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What’s a Burgunder?

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The word “Burgunder” is the German word for Burgundy. When it is appended to certain other words, it becomes the name of a grape variety that originated in Burgundy. You have Grauburgunder, which is Pinot Gris. You have Weissburgunder, which is Pinot Blanc. And you have Spätburgunder, which is Pinot Noir. Before you think: “They don’t plant Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc in Burgundy,” let me assure that I am not trying to dispute that.

All of the Pinots are mutations of each other. No one is really sure which came first - gray, white or red, but we are sure that they are essentially variations of the same grape. In Italy these grapes go by the names Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero. So we are dealing with nine names for three grapes – not nine grapes. This is actually more common than you may think. Many, many grapes have multiple names even within the same language.

So how many Americans even know that Pinot Noir grows in Germany? I’d imagine that the number is staggeringly low. And Germany is the third largest producer of Pinot Noir in the world. (It’s behind France and the United States.)

Most people think of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris from Alsace, and don’t realize that Alsace is known for growing German grape varieties – including Pinot Noir. They use the French names, but got the grapes from Germany (figuratively). For Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero, most people think they are grape varieties that only come from Italy.

After Riesling (22% of all German grapes planted) and Muller-Thurgau (13.3%), the Burgunders are probably the most planted grapes in Germany. Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir/Nero) is about 11% of the plantings, and the other two Burgunders account for about 5% each. Germany is the third biggest producer of Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris/Grigio) after Italy and the United States. It is second in line for Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc/Bianco), after Italy and more than doubles Austria.

Germany has good weather and conditions for Spätburgunder, especially if you like lighter, cool-climate Pinot Noir. Unfortunately, not that much Spätburgunder is imported into the United States, and much of that is expensive.

I recently tried a blend of Spätburgunder (60%) and Dornfelder (another German variety) that was wonderful. It had excellent minerality, bright cherry notes, subtle spiciness and lovely lightness and length on the palate. It was particularly pleasing when it was slightly chilled. It is called Wünderwein, and sells for $15 at Uncorked Wine co.

If you happen to find yourself face-to-face with a Burgunder, don’t be afraid to try it. You’ll likely be very surprised at how familiar it is.

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