To understand the wines of Burgundy takes a lifetime. Subtle differences in soil (usually called terroir), climate and winemaking techniques produce a huge diversity of flavours and characteristics. I only had six days so I needed a guide.
Cristina Otel was the perfect person to introduce me to Burgundy. She runs Taste Burgundy and has been interested in wine since a teenager. Cristina has a master’s degree in viticulture, understands wine marketing, and speaks excellent English. Her Australian winemaker husband Christian Knott knows terroir, and together they offer a formidable combination.
Cristina explained the significance of the layout of vineyards and characteristics of the appellations, along with the geological differences in soil. She has distilled years of knowledge in a way that is easy to understand.
We need to understand how terroir and economics intersect in Burgundy. The terroir is the result of geological formations from the Jurassic period 135 to 195 million years ago. All the best vines are planted on slopes at altitudes of 250 to 300 metres, facing east to capture as much sun as possible. Pinot noir grapes in particular need lots of sun in Burgundy’s temperate climate to ripen.
About 46 per cent of all wine comes from chardonnay grapes and another 36 per cent from pinot noir. Gamay and aligote make up another 14 per cent.
Burgundy has almost 5,000 estates. But only 33 wines have grand cru status, representing less than 2 per cent of total production. The next level, premier cru, has 562 appellations, or about 11 per cent of production. Grand cru wines from great vintages command huge prices: A 1999 La Tache sells for 2100 euros a bottle.
Because demand is higher than supply for the best wines, and production limited, land is expensive. Inheritance laws from the Napoleonic period meant that all sons received land, which diluted property sizes. Enter merchants called negociants, who make wine from small properties, and store it in their cellars (more about them in future columns).
Cristina showed me around Clos de Vougeot, which hopes to receive UNESCO heritage listing. A clos is a walled vineyard. Cistercian monks created the property in the 12th century. This clos represents an example of the dilution of ownership: 81 groups share the 56.6 hectares of Clos de Vougeot, and some years almost 250 different wines will appear under that label.
After the tour we had lunch at Aupres du Clocher restaurant in the village of Pommard.
It was the best meal I’ve ever eaten, so I returned the next day. Chef Jean-Christophe Moutet is a name waiting to be discovered.
Taste Burgundy can be found at http://www.tasteburgundy.com/
* “Burgundies add color to the world of wine” in China Daily, 3 January 2011, page 7.