Introducing Burgundy: Accruing status
Although it's one of the shortest words in the French language, the one-syllable "cru" carries more weight than its three-letter status might suggest.
It's not even that easy to pronounce: Although Anglophones can get by with "crew," that's only a rough approximation of the gargled "r" and whistly "u" in the proper French rendition of this wine-agriculture term.
Translating it can be a challenge too. Google's online language tools render it "vintage," which misses the mark. Most French-English wine dictionaries go with the literal "growth," which is accurate but not highly informative. "Vineyard" gets the general idea, too, but there's more to the story.
"Cru" is important in understanding French wine because it's used in the classification of specific vineyards ... and it's complicated because the details of such classification vary among regions. In Bordeaux, for example, the top properties rated in the 1855 classification of (mostly) the Medoc were subdivided into five numbered "crus" or classes, from the top "premier cru" ("first growth") down to mere "fifth growths" (which, in turn, lord it over all the hundreds of properties that didn't make the cut at all). St.-Emilion and Pomerol use a different "cru" system; Beaujolais another.
In Burgundy, finally, "premier cru," as lofty as it sounds, is trumped in turn by the "grand cru" vineyards that, based on their location and long track record of success, rate as, well, better than first.
Next week we'll wrap up this 12-part series with a taste of a grand cru. Today's tasting, underscoring the fine-grained geography that we've learned is crucial to understanding Burgundy, might appear at first to mirror an earlier report in the series: We're back to Morey Saint-Denis, the village featured in the Jan. 30 report. But today's featured wine represents a different producer, and more to the point, a different "premier cru" vineyard: "Aux Charmes."
Although Aux Charmes is separated from the "Aux Chezeaux" vineyard featured last month only by an imaginary border on a map - the vineyards lie side-by-side on the northern edge of Morey Saint-Denis, on that village's border with Gevrey-Chambertin - the fruit from each vineyard is considered distinctly different. This is the kind of detail that makes Burgundy challenging - and lovable: A distance of a few meters, a slight variation in soil or exposure to the sun, and you've got a different wine.
Close observers may have also noticed a resemblance between the name of today's producer, Michel Magnien, and that of the maker of two previously featured wines in this series, Frederic Magnien. It's no coincidence, of course: Michel is Frederic's father, and Frederic now makes the wines from Michel's vineyards. Separate companies, same family, producing wine in Burgundy for five generations.
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Michel Magnien 1999 Morey Saint-Denis 1er Cru "Aux Charmes" ($32)
This medium-garnet wine is clear at the edge, showing no signs of aging. It offers fresh red-berry and slight "tomato-skin" aromas at first, with subtly earthy "forest floor" notes that come up with swirling. Tart, almost tangy on the first taste, earthy and spicy nuances emerge in the glass in one of those complex wines that revals itself in stages. Some tannins are present, but they're so silken that you have to look hard to find them. All the parts are here, if not yet completely integrated; time will serve it well. U. S. importer: North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, Calif. (Feb. 9, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: Simple, straightforward fare provides a clear background for these higher-end Burgundies: A flavorful roasted free-range chicken was perfect, as was a side dish of "hen-of-the-woods" mushroom simply sauteed in butter with garlic.
VALUE: As previously noted, premier cru and grand cru Burgundies are not for the thrifty, and the full retail price, $63.95, is not out of line for the genre. Canny consumers will watch for sales, though: This one came at half price in a special pre-holiday sale by the mixed case last year.
WHEN TO DRINK: Typical of top Burgundies and most luxury-price reds, this is drinkable now, especially with time in the glass, but will have more to show after years of careful cellaring. Assuming excellent storage conditions, it may be at its peak from 2008 to 2013 and beyond.
WEB LINK: Here's the U.S. importer's biography page about Michel Magnien and his family's Burgundies:
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: Locate vendors and compare prices for Michel Magnien's Burgundies on Wine-Searcher.com:
Because current installments of this Friday series on Burgundies have moved well above the value price range that I normally cover, I'm adding a bonus report on an affordable wine of value each Friday for the duration. This simple but appealing Bordeaux from the broad "Bordeaux Superieur" appellation offers a taste of the excellent 2000 vintage for $10.Chateau Tour d'Auron 2000 Bordeaux Superieur ($9.99)
Very dark garnet, blackish-purple at the core. Blackcurrant and dark-chocolate aromas add a slight, pleasant whiff of "barnyard." Full and ripe, flavors follow the nose, so fruity that it almost seems sweet; but it's dry in fact, structured with firm acidity and soft tannins. Black fruit with a squirt of lemon in the finish, not overly long but clean and fresh. U. S. importer: Ex Cellars Wine Agencies Inc., Solvang, Calif. (Jan. 29, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: Perfect with a medium-rare rib eye steak crusted with black pepper.
VALUE: Very good value at the price.
WHEN TO DRINK: Although simple Bordeaux Superieur isn't meant for long aging, there's enough structure and balance here to reward a few years under good cellar conditions.
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: Find Chateau Tour d'Auron on Wine-Searcher.com:
Join us for a memorable visit to Burgundy
A brief reminder: We still have a few places available in my May tour of Burgundy and Champagne with French Wine Explorers.
Taking advantage of their extensive knowledge of wine and their contacts in the French wine industry, Jean-Pierre Sollin and Lauriann Green-Sollin have put together a remarkable itinerary that combines VIP-style visits to some of Burgundy's most interesting producers with luxury accommodations and gastronomic meals with outstanding wines at top restaurants. The group size will be kept small, ensuring that this will no cold, formal guided tour but a group of good friends traveling around the French countryside enjoying wine and food together.
All this, and a quick, fun and fizzy visit to Champagne too: I encourage you to consider joining us, and look forward to meeting some of you in France. The six-day tour of Burgundy and Champagne runs from May 24-30. Feel free to write me at email@example.com if you have questions; or get more information, and register, at French Wine Explorers,
Wine Advisor Premium Edition
If you're more careful about getting your money's worth when you're choosing a $30 wine for a special occasion than you do for a $10 wine to enjoy with dinner, you'll find the trustworthy advice that you're looking for in the new Wine Advisor Premium Edition.
While the Wine Advisor's daily editions focus primarily on wines of value, the Premium Edition covers selected wines in the "next tier" - the $30 to $50 price range - where a poor buying decision can hurt more than just your pride.
For just $24 - less than a single bottle of special-occasion wine - you'll get 26 biweekly E-mail issues loaded with the consumer-oriented, plain-talk buying advice that you need to shop with confidence when you're spending a little more. Your subscription will pay for itself the first time you celebrate a special occasion with a wine that cost $30 - and tastes like you spent $60.
The second Premium Edition goes in the mail Tuesday, featuring a fine French red wine, enjoyable now or worth cellaring, that dramatically exceeds its midrange price. Don't miss it! For more details, and to subscribe, see
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Friday, Feb. 20, 2004