The Best of Burgundy #5: On Yer Bike, Son!

France, Info For Beginners, Info For More Seasoned Winos, Reds, Whites

Burgundy is really one of those places that is great to use to explain a few more general things. Last post I was saying about terroir and how everywhere in the world has it and is affected by it, but Burgundy’s one of those places where it’s easy to highlight the big differences it makes.

I decided to use the last post in this intro to Burgundy series for another of these topics. That’s the fact that when you think of a wine region, like Burgundy (or Piemonte in Italy, or Barossa in Australia, or Finger Lakes in the US, etc) i guess you have this thing in your head that you think “right I’ve had a Pinot Noir from there before, i know what this is going to be like”. But to be massively annoying, it’s just not like that

Thing is, these regions can be pretty big areas of land covering some really different areas of a country. We’ve spoken before about how things like hills and valleys, soils and stones, and obviously the weather and climate have massive effect on how a wine, from grape to glass (can’t remember where i nicked that from?!). Well Burgundy has the lot, somewhere within the border.

A very official looking map of Burgundy

A very official looking map of Burgundy

Burgundy’s over of the eastern side of France, pretty landlocked. It starts up close to the Champagne area, with the Yonne Valley going south to the Côte de Nuits, then onto the Côte de Beaune, and finishing down by the Beaujolias region with the Côte Chalonnaise and the Maçonnais.

Up north in the Yonne region (where Chablis is) it’s hilly and frosty. You’re right up by a town called Auxerre and that’s only a couple of hours drive from the north of France. Then down south by Lyon (a couple of hours from Nice and Monaco) you’ve got the Maçonnais. It’s a lot flatter, much warmer, and vines spend their time vying for space with cows and corn on the valley floor. I’m not going to bang on about the differences in every different sub-region here, I think you get the point.

The generalisation comes from the grapes and, to a large extent, the way the wine is made. It’s a branding exercise in itself. You can make a sweeping statement about the chances of a white wine from Burgundy being chardonnay, or that centuries old Burgundian winemaking techniques are in full swing up and down the region. But it stops there, as it does for wines from Napa in California or Walker Bay in South Africa.

The best bits about this are that you have an excuse to try more of it and that if you ever get a chance to go to one of these places, it’s a great holiday. If you enjoy your wine and your cycling or hiking you’d be like a pig in poo round here.

There's always room for a little rest here and there

There’s always room for a little rest here and there

So wherever you end up for a wine holiday dust off the bike clips and saddle up, or get the walking boots from the back of the cupboard and load up on blister plasters. It’s time to get moving. And if you’re in Burgundy, well hopefully you know roughly where you’re going now!


The Best of Burgundy #4: We All Live In Terroir

France, Info For Beginners, Info For More Seasoned Winos

The more you drink wine or spend time at wine dinners or tastings or what-have-you, you’ll hear this term pop up. Terroir (pronounced tare-wahr). Obviously it’s a french word but it’s now used pretty much across the world to describe the same thing. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is…

…well it’s everything really. Well let’s try and be more specific, it’s everything to do with the weather, the climate, the ground, the aspect, the landscape that the vines are planted on and subjected to. So all the natural components that go into the vines and, subsequently, the grapes.

Every area in the world has a terroir. The climate is always like this or the soils are always like that, and so on. Terroir doesn’t have to necessarily be unique (although given all the factors involved, it usually isn’t far off). It is specific though. Growing the same plant in areas of different terroirs will give different results, sometimes subtle, sometimes pretty big.

flatlands and hills, sunshine and showers, they all go into the mix

flatlands and hills, sunshine and showers, they all go into the mix

The idea of terroir is massive in wine (and many other food stuffs) and there’s few better examples of just why than when we’re having a natter about Burgundy. We spoke earlier about the way Burgundy splits its vineyards up into specific plots, and it’s the plots that gain the status of Grand and Premier Crus. This is all to do with terroir! That plot gets better sun exposure during the early autumn. This plot has slightly less nutrients in the soil than the one next to it. It goes on.

Mostly this was found out by producers over many years and sometimes the science behind it can be questioned. The results mind you pretty much speak for themselves. I was at a wine dinner a few weeks back and the producer of the wines, Cédric, brought over with him a premier cru and normal wine from the appellation. These grapes were grown 200 yards away from each other, same grapes, same grower, same production method in the cellar. But they were completely different wines.

Terroir is important all over the world, and Burgundy is one of the best places to highlight this. Just don’t get caught trying to explain what it is.

It’s well…you know…um…how do I put it?


The Best of Burgundy #3: The Bubbly Substitute

France, Reds, Sparkling, Whites

Burgundy is dominated by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay plantings. From a business point of view you’d be nuts not to make sure you had a finger in that marketing pie if you were a producer. With lots of different AC names you can use with these two grapes, most of the producers in Burgundy can put something impressive on the bottle if they make their wine from one of these grapes.

There are however two regionally historic grapes that are still sticking about, and once you’re in or around Bourgogne (the french for Burgundy) you can get hold of them for pretty reasonable cost.

