Affordable Burgundy is not (always) an oxymoron

Red Burgundy is unreliable. The joke is that a cheap bottle costs you £100: that’s £15 for the one that’s decent and £85 for all the disappointing ones you bought getting to the good one; like most wine jokes, it’s not very funny.

I remember the first time I tried this most difficult of wines. It was whilst working as a wine merchant in the late 90s. After work one day, the manager took me into the back office and with a gesture that implied I was being initiated into an arcane order opened a bottle of Mercurey. He poured me a glass and we both took a sniff. It smelt good. Then I had a sip – nothing. It tasted of nothing whatsoever. When I commented on this, the manager just smiled and said ‘that’s Burgundy!’ From then on Burgundy seemed to be some sort of cosmic joke played on the gullible. The number of times I would try wines for large amounts of money and be unmoved. At the time I was discovering claret with its easily decipherable hierarchy, and reliable wines.  Claret – red Bordeaux – made sense to me; you tried a good Chateau in a good year and were rarely dissatisfied.

Eventually I did have a red Burgundy – a 2000 Clos Vougeot – that made me realise what all the fuss was about. It tasted wonderful but even here there was a note of uneasiness for my budding wine brain as I was unable to describe why it was so good. Bordeaux can be broken down into easily describable flavours – blackcurrants, tobacco, leather, pepper – Burgundy’s pleasures are more ethereal. Nevertheless I was hooked. I wanted more of that indescribable pleasure but knew that this habit could bankrupt me. Time and time again, I was told that cheap red Burgundy was an oxymoron.

So why is this? Red Burgundy is made from a grape variety, Pinot Noir, that is to put it politely a bit of a bastard: it’s picky about where it is grown, it’s thin-skinned and susceptible to disease. It turns to boozy jam if it gets too ripe which is why New World examples rarely thrill. This isn’t a problem in Burgundy’s cool climate where it often doesn’t ripen at all resulting in thin acidic wine. Oh and it tastes of nothing if over-cropped (too many grapes from one vine). Pinot Noir is about fragrance which is lost if things aren’t just right. Which explains why good Burgundy is expensive and often not all that good.

Or so I thought.

Earlier this year I went to tasting that made me think again. It was put on a by a company who import wines made with the kind of obsessive care that go into a top Nuits-Saint-Georges but because they are from obscure parts of Burgundy such as Maranges, Epineuil or Vezelay most of them wines cost no more than £15 a bottle (these wines are only comparatively cheap – you’re not going to find them in Aldi) The importer, Fingal Rock, are based in South Wales so don’t have the overheads of a swanky St James’s shop. It’s not easy to make money from these sort of wines because they can’t be bought at rock bottom prices and marked up but nor do they command a premium. They’re the wine equivalent of the midlist author and just as the greatest reading pleasure can come from reading a novel with no hype that you pick up on a whim, these wines provide joy without any of the snobberies and expectations of grander wines. Wines like the following are to drink, not to impress.

Bourgogne Epineuil 2009 Domaine Leger. This comes from right up in the North of Burgundy near Chablis. White wine country you would think, reds will be tart and thin. It’s light, yes, but it’s also got the sweetest fruit to go with the more typical herby flavours of Northern Pinot Noir. This is made from perfectly ripened fruit. Oddly it reminded me a little of the pricey (at least £25 a bottle) Californian Pinot Noirs from Au Bon Climat. But it’s 11.85! I’m not sure how they do it for the price. It’s amazing. I would buy cases and cases of this stuff.

Maranges 2009 Domaine Claude Nouveau. This is from nearer the heart of Burgundy but it’s still unknown so is sold entirely on its own merits. The smell brings to mind smoke and the whiff of the farmyard (but in a good way). It’s quite tannic and structured but underneath there’s a good seam of fruit. ‘Un vin masculin’ as the producer called it. It’s serious stuff and will repay keeping – £14.75

Santenay 1er Cru ‘Grand Clos Rosseau’ 2009 Domaine Claude Noveau. Another step up in quality – a premier cru from the Cote d’Or  for £17.85 a bottle. This is all grace, perfume and ethereal qualities – ‘feminine.’ The sort of wine to fall in love with and with a finish that goes on for ages.

All the wines above are available directly from Fingal Rock  01600 712 372 (actually the might not be available now as I wrote this article a while back.)

A longer version of this article appeared in the Lady Magazine.

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About Henry

Henry Jeffreys was born in London. He has worked in the wine trade, publishing and is now a freelance journalist. He specialises in drink and his work has appeared in the Spectator, the Guardian, the Economist, the Financial Times, the Oldie and Food & Wine magazine. He was a contributor to the Breakfast Bible (Bloomsbury 2013) and his book Empire of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Glass was published in November 2016.
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One Response to Affordable Burgundy is not (always) an oxymoron

  1. Premium Cru or better, I too am very disappointed in many Village level bottlings, I need to test taste before I buy, many bottlings are as you pointed out, just ….meh…..

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