arlaud's Charmes-Chambertin on Wine-Searcher.com:
Louis Jadot 2000 Pinot Noir Bourgogne ($16.99)
This clear garnet wine breathes plummy black fruit with a slight, pleasant "gamey" note that stops well short of the barnyard. Fresh and juicy fruit conveys a slightly sweet impression, but it's held in balance by crisp, lemony acidity; there's a hint of smooth tannins in the long, berrylike finish. A bit simple, perhaps, in contrast with some of the more portentious Burgundies we've tried in this series. But fresh fruit and good balance make it a good, easy introduction to the region all the same. U.S. importer: Kobrand Corp., NYC. (Feb. 26, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: Rich duck confit works as well with a generic Bourgogne as it does with a grand cru, this time served on a grits cake elevated with Ubriacone cheese from the Veneto.
VALUE: A better value before the shrinking dollar raised its price from $10ish to the upper teens, but still arguably competitive with other under-$20 reds. It also may pay to shop around, as several online vendors undercut the local retail price I paid.
WHEN TO DRINK: Best drunk soon, but no rush - it should hold, even on a wine rack, for several years.
WEB LINK: Maison Louis Jadot's Website is available in French and English. For the English pages, click
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: Find Louis Jadot Bourgogne on Wine-Searcher.com:
Join us for a memorable visit to Burgundy
I understand that several of you have recently registered for our coming tour of Burgundy and Champagne with French Wine Explorers. I'm delighted to hear that you've joined the group, and look forward to meeting you in May.
It should be a memorable visit, with a VIP tour scheduled already for at least one grand cru - Domaine de la Tour in Clos de Vougeot - and more planned. We'll also get a special visit of the 15th century Chateau de Beaune, which is not usually open to the public; and memorable gastronomic Burgundian meals at Lameloise in Chagny, one of France's top 3-star restaurants, and the 1-star but fabulous restaurant Royal Champagne.
If you're still teetering on the fence, I hope you'll seriously consider grabbing one of the few remaining seats for this unforgettable wine-travel experience. The six-day tour of Burgundy and Champagne runs from May 24-30. Feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions; or you can get more information - and register - at French Wine Explorers,
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Friday, Feb. 27, 2004