Burgundy: Your Feedback

My Blog last time, “Burgundy: A Nightmare”, provoked several comments, thank you to those who did.  Let’s look at what you had to say.

Firstly, why didn’t I name the wine I tasted: “you tell us the wines you like, why didn’t you ‘name and shame’ this one?”  It was something I thought about while I was writing the Blog but I decided against.  I had no reason to criticise the producer, who is well-respected, nor the – usually reliable -supplier.  And, the wine itself was well-made; it was just that I found it disappointing for the money.  Yet, it was the sort of price you should expect to pay for that type of wine based on the supply and demand situation I mentioned last time.  At half the price, it would have been a ‘recommend’.

An interesting suggestion was that wine might have been slightly ‘corked’.  Corkiness occurs when wine is in contact with a cork that has been affected by a fungus which, in severe cases, produces a nasty, musty, mouldy smell and taste in the wine.  But, when the problem is more minor, you don’t get these strong, pervasive smells and flavours, just a dumbing down of the aromas and tastes.  A possibility here but the cork on this bottle was one of these new high-tech versions that is supposed to eliminate 99.99% of cork problems.   

So, should we, as one reader commented, “simply leave red Burgundy to the wealthy”?  It’s a good question!  There’s certainly better value elsewhere for Pinot Noir lovers – New Zealand, for example.  But, when my wife and I visited Burgundy on a wine tour a few years ago, we tasted some lovely bottles that I’d be reluctant to ignore altogether.  Perhaps reserve them for very special occasions?

And, finally, does the same ‘nightmare’ tag apply to white Burgundy, too?  Happily, not to the same extent.  Part of the reason is that white Burgundies are made from Chardonnay which is a whole lot easier to grow than the Pinot Noir used in the reds.  So, although the top wines are similarly pricey, further down the spectrum there is some enjoyable drinking to be found at more reasonable prices.  Check the supermarkets’ ‘own-label’ ranges.  For around a tenner, many will have a wine they’ve bought in from the very reliable ‘Caves de Buxy’ (check the small print on the label) or try one of the 2 bottles pictured above from Majestic for the same price (when bought as part of a mixed case of 6 bottles).  Don’t expect great complexity but any of these should be very, very drinkable and be perfect antidotes to nightmares!

Burgundy: A Nightmare

Red wines from France’s Burgundy region are among the most sought-after and expensive wines in the world. The price for a single bottle of one of the top names can easily run into 4 figures. Whether such a price can possibly be justified, I leave to you, but many of these wines are made in very limited quantities and, as I learnt in my first Economics lesson at school many years ago, when demand exceeds supply, prices go up. It doesn’t help either that the top wines are bought, not just for drinking, but as investments to re-sell.
The problem of limited supply isn’t just restricted to the trophy bottles, it occurs throughout Burgundy. To explain why, we need to look back into history.
Wine has been made in the region since Roman times and, over those nearly 2000 years, the very best vineyards have been identified and classified. This has given Burgundy the most precise and complicated Appellation Contrôlée regime in the whole of France. The best sites in some villages are designated ‘Grand Cru’ followed by ‘Premier Cru’. Below these come wines from lesser sites in these villages and from less prestigious villages. Finally, at the bottom of the pyramid, you have generic ‘Bourgogne’. By fragmenting the area in this way, you have very limited supplies of any particular wine apart from, perhaps, the generic bottles.
But, it’s worse than that! The region’s vineyards have also suffered from the Napoleonic system of inheritance under which assets were divided equally between the male children. This resulted, over the years, in vineyard holdings becoming smaller and smaller. In many cases, you find adjacent rows of vines being owned by different people – some of whom will be excellent growers and winemakers, others less good. You can see the effect of this in the picture above (taken in spring) where some strips are clearly more advanced than others.
All this means that buying Burgundy, particularly red Burgundy, can be a nightmare. Not only do you need to know one site from another but also, who are the best growers. Added to this, often quite simple bottles aren’t that cheap and, as I found recently, despite my knowledge, anyone can find themselves disappointed. I opened a village-level red with our dinner a few nights ago; it was OK – a bit of cherry fruit and some spice but, at rather more than £20, I really expected a lot more and, as my wife correctly remarked, if this had been a New Zealand Pinot Noir at that price, it would have been something truly special.

What’s in your Wine?

Well, fermented grapes, of course, but is there anything else in the bottle you should know about? These days, when almost all food products have detailed lists of ingredients and allergy warnings on the labels, it’s perhaps surprising that all you get on most wines is the simple message ‘contains sulphites’. For some mysterious reason, wine is exempt from many of the labelling requirements that other foods and beverages must comply with.
So, credit to the Co-op supermarket chain who voluntarily list the ingredients on all their own label wines. Take their ‘Irresistible (their description, not mine!) 30° Pinot Noir’ from Chile’s Casablanca Valley (£7):

apart from the expected Pinot Noir grapes, it contains tartaric acid – a common adjustment when grapes are harvested for extra ripeness – plus 3 ingredients to help ensure the wine reaches you in good condition: an antioxidant (nitrogen), a preservative (sulphur dioxide – hence the ‘contains sulphites’ message) and a stabiliser (cupric citrate).


It also goes on to tell you that a small (125ml) glass contains 98 calories – useful information for any weightwatcher – and that it’s suitable for both vegetarians and vegans.
And then there’s a comment ‘made using oak staves’. This is something that most producers don’t want to tell you – not because the staves are harmful (they’re not), but because it destroys the ‘mystique of the barrel’ – the idea that the oak flavours that many of us enjoy in our wines come from the wine resting in one of the rows of oak casks we’ve all seen at many wineries.
The truth is that these casks are expensive (typically around £750 or $1000 each) and using them for wines that are going to retail at under £10 a bottle doesn’t make economic sense. There are 2 cheaper alternatives: either gathering off-cuts from the barrel-making process into a giant ‘tea bag’ and suspending that in a tank of wine or, better, using oak planks or staves in the same way. It’s this 2nd method that the Co-op are telling us about on their label.
Oh, and I’ve been so busy blogging about the label, I nearly forgot to comment on the wine. It’s rich and mouth-filling and brimming with cherry and plum flavours. Not over-complex but very drinkable and, for just £7, a very good buy.