Why Is Burgundy So Special?

This post is contributed by Domini Hogg, for which many thanks:

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If you are ever lucky enough to be offered a tasting with Berry Bros & Rudd, I would definitely recommend it. Aside from anything else, the location of their school in the cellars beneath their original 17th century wooden-panelled shop is an experience in itself. The session I was fortunate enough to attend followed the history of vineyards in Burgundy and was accompanied by eight different Burgundy wines (both red and white) from the 2011 vintage. By the end of it I was considerably more impressed with Burgundy wines than with those from Bordeaux, so the expert, Roy Richards, had done his job well.

Initially the vineyards in Burgundy were owned entirely by the monasteries and attended to by the monks, but during the French Revolution the land was re-appropriated to to private owners. Comparative to Bordeaux the area of Burgundy has always been considerably smaller, however this was exacerbated by the Napoleonic code brought in in 1804. This code specified that on the death of the owner any property had to be divided equally between all the children. As a consequence, today, parts of Clos du Vougeot are split up in such a way that some owners tend only a couple of rows of vines.

about burgundy wine
Some owners have only a couple of rows of vines.

In the meantime, the much larger region of Bordeaux took a very different path. Now the Chateaux of the celebrated region are organised into large commercial vineyards owned by multiple shareholders who vie over management in a highly competitive environment.

While the history of Burgundy has contributed greatly to its modern day boutique success comparative to Bordeaux, it is about to place its winning characteristic in considerable danger. Landowners in France now have to pay inheritance tax based on the most recent negotiated price, which, with growing global interest in the wine business particularly in France, can often be extremely high. This inheritance tax is pushing many of the local families with generations of vine-tending expertise off their land in favour of foreign investors.

Both regions are well known for their grand cru classe and premier cru classe, yet the way that vineyards are classified differs greatly. In Bordeaux the vineyards are classified according to ownership, whereas in Burgundy the vineyards are classified by region in the first place and by ownership secondly. So a region that doesn’t classify for premier cru cannot produce any wine of that class no matter how well an owner may make his wine. By contrast if a Chateau in Bordeaux buys a neighbouring piece of land within the same commune, it will automatically qualify as the same class of wine made by the rest of the Chateau regardless of the real quality pertaining to the soil and vines grown there.

With increasing interest in wines for investment, the rarity of the wines produced by some of the smaller Burgundy vineyards has made them considerably more covetable than the wines from their larger neighbours. Consequently prices for what would be comparable wines are no longer in the same league.

This means that while some wines in Burgundy are extortionately priced, there are still bargains to be had. Out of all the wines I tasted at Berry Bros. and Rudd the one I liked the most was the 2011 Marsannay Rouge, Clos du Roy, Domaine Jean Fournier. According to Roy Richards it was very good value: just as good as the Gevrey-Chambertin of the same year, but more than half the price. It came from the top vineyard in the Marsannay area and, although currently rated a simple Bourgogne, it is likely to become a premier cru with the reclassification of Marsannay this year. From my tasting notes on the evening, I have written that it had a sweet, velvety berry taste with hints of rose and oak. Definitely one to watch out for!

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Music to listen to as you read and sip

In terms of appropriate music to listen to as you sip your Burgundy, you can’t go wrong with Billie Holiday singing “You go to my head…. like a sip of sparkling Burgundy brew”

 Or if you’re feeling more adventurous you could try the film music to the newly-released Duke of Burgundy. I haven’t seen the film (it’s about a sado-masochistic lesbian relationship – a sort of Rosemary’s Baby meets Emmanuelle apparently) but the music is by Cat’s Eyes, who produce a sort of haunting, floaty, bittersweet musical effect.


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