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Burgundy, before Autumn Arrives

 

By Jim Clarke
June 2007

Somehow, the word “Burgundy” never suggests summer. For example, in Nicholas Faith’s book Burgundy and it’s Wines it’s striking how few of Andy Katz’s photos are summery; most show the vineyards in fall or winter, and even those that don’t still have a hint of fog, overcast skies, and autumnal red that certainly fails to suggest the frivolity and sunshine of summer. The vineyards’ medieval, monastic origins and the mysterioso quality attributed to its best wines seem to connote an austerity and seriousness of purpose far removed from thoughts of the beach, barbecues, and vacation. Nevertheless, the wines are not abstractions intended only for recondite contemplation or as the counterpoint to long and intricately prepared meals; they are meant to bring pleasure, and many are quite suited to hot weather, light meals, and the picnic basket.

Especially when we step away from the narrow strip that is the Côte d’Or. Burgundy encompasses several regions, with different styles and sometimes even different grapes. Burgundy writ large usually means Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; many don’t realize that Sauvignon Blanc, for one, has whittled away a home for itself here in the north. Saint Bris only attained AOC status in 2003, but its experience with Sauvignon Blanc goes further back. Jean-Marie Guffens’ Verget St. Bris 2004 is one of a handful available here in the U.S. that shows why it deserved the promotion: crisp and clean, it’s got a great mix of grapefruit, pear, citrus, and flinty notes that will seem familiar to Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé fans.

Or to fans of Chablis, which lies not far away. While Chablis does stick to the traditional Burgundian white grape, Chardonnay, its chalky soils and northerly location gives a character distinct from the wines of the Côte de Beaune. The Grands Crus can be powerful and ageworthy, while the village level wines are for immediate pleasure – the kind of less reflective enjoyment that we associate with summer. The Gilbert Picq Chablis Vieilles Vignes 2005 lives up to summer fun quite well with its pineapple, lemon zest, and chalk aromas all kept fresh by cleansing acidity. A touch weightier than the Verget, but still refreshing and bright.

There’s Chardonnay to be found south of the Côte d’Or as well, in the Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais regions. Both highlight several sub-appellations, but the map here is neither as complex or as careful in its distinctions as in Burgundy’s most famous villages. Macon in particular has a Macon–Villages sub-appellation that is so broad as to be almost indistinguishable from the Macon as a whole; look for individual village names for an increase in quality, if not a distinct personality. In the northern part of the Côte Chalonnaise, Rully is devoted mostly to white wine; bad vintages can be too tart, but in riper years these wines can be excellent values. In the hands of the right winemaker they can even take on a hazelnut touch reminiscent of some Puligny–Montrachets or lighter Meursaults; try the Vincent Girardin Rully 1er Cru Les Cloux 2003 for its mix of pear, hazelnut, and smoky aromas in a wine with both weight and elegance. More recent vintages – 2005 is the current release – are also showing well, but are lighter on the palate and dwell more on the fruity aromas.

Just as Sauvignon Blanc is the exception to Chardonnay in the north of Burgundy, Aligoté is the oddity of the south. Bouzeron, just above Rully, is where it shines. Aubert de Villaine, one of the owners of the Domaine de la Romanée–Conti makes a very fine example of Aligoté. The A & P de Villaine Bouzeron 2005, while crisp, shows off the elegance of the grape rather than dwelling on its renowned acidity; it’s aromatic, with floral notes and subtle fruit bringing life to its mineral core.

What about the famous whites of Meursault, Puligny–Montrachet, and Chassagne–Montrachet? There’s certainly no reason to omit them, and there are a great many wonderful wines to choose from – although prices certainly don’t flag in the summer heat the way we do. 2005 appears to be an exceptional vintage for both whites and reds throughout Burgundy. The Fontaine–Gagnard Chassagne–Montrachet “La Grand Montagne” 1er Cru 2005 is one of a number of top-flight wines that are drinking well young; it’s focused, squeezing the richness typical to Chassagne into a tight, muscular frame, and shows floral notes, nuttiness, and bready, leesy touches complemented by a touch of spice, with a long finish.

It’s no news that white wines like the ones above are suited to summer, but Burgundy’s reds do well in the hot weather as well, and that’s more unusual. If you want to stay in the Côte d’Or, try the Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches 1er Cru Rouge 2005; medium-bodied, with smooth, moderate tannins, it’s already showing earthy notes of mushroom and game to complement its cherry and dark raspberry fruit – all with great elegance and length.

It’s the transparency of Pinot Noir and the cooler climate that makes many Burgundian reds summer-worthy. Less renowned appellations like Marsannay or Mercurey are even more likely to bring this out, as they are more about drinking young instead of aspiring to long-term age-worthiness. Even the broadest category of Burgundy, Bourgogne Rouge, can yield some satisfying wines, often at more affordable prices. Domaine Ghislaine Barthod, for example, has some vineyards that lay just aside the official bounds of Chambolle-Musigny, they nonetheless make for a well-balanced and toothsome wine. The “Les Bons Batons” 2004 has lovely cherry, strawberry, and redcurrant notes which are set off by a subtle earthy spice. To drop the price even lower, negociant wines like the Nicolas Potel or Drouhin’s “Vero” Bourgogne Rouge would also do very well on a picnic (or on a by-the-glass list) with their cherry and raspberry fruit and smooth mouthfeel.

Just as Chardonnay isn’t the only game in town among Burgundian whites, Pinot has a less respected shadow in the south of the region: Gamay, the Beaujolais grape. Beaujolais Nouveau comes out in November, when its light, fruity character is not really what we’re looking for (in fact, most Nouveau is too light and vapid for almost anytime of year). But Gamay does well in the summer; the Château de Pizay Beaujolais 2005 is imminently quaffable in the heat, light-bodied, fruity (raspberry, currant), and refreshing. Grab a case now, while the sun is out, and before the skies and fields start to look too…Burgundian.

Recommended Wines

(Prices are retail, and approximate)
  • Verget St. Bris 2004 ($13)
  • Gilbert Picq Chablis Vieilles Vignes 2005 ($20)
  • Vincent Girardin Rully 1er Cru Les Cloux 2003 ($20)
  • A & P de Villaine Bouzeron 2005 ($18)
  • Fontaine–Gagnard Chassagne–Montrachet “La Grand Montagne” 1er Cru 2005 ($75)
  • Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches 1er Cru Rouge 2005 ($65)
  • Domaine Ghislaine Barthod Les Bons Batons Bourgogne Rouge 2004 ($26)
  • Nicolas Potel Cuvée Gerard Potel Bourgogne Rouge 2005 ($17)
  • Vero Bourgogne Rouge 2005 ($20)
  • Château de Pizay Beaujolais 2005 ($10)


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