The first is Aligoté. It’s not usually much to write home about when it’s made into a still, dry white wine. Producers i think are really struggling to cope with the acidity of the grape. I’ve tried a few different ones, some are like slightly flavoured water, others drying my mouth up with a bitter twang at the end. But I have to say, some are spot on, nothing too complex, but most of the time you’re just after something pleasant to drink. You’re not after sitting there for hours thinking what else you can get out of this. I liked them and if I could get hold of them, then I’d definitely get a couple for cupboard.

One great distinction of Aligoté is that it’s often used as a packer in blends for Crémant de Bourgogne. Crémant is a sparkling wine made in many areas of France using the same method as they use to make Champagne. It’ll say Crémant de “Somewhere” on the label. The direct translation of Crémant is “creamy”, which gives you a hint of what it’s like. It’s usually made using the best base wines the producer can make, so usually pretty high quality. It’s not massively cheap, starting at £10 upwards for an entry level, but it’s cheaper than champagne, and it’s a really quality drink. Do try it if you see one.

An arty shot taken on its way to the fridge for tonight's post-gym pick me up!

An arty shot taken on its way to the fridge for tonight’s post-gym pick me up!

Finally I guess we need to mention a grape called Gamay. It’s a red wine grape, producing very light and fruity wines, used very famously a bit further south in France in the Beaujolais region. It used to be a massive grape in southern Burgundy too, but as we said at the start most producers have ripped up the vines to grow Pinot Noir or Chardonnay instead. So now it’s mostly popped into local blends and such, but if you see it on the shelves anywhere (a long shot) it’s a bit different, and chances are it’ll be slightly cheaper than Beaujolais.

So you can see, Burgundy isn’t exactly famous for it’s diverse grapes or anything. I think we nattered about 4 of them, and that’s pretty much covered most bases. What it is very famous for is the land, and we’ll talk about that next time.

In the meantime, get that bottle of creamy bubbly into the fridge. It’s Friday!


The Best of Burgundy #1: Game For Some Pinot

France, Reds

There’s this saying that’s called the “modern winemaking style”. By this people simply mean that the wine is produced so that it can be drunk young. So you walk into a shop, buy it off the shelf, take it home, and tuck straight in. That’s how a lot of wineries are doing it these days, because end of the day that’s what the mass market wants. How many people do you know that have a wine cellar to lay some bottles down for a few years? Not many, right?

Pinot Noir is an international grape variety. It’s grown all the way around the world, despite the fact it’s a fussy bugger of a grape. It thrives best in places that don’t really do temperature extremes. In New Zealand for example, or Chile, or the US, you get some great wines that show Pinot Noir in all its glory. And for the most part producers make it in the modern way.

For Pinot Noir the modern way gives medium bodied, fruity wines. The fruit is invariably red, i.e. it’ll smell and taste something along the lines of cherry, or strawberries, or raspberries. A lot of the variation comes from the temperature from where it’s grown. If the place is a bit too hot, the fruit can be a bit jammy (not necessarily a bad thing), or if it’s a bit too cold then the grapes won’t ripen enough and it’ll be a bit more bitter in the taste (which is usually a bad thing). That’s the modern style of Pinot Noir.

Burgundy, however, is the classical heartland of Pinot Noir. You may not know it though, given that the words “Pinot” and “Noir” will nearly never appear on the bottle. French winemakers, as we’ve said before, assume you know what grape is grown in that area, so think it’s irrelevant information. But now you know; think red burgundy, think Pinot Noir!

The label on a bottle of Pinot Noir from Burgundy usually just has the name of the town, and the name and standard of the vineyard. Remember in Burgundy, it’s the vineyard plots that are rated Premier or Grand Cru. These vineyard plots are thought so famous that it’s this name that’s stuck on the label. Not really helpful if you’re just starting out.

On the label, the producer is Domaine des Varoilles, the town is Gevrey-Chambertin, the vineyard is La Romanée (a premier cru)

On the label, the producer is Domaine des Varoilles, the town is Gevrey-Chambertin, the vineyard is La Romanée (a premier cru)

Just to be doubly annoying, local councils, a few years back, started renaming the villages. They basically stuck on the the name of the most prestigious vineyard onto the end of the village’s name so that ordinary village winemakers could market their stuff more easily. So Gevrey became Gevrey-Chambertin (after the Grand Cru plot of Charmes-Chambertin) and Nuits became Nuits-Saint-Georges (after the plots of Les Saint Georges).

Burgundy is where the classic style of Pinot Noir was developed. It’s more earthy, and usually made to be left in the bottle for a little bit of time to develop away from the fruit flavours and into something, well, at the risk of sounding like a dick here, “gamey”. There it is, I said it. Gamey. I don’t mean that it likes a kick about down the park, I mean it becomes something that smells, tastes, and pairs amazingly well with game meat. Anything from pheasant and guinea fowl, to venison. It’s awesome stuff.

Best picture of venison I could find!

Best picture of venison I could find!

Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s not exactly everyone’s usual dinner. But just think about what you have in your area in terms of game meat. If you don’t know, head down your local butchers and ask (btw, support your local butcher!). It’s worth it just so you can fully love a bottle of old school Pinot Noir.