Friday, September 19, 2003
IT'S HOT, I'm a bit jet-lagged and it's lunch time. I'm not very hungry, but refuse to miss a meal here. We stop at the first restaurant we spot in this tiny village because it's not likely there will be many others. We order a bottle of the local wine and then attempt to order light. My salad arrives quickly and I can only smile as I looked down at my "light" salad. This salad is a hefty affair dotted with fried chicken livers and dripping with a barely poached egg. I take a sip of the local wine: Meursault Charmes from Michelot-Buisson. Not bad. Not bad at all.
You've got to love Burgundy.
Burgundy is all about eating and drinking. Everyone there is growing or raising something to eat or drink, and when the Burgundians aren't at work they're eating and drinking what they grew and raised. Come to think of it they eat and drink at work too. Burgundy is a gently beautiful pastoral expanse, ideal for contemplating some of the world's most complex wines.
After lunch we're off to visit Dominique Lafon, an old friend and producer of what many feel are the greatest wines of Meursault, a Montrachet beyond compare, and red Volnay wines that equal the best of that appellation. Fortunately the winery is only a mouse-jump away and we're there in minutes. Dominique emerges from his house smiling broadly wearing tall rubber work boots. He's thin with a shock of uncontrollable hair and has one of those faces that will make him still look like he's 29 when he's 50. He looks quite the farmer: a very different impression than the business suit and tie look he had while visiting the United States representing the selections of shipper extraordinaire Becky Wasserman. He worked with Becky for a few years after university and then returned to his family estate, Domaine des Comtes Lafon, and took over the reigns from his father. Although the wines of Lafon were famous before, Dominique has taken wines of exceptional quality and dramatically improved them. No small feat.
He's wearing a sweater in the intense heat of the afternoon and we soon find out why. As we descend the short stairway into the tiny cellar the temperature drops at least 30 degrees. In the dark and cold of his cellar Dominique dips his glass wine thief into the first barrel of Meursault. Although the wine is ice cold and has barely finished malolactic fermentation, the extraordinary breed and complexity of the wine are already clearly showing. As he leads us from one barrel of chardonnay to the next I'm getting the same feeling you get when listening to Ravel's Bolero: the theme repeats but grows, intensifies, broadens, and gains energy with each passage. At the end we arrive at the Montrachet. The wine feels almost solid instead of liquid in your mouth, so concentrated is it. It's not possible to produce chardonnay wines of more exceptional quality. These wines are other-worldly.
So much for the tease: today the wines of Dominique Lafon are almost impossible to buy and the prices are as other-worldly as the wines. This was not always the case. Not so many years ago in the early 80's, when Dominique was selling wine instead of making it, he actually hosted a winemaker dinner at Froggy's restaurant in the Chicago suburbs. The guests sampled all the wines of Lafon except the Montrachet along with an elaborate dinner and personal commentary by Dominique -- all for about $50 (US) per person. As hard as it seems to believe now, there was a time that even small Burgundy estates had to promote. Today this is not the case. Dominique no longer does winemaker dinners and can safely stay at home devoting his attention to the vines he loves.
Burgundy is recognized the world over as making incomparable red wines from pinot noir and incomparable white wines from chardonnay. It is recognized thus despite the reality that most people never drink these wines. Some of the reasons are clear. Red and white Burgundy are produced in tiny amounts compared to other French regions, and they're usually expensive. Out of the tiny amount produced, most is of quite ordinary quality sold at prices too high for what is in the bottle -- simply because of a famous name on the label. Then there's the added confusion of vintage variation, which is a real concern in Burgundy, although, as in most regions, technology prevents the total disasters that used to occur.
Besides the danger of getting ripped off there is the other intimidation: the Burgundy fanatic. This intensely competitive and obsessed breed will use any means to obtain just a few more bottles of the object of their obsession at seemingly any price. It's a dog eat dog world. Hey buddy, two falls out of three for those last three bottles of Lafon.
So the question is why bother with Burgundy? There are certainly many fine chardonnay wines produced throughout the world and serviceable pinot noir is made in California, Oregon, New Zealand, and a few other spots. The answer is that the wines of Burgundy are so unique in character and have the capability to be so complex that the homework and effort required to buy and drink fine Burgundy is more than worth the effort. You will be rewarded.
Now when I talk about effort here I don't mean some awful dreary toil. This is not a statistics class. The first step is to find a good wine merchant. (How many times do I have to say this?) If there is one thing in all of your wine buying that will bring you the most benefit it is finding a merchant who cares about wine and who cares to learn about your palate. Nowhere is this more important than with Burgundy where in great vintages some famous people make average wines and in poor vintages a really dedicated winemaker can still make an excellent wine -- at a good price.
Often these dedicated Burgundy merchants are small shops like Howard's Wine Cellar (773-248-3766) located on the north side of Chicago. Here Howard Silverman uses his thirty years of experience to seek out not only the obvious choices, but excellent wines from small producers. Establishing rapport with someone like Howard will greatly reduce the number of disappointments you experience in the quest for great Burgundy. Taking the time to seek out and establish a relationship with a merchant in your market is essential.
The production of wine in Burgundy is divided between two types of operations: the "negociants" that grow and buy grapes and wines then blend them, and the "domaines" that make and bottle wine from their own vineyards. The vast majority of the domaines produce minuscule amounts of wines, usually from only their own sub-region, and quality can vary from the pinnacle to the pits. The negociants produce much larger volumes, often from every sub-region of Burgundy. Because of their larger production they often have the latest in winemaking technology and rarely make really terrible wines, but often their wines are on the bland side, losing the character of the vineyards in favor of a more consistent style. Some negociants can produce individual wines of the highest quality, and they rarely produce undrinkable swill.
If you are just starting out with Burgundy the wines from the negociant Joseph Drouhin consistently and well represent the regions where they're grown. While not cheap they are always fairly priced and exceptionally reliable. You will find excellent maps and an overview of Burgundy on Drouhin's Web site at: www.drouhin.com.
Buying negociant wines takes just a little research before you discover the houses whose styles you enjoy. The domaines are another matter. There are now hundreds of individual domaines bottling their own wines and the quality can vary wildly. How do you work your way though this maze without memorizing everything written by Clive Coates? (A worthwhile activity for any Burgundy fanatic.) Once again we return to the basics for buying good imported wine: you have to learn the names of shipper/importers that work with wines you have enjoyed.
That's where someone like Aunt Becky comes in. American expatriate Rebecca Wasserman moved to Burgundy in 1968 and opened Le Serbet, her Burgundy shipping business, in 1979. From day one, Becky has been dedicated to finding wines of varietal purity that clearly sing of the vineyards where they were born. No one has been as dedicated to the essence of what makes Burgundy unique.
"The wines of Burgundy are suffering. Graded, scored, compared, analyzed, auctioned, undervalued, overpraised -- they are losing their 'raison d'etre' and their mission which is to be savored at table and served with food. Try this little experiment, an exercise in free association. Inscribe the names of several of your favorite Burgundies, red or white, on index cards, and place them face down. Turn the first one up and write down (honestly) the first thoughts that come to mind. If those thoughts are not primarily culinary, you and your Burgundies may need help in the form of some serious book therapy involving wine literature written before the language of advertising, the wine bite, infected our favorite topic of conversation," writes Becky on her Web site, www.leserbet.com.
Look for the "Selected by Rebecca Wasserman" on the back of a bottle of Burgundy and you can be assured of experiencing a wine made with great passion and respect for its place of birth.
If you find Burgundy intimidating try working your way through the wines of Joseph Drouhin and the wines selected by Becky Wasserman and after a while you will have developed your own lists of preferences with little risk and be ready to broaden your search. As I said, this will not be a chore.
Last but not least in importance (excuse the prejudice) are journalists that can reliably guide you to the finest bottles. British writer Clive Coates has proven the most reliable resource on Burgundy over the last several decades. He is to be commended for focusing on excellent tasting notes instead of scores. His publication, The Vine, is available through his Web site, www.clive-coates.com. The best source in the USA is easily Claude Kolm and his Fine Wine Review that is available though his Web site, www.finewinereview.com. Both guides are money well spent not only for Burgundy, but for dependable recommendations from many other wine regions.
At their best there are few wines that can match the red and white wines of Burgundy for sheer complexity, and wine regions that produce equally great red and white wines are indeed a rarity. Be forewarned, though: quality can be addictive and once your eyes open to the layered complexity of Burgundian chardonnay and pinot noir there may be no going back. Burgundy is dangerous.
I think it's time for a light lunch.