Updated: 2011-01-03 07:58
To understand the wines of Burgundy takes a lifetime. Subtle differences in soil and climate (usually called terroir), and winemaking techniques produce a huge diversity of flavors 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 Burgundy Wine School and has been interested in wine since she was a teenager.
Otel has a master’s degree in viticulture, understands wine marketing and speaks excellent English.
Otel explains 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 200 million years ago. All the best vines are planted on slopes at altitudes of 250 to 300 meters, 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 percent of all wine comes from chardonnay grapes and another 36 percent from pinot noir. Gamay and aligote make up another 14 percent.
Burgundy has almost 5,000 estates. But only 33 wines have Grand Cru status, representing less than 2 percent of total production. The next level, Premier Cru, has 562 appellations, or about 11 percent of production. Grand Cru wines from great vintages command huge prices: A 1999 La Tache sells for 2,100 euros ($2,774) a bottle.
Because demand is higher than supply for the best wines, and production is limited, land is expensive. Inheritance laws from the Napoleonic period meant that all children received land, which diluted property sizes. Enter merchants called negociants, who make wine on small properties, and store it in their cellars.
Otel 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.