For most wine drinkers outside of Europe, Burgundy is about as intimidating as it gets, both in terms of understanding its labels and its potential price. But as Jacques Scott wine sales professional Sarah Howard explained over a lunch at Blue Cilantro, Burgundy need not be too complicated or expensive to be enjoyable.
Most people know that burgundy is a purple-red color. Most people also know that Burgundy is a kind of red wine made in France. What many people don’t know, however, is that not all Burgundy wine is red; that Burgundy refers to a place, not a grape; and that almost all Burgundy wine is made of either Chardonnay or Pinot Noir grapes.
To make things a little more confusing, Burgundy producers rarely list the name of the grape used to make the wine on the label; they assume consumers will know that red wines made in the region, excluding Beaujolais, come from Pinot Noir and that white wines from the region come from Chardonnay.
Burgundy has five main sub-regions – Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais. Beaujolais is considered part of the Burgundy wine region for administration purposes, but most of the wines produced in that region are red and made of the Gamay grape, and they bear little resemblance to the other wines of Burgundy.
Two of the sub-regions – Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune – combine to make up what is known as the Côte d’Or, which produces Burgundy’s best – and most expensive – wines.
In addition to the name of the producer, Burgundy wine labels can list one of the hundreds of appellations, sub-appellations or village names. The labels will also list a classification based on the quality of the vineyard in which the grapes were grown, which are from lowest to highest quality, Regional, Village, Premier (or 1er) Cru and Grand Cru. Coupled with the fact that all of the words on the label are in French, understanding exactly what is inside a bottle of Burgundy wine can be a daunting task for the uninitiated.
Unlike many wine regions in the world where expressions of a particular grape are usually determined by winemakers, Burgundy is known for having wines that are more determined by terroir. The term “terroir” takes into account all of the environmental conditions where the grapes are grown, such as soil type, surrounding flora, climate and even the angle of the vineyard to the sun. There are about 400 different soil types and many microclimates in Burgundy, and each one imparts different characteristics on the grapes grown there.
“Burgundy can be so complicated and so expensive,” said Jacques Scott wine specialist Sarah Howard. “Coming into Burgundy can be difficult, so we’re here to break it down.”
The first thing to remember about Burgundy is that the wines are named after the area in which they are produced. So, Chablis is not the name of a grape, but a wine made of Chardonnay that comes from the farthest north sub-region of Burgundy called Chablis.
One of the most famous wines in the world, Chablis is thought to be the purist expression of Chardonnay. Although some of the Grand Cru Chablis wines are aged in oak barrels, most Chablis is aged only in stainless steel tanks.
Rather than the fruity and smoky creaminess that typifies many New World Chardonnays, Chablis exhibits zesty acidity and minerality. The soil in Chablis consists of chalky clay, marl and limestone that is rich in minerals and oyster shells, and the aroma of Chablis reflects the soil.
“The smell of oyster shells is the quintessential identifier for Chablis,” said Howard. “I love Chablis. It’s a heck of a wine to start a lunch with; it wakes up the palate.”
Sampled with lunch was William Fevre Chablis [Retail price: $23.99], which displayed a wonderfully fresh bouquet with notes of lime zest and bright fruits. Chablis is known for pairing well with seafood dishes and particularly oysters. Although the lunch didn’t include any oysters, it featured several kinds of shellfish – crab cakes, lobster salad and steamed mussels – as well as fresh swordfish, all of which were delicious with the Chablis.
“I think it’s a good introduction into Chardonnay for the Sauvignon Blanc drinker,” said Howard. “The William Fevre is far and away our No. 1 selling Chablis and it might be our No. 1 selling Burgundy. It’s a fan favorite and at $23.99, it’s very affordable.”
Côte de Nuits
Located just south of the town of Dijon, Côte de Nuits is the region from where many of the most prized red Burgundies come. Although some of the Grand Cru wines fetch hundreds of dollars a bottle, many of the lower classified wines are much more affordable.
Unlike the softer red Burgundies found farther south, Côte de Nuits wines tend to be fuller bodied with flavors of red berries and an earthy backbone.
The Bouchard Pere & Fils Côte de Nuits – Villages [Retail: $30.99] shows the earthiness that is typical of Côte de Nuits.
“There’s a hint of mushroom consommé and darker, brooding flavors,” said Howard. Not surprisingly, the Côte de Nuits was a sublime pairing with Blue Cilantro’s beef tenderloin burger topped with mushrooms and Swiss cheese
Côte de Beaune
When it comes to white wines, some of the best and most expensive in the world come from the Côte de Beaune, just south of the Côte de Nuits. However, some high quality red wines are made in the Côte de Beaune as well.
Joseph Drouhin Côte de Beaune-Village [Retail: $35.99] is a more feminine expression of Pinot Noir than those from the Côte de Nuits, but it would still never be confused with a New World Pinot Noir from someplace like Napa Valley. Its femininity comes from its delicate elegance and flavors of red fruits, cranberries and rhubarb.
“This is what Pinot Noir is supposed to taste like,” said Howard. “This is the find of the day. This wine is beautiful.”
The Joseph Drouhin Côte de Beaune-Village is a wine that can be at home with a meal of poultry or pork, or even salmon or fish dishes with savory sauces.
South of the famed Côte d’Or lies the lesser known Côte Chalonnaise, an area known for red wines, white wines and Crémant de Bourgogne sparkling wines. Although the red and white wines that come from this region aren’t as prized, they’re not as expensive, either.
Vincent Girardin Premier Cru Rully Les Cloux 2009 [Retail: $25.99] is a Chardonnay with more fruit flavors than Chablis, but still a light-bodied, refreshing wine that will pair well with almost all of the seafood dishes that are prevalent in the Cayman Islands. At lunch, it paired well with the crab cake and the lobster salad, as well as the mussels.
“Shellfish and Burgundy is a pretty safe play,” said Howard. “But Thanksgiving is coming up in November and when you have a table of foods, Burgundies – both red and white – are good wines for that table.”
Howard said that a bottle of the Les Cloux Premier Cru would be a good choice to take as a gift to the host of a dinner.
“If you want to impress someone and don’t want to break the bank, this is the wine,” she said.
Farther to the south is Mâconnais, the region in Burgundy where some of the best values can be found in white wines. This is where the well-known wine Pouilly-Fuissé in made.
Louis Latour Mâcon-Villages “Chameroy” [Retail: $18.99] is Chardonnay with a golden color and floral aromas that reflect its warmer growing climate.
“Mâcon-Villages for me has always been a great value,” said Howard. “I think it can stand up to wines double and triple the price. It’s delicious and it’s a single vineyard wine for $18.99!”
The wine was ideal with the shellfish dishes tasted over lunch, but Howard said it is versatile enough to pair with many other foods, including creamy cheeses, and it was a good pairing with Blue Cilantro’s arugula salad with goat cheese.