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.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

My new favourite word to describe wine is ‘evocative,’ it’s just so. . . evocative. It’s all very well describing wines in terms of animals, vegetables or minerals but these never convey emotion. Evocative is so much better. I had a couple of contrasting Burgundies that evoked wildly different comparisons: Chambolle-Musigny (a 1er Cru ‘Feuselottes’ 2006 from Georges Mugneret) that was like the most beautiful melody heard almost out of earshot, something light but not fluffy, Mozart perhaps, & then afterwards a deep, dark Volnay (a 1er Cru ‘Clos des Chenes’ 1998 from Lafarge) that was Wagner. Volnay was the earth, the Chambolle was the sky.

Evocative was a word that I used again and again in my tasting notes from both ‘natural wine‘ fairs. On a couple of occasions, I had wines that transported me to where they were made. It wasn’t a case of sniff and I think I can smell cherries but actually imagine myself in Sicily or Croatia. Uncanny, and why I love wine so much. The ability to taste a patch of land in a glass.

SP 68 Bianco, Ariana Occhipinti, 2011

This one reminded me of falling in love on a hot day with the scents of a Sicilian summer in my nostrils. There’s a passage in The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa where the Prince goes out into the garden of his villa outside Palermo and is almost overwhelmed by the fecund scents of the flower. This is a bit like that only a little less opulent. After such a symphony of smells the restrained, dry, spicy taste with a touch of tannin is a welcome surprise.

Sveti Kakov, Giorgio Clai, Krasica 2010, Croatia

All the wines from the producer were superb. This particular white that evokes summer, but a more distant one. Perhaps a half-rememebeed sunny day from my childhood. A literary comparison would be from Coming Up For Air where Orwell evokes the endless summers of his hero’s boyhood:

‘It always seems to be summer when I look back. I can feel the grass round me as tall as myself, and the heat coming out of the earth. And the dust in the lane, and the warm greeny light coming through the hazel boughs.’

Kurucver 2007, Badacsony, Csobanci Bormanufaktura

This red is early autumn at my grandmother’s house near Aberdeen. There are brambles in the hedgerows, perhaps the odd wild raspberry and the damp smell of the woods. This wine is from Hungary and my grandmother was born in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire and is now Slovenia. Despite living most of her life in Scotland, she always spoke English with a thick German accent. It’s delicious, robust yet refreshing, with great depth of flavour. If I had a restaurant, I would want this as my house wine.*

I have no idea how much these wines cost, what grape varieties they were made from or how they were made. I don’t think the Hungarian one is even available in Britain. Sometimes wine doesn’t have to be complicated, it can be as simple as giving into your senses and see where they take you.

I do realise that this article appears to contradict my earlier post where I said that the ‘natural wine’ fairs were really about France reasserting control over the wine world as none of the wines above are French. 

* Since I wrote this article I have decided to import a few cases of this wine so this is no longer a disinterested review. I wrote it before I contacted the producer but who’s to say that my words were not influenced by a subconscious intention.

Burgundy 2010 and the sense of impending doom.

I approached tasting the Burgundy 2010 vintage with a sense of dread that I couldn’t put my finger on. Perhaps it was the worry that I was out of my depth tasting such fine wines. What if I said something stupid? What if I dribbled Clos de Vougeot all over my tie? What if I called Jancis Robinson Janice? So I brought my father along for moral support. Despite pretending to have no sense of smell he has unerringly good taste in wine also his tie is normally filthy so he makes me look smart.

Drinking en primeur wine (young wine offered for future sale before it is bottled) is not normally a pleasurable experience. I’ve drunk very young Bordeaux and after a while my teeth started to hurt. One normally has to apply a different set of criteria when appraising such infants. See this rather good blog post by Matt Walls. Not with these Burgundies, some of them were already gorgeous. The words I kept on writing over and over again were ripe, concentrated and crunchy; the fruit reminded me again and again of very fresh Scottish raspberries – sweet but with lots of bracing acidity. None of them did that sneaky Burgundy thing of smelling divine and tasting of nothing at all.

Here are a couple to dream about. I’m not going to say how much they cost – they’re very expensive without being obscene:

Gevrey Chambertin 1er cru ‘Cherbaudes’ – Domaine Fourrier. Round almost plump but beautifully-balanced and very concentrated; I’d love to try it again in five years.  A wine that it wouldn’t be pretentious to compare to art. If I meet M. Fourrier, I am going to hug him.

Beaune Greves Vigne de L’enfant Premier Cru – Bouchard Père et Fils. A wine I could love just for the name. It tastes good too – elegant, perfumed and fruity but with power, depth and length.

And one I can almost afford (about £18 a bottle):

Chorey Les Beaune La Piece du Chapitre – Domaine Tollot-Beaut. Smells very succulent with hints of strawberry, quite beefy on the palate with some tannin and a good finish. A very enjoyable Burgundy for Saturday nights in.

And finally one I wasn’t so keen on:

Gevrey-Chambertin – Domaine Drouhin Laroze. Lots of flavour but syrupy fruit. Quite a few of the wines from this domaine tasted overripe. They were enjoyable but a little tarty, almost Californian. I suppose it’s a sign of a good Burgundy vintage when there are wines you don’t like because they’re too ripe.

My father and I left on a high planning to spend all our money on red Burgundy; the nameless dread was a distant memory. The following day my mother called to say that he was incapacitated. He’d woken up in the night, his foot in agony. The doctor had diagnosed gout. Maybe that explains the sense of foreboding. My father isn’t allowed to attend tastings with me in future. I don’t think we can blame it on the 2010 Burgundies but I can’t help thinking that a lesser vintage would not have brought on the attack.

All of these wines especially the Fourrier are made in minute quantities so may already be sold out. All available (or not as the case may be) from Goedhuis apart from the Bouchard which I tasted courtesy of the importer Fells. I think Berry Bros might have be able to get hold of some if you’re nice to them. 

Mmmmm, adulterated Burgundy


I was going to write a piece on the traditional practice of ‘Hermitaging’ wine. This involves adding beefy Southern wines such as Hermitage to lighter wines like Claret or Burgundy to give them a bit more body. This is now thought to be a shameful practice. It wasn’t always so. There is an example in the 1860s of a lot of Latour adulterated with Hermitage going for more than the pure stuff. Of course nothing like this goes on nowadays but you can recreate the spirit of the Victorian wine merchant in the comfort of your own home. In an earlier post I described mixing past-it claret from my friend’s cellar with more modern Rioja. I told Bob Tyrer from the Sunday Times about my more modest experiments recently and he has written them up in his column so rather than write my own article, I’ve just pasted his on the left: