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Saving money on Burgundy

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Over the past generation, as countries with a combined total population of several billion have become inured and able to buy good wine, the price of such has risen, better soared. The icon of fine wine – Bordeaux – is probably the best example. But an even more egregious one is Burgundy.

One reason is that while Bordeaux is planted to almost 300,000 acres of grapes, Burgundy’s vineyards come in at only 40% of that. Furthermore, if you concentrate only on the “biggies” of either region, Bordeaux has twice the amount of land devoted to growing them as does Burgundy.

Another is the nature of the vineyard structure in both areas. Burgundies individual vineyards are smaller, much smaller than those of Bordeaux. For instance, the average size of a Grand Cru vineyard in Burgundy is just over 35 acres. In Bordeaux, the average for the Crus Classés is 113 acres (for just the First Growths it’s almost 170).

There are other reasons – Cabernet and Merlot (Bordeaux grapes) in the finest vineyards bear more generously than do Pinot noir and Chardonnay (Burgundy); Pinot noir is more aromatic and less tannic than Bordeaux’s red grapes; etc..

All this means, because of supply and demand among other things, your average fine Burgundy will be more expensive than a similar quality Bordeaux (and, to refine the point, by “fine” I mean lower yields than average, classic handling and oak barrel ageing).

But there are some tricks in this trade -- which anyone can use – that can save you money when looking for fine Burgundies. Two big ones are 1) scoping out the territory and 2) looking for a fine producer’s “throw-aways”.

Look at a map of the Côte d’Or, considered the high point in Burgundy in terms of repute and quality (Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson’s “The World Atlas of Wine” is an essential tool for any winelover). Along its 50 mile or so length lie 73 communes, or villages, a little more than 2 dozen of which can use their names as an appellation, or a signal of finer wine, on their label. Meursault, Aloxe-Corton and Volnay are examples. As some are more equal than others, only half of these finer wine communes are the most well-known, most sought after and most expensive.

Check out the map and swing over to the southern portion, the Côte de Beaune. You’ll spot major high-profile communes like Aloxe-Corton, Beaune, Meursault, Pommard, the hyphenated Montrachets, etc. But you’ll also notice several villages in close proximity to the stars. Ladoix, Chorey, Savigny and Pernand-Vergellesses are near both Beaune and Aloxe. Auxey-Duresses, Blagny, Saint-Romain and Monthelie are close to Meursault, Saint-Aubin and Santenay, near the -Montrachets. The stars, all things being equal, will always make more interesting wines than those from the nearby “planets”. But over the years, the price differential between the wines of the two groups has gone way beyond reason. For example, try a bottle of the 2010 Pernand-Vergellesses “Clos dela Croix de Pierre” by Louis Jadot, a single vineyard wine from the village. It costs $35 (as a comparison, Jadot’s plain Meursault, a blend of several vineyards, costs $50). Most folks, tasting it blind, would guess it to be a high-pedigree white wine.

Look for the “throw-aways”. Let’s say a conscientious winemaker makes 25 barrels (60 gallons each) of a wine from Gevrey-Chambertin, one of the star communes. On a regular basis he will taste samples from all these barrels and check their progress. Not all of them will develop equally, and so not all will be bottled as “Gevrey-Chambertin”. What does he do with the 2,3,4,5 barrels that don’t make it? He could sell it to a blender; or he could downgrade its appellation to simple “Bourgogne”. Buyers know that this “Bourgogne” from this talented producer will be more interesting than most others. So, while he cannot make as much for it as he could if he labeled it “Gevrey-Chambertin” – which he legally has the right to do – he knows his simple “Bourgogne” will get him 2 to 3 times the price of cheaper “Bourgognes” released by the big merchants. Look at the shelves. “Bourgognes” from the big merchants, which are usually wines from basic vineyard land will go for $15 to $20 retail and include names like Jadot, Drouhin, Latour, Faiveley and others . Now look for a “Bourgogne” from Philippe Charlopin ($30), a blend from several communes in the northern Côte de Nuits; or that of Benjamin Leroux ($27) a blend from communes in the southern Côte de Beaune. Both are wonderful red Burgundy values.

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