Although Burgundy has two basic grapes – Chardonnay for white, and Pinot Noir for red – its wines are traditionally presented in distinct regional groupings the way some people make certain their potatoes don’t touch their peas or their meat on the dinner plate.
We often think there are four categories – “true Burgundy” (those from anywhere along the Côte d’Or), separate-but-almost equal Chablis for whites, and the lesser “Burgundies” from Maconnaise and Côte Chalonnaise – and don’t go about mixing them together on your mental palate. But in real life it’s not that simple. Chablis may taste somewhat different that the whites of Côte d’Or, and Maconnaise reds from the Côte’s legendary reds, but it’s really more of a continuum of similar tastes, and sometimes they overlap. In these cases, even local winemakers may have difficulty in a blind tasting in guessing the provenance of each wine.
To me it’s a mindset, particularly in great vintages. While great terroir + great winemaking = great wines, it’s also true that lesser terroir + great winemaking = wines that can be as good as, and very similar to, great terroir + so-so winegrowing.
Although he may not agree with me on the point, I was thinking about this when Danny Haas of Vineyard Brands gave a tasting recently of his 2009 reds and 2010 whites at the venerable State Line wine shop in Elkton, Maryland.
First a word about the vintages from Haas: “These two vintages – 2009 and 2010 – are the best back-to-back vintages for reds and whites I’ve ever seen,” he says. In fact, it’s been a good decade for Burgundy. “The last vintage that didn’t interest me was 2003,” he says. (Note to self to check cellar to see if I bought an ‘03s from Haas.)
My “continuum thinking” got a boost when I started tasting the whites, all 2010s. First, a Matrot Bourgogne Chardonnay ($19 before discount), followed by a Vincent Morey Bourgogne Chardonnay ($23), then a J.M. Boillot Rully Ier Cru “Meix Cadot” ($30), a Louis Michel Chablis Ier Cru “Montmain” ($34), a Boillot Puligny-Montrachet ($60), a Vincent Morey Chassagne-Montrachet Ier Cru “Caillerets” ($75) and, finally, a Thomas Morey Puligny-Montrachet Ier Cru “Truffiere” ($105).
Notice that the Rully from the Chalonnaise gets a higher price and position than the two “generic” white Burgundies from Côte d’Or vineyards, and that the Chablis commands only a $4 higher price than the Rully. Moreover, my own personal preference was the Rully over the other three. Of course, there is a definite stepping up in quality and price when we get to the hyphenated Montrachets.
Still, in talking with people around me, my attention came back to those first four whites. To my mind, they were of similar quality and all very clearly Chardonnay, but very differently nuanced – this one more floral, this one steelier, and not always as expected based on terroir. And our preferences among the four differed somewhat, although not greatly, further enhancing my continuum thoughts.
The reds were equally great, as Haas has predicted, but they were more of an ordered structure – Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Santenay, Meursault rouge, Vougeot, Nuits-St-Georges, Corton, so I had to enjoy them without thinking along the continuum. And the first four reds were all under $50.
So there are great wines and great bargains in these two vintages just coming to market. My recommendation is to think of the continuum more and the particular provenance less.