Posted by: David Stewart | December 22, 2012

Burgundy Demystified: Ground Zero for Pinot Noir

“I heard you guys in Burgandy make wine almost as good as Oregon,” I joked good-naturedly with a winemaker. “I thought I ought to come check it out.”

Cote de Beaunes, Burgundy, France

Cote de Beaunes, Burgundy, France

Not all the wine made here is fine. At lunch in a little cafe, I had a glass of Savigny-les-Beaune Pinot Noir, a “village” wine, and it wasn’t much better than the cheap “Burgundy” that we used to have on spaghetti night when I was growing up. But wine drinking is pretty common here: I was in a little cafe in Nuits-saint-Georges at 11AM on a Saturday and there was a line standing at the bar drinking red wine.

The top region in Burgundy for red wine is called the Cote d’Or or “Golden Slope,” a narrow strip of land squeezed between a superhighway and a ridge. It’s only about 25 miles between Fixin and Meursault, which means dozens of appellations are crammed into a space roughly the distance between Newberg and Salem, Oregon, which is probably the best known of the Northern Willamette Valley winemaking regions.

Nuits St Georges, Burgundy, France

The town center of Nuits St Georges, Burgundy, France

Aloxe Corton, Burgundy, France

An Aloxe Corton family winery

Aloxe Corton, Burgundy, France

Aloxe Corton

But Burgundy has it all over Oregon for cute little villages. Most of them date back many centuries. Some of them, like Aloxe-Corton, have plenty of little wineries to drop in and try their wines, allowing tasting for free. But in the traditional price-ranking of Burgundy wines, Aloxe-Corton is fairly low in the list.

Vosne Romanee, Burgundy ,France

Overlooking the village of Vosne Romanee

Tthe top-ranked wines come from a village called Vosne-Romanee. This little village had no place where you could taste for free without an appointment. I suspect that even getting an appointment to taste there would be nearly impossible for me coming from the US.

The main mystery here is that when you are looking at a bottle of French wine in the shops or on a menu, how in the world do you know what type of grapes make up the wine? The labeling laws in France are dictated by law, and are quite strict. But they are so unlike the practices in the rest of the world that it’s really hard to figure out unless you spend quite some time learning it.

One author I know calls this the “Davino Code.” This is because the wines are identified by the village they were made in rather than the type of grapes as they are globally. Key to cracking the code is knowing the villages. You’re supposed to just know that a “Montrachet” is a Chardonnay and a Volnay is a Pinot Noir.

This is why I wanted to come see the villages first hand. I wanted to see the places and meet the people and taste the wines. I wouldn’t mind coming back some day.

More photos available at my Flickr set:


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