Editor’s Note: While Carl is out recovering from heart bypass surgery we’ve asked some of his good friends to fill in with their wise words on wine in his absence. Today’s blog is another from guest blogger Tom Welsh, general manager and partner at Tapastrie restaurant in downtown South Bend, Indiana. Another big thank you to Tom!
I’ve told many people that if I were forced to drink one kind of wine for the rest of my life, it would probably be Burgundy…either red or white. Of course I’m glad this is not a realistic possibility, as I would certainly miss wines from the rest of France and the rest of the world. But there is distinctiveness in Burgundy wines from places just a few miles apart and such a lively character to the wines, both regionally and with the passage of time, which somehow sets Burgundy wines apart from other wines for me. And, believe me, I am aware that my experience with Burgundy wines merely scratches the surface.
Wine has been made in the area for nearly 2,000 years but it was the Benedictine and Cistercian monks who owned most of the land and began organizing the region between the 6th and 11th centuries. They noticed that wines from certain places were distinctly different from others nearby and began building walls around these unique “vineyards.” You will likely have seen many Burgundy wines whose name begins with “Clos.” This is the French term for an enclosed area. The first, and still one of the most famous of these, Clos de Vougeot, was defined in 1366 and today is one of the 26 Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy.
The core of Burgundy, where by far, most of the wine is produced, lies between the towns of Dijon and Mâcon and is less than 100 miles north to south and only a few miles wide. Yet there are more specifically designated areas and/or vineyards in this area than any other wine region in the world. This area is known as the Côte d’Or (Golden Coast). From Mâcon south to Lyon is the Beaujolais region, technically part of Burgundy, though its wines are not usually called Burgundy wines. Eighty miles north of Dijon is Chablis and a couple of other small appellations which are also part of Burgundy but more often referred to as Chablis rather than a Burgundy wine.
The six principal sub-regions of Burgundy from north to south are Côte d’Auxerre (Chablis), Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise, Mâconnais and Beaujolais. They are all broken down into many vineyard designated areas based on location and their relative quality. These are classified as Regional (Bourgogne Rouge/Blanc), Village level, Premier Cru and Grand Cru.
Of the 26 Grand Cru vineyards, 25 are in the Côte de Nuits, the northernmost part of the Côte d’Or. These wines are produced in small quantities and are usually expensive to ridiculously expensive. The most prestigious producer of Grand Cru wines is Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, often abbreviated DRC. Their vineyard bottlings of La Tâche, Les Richebourgs, Romanée Saint-Vivant, Echezeaux and Grands-Echezeaux will cost between $1,000 and $8,000 per bottle depending on the vineyard and vintage. Good stuff (not that I would know!) Back down to earth now…There are Grand Cru Burgundy wines that can be had for under $100 so they aren’t prohibitive for the ordinary wine enthusiast. The Village and Premier Cru Burgundies are also delicious and certainly more affordable.
All red Burgundy is made from Pinot Noir. An edict of Phillip the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy in 1395 banned the cultivation of Gamay (the red grape of Beaujolais) and any other red wine grape in the area. That law is still in force today. Red Burgundy wines exhibit aromas and flavors of red fruit: cherry, raspberry and sometimes darker fruit such as plum and black cherry. In their youth they can be light bodied and fruity or, in the case of those designed for long aging, austere and tannic. These, over time, soften and become perfumed, delicate and nuanced.
By and large, we can say that all white Burgundy wines are made from Chardonnay, though there are certain exceptions. Saint-Bris, a small area near Chablis uses Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris. Certain areas in the southern part of the Côte d’Or are allowed to use Aligoté. The Aligoté grape is also grown in other areas and is permitted in the sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne.
Chardonnay is one of the more malleable grapes in the hands of a winemaker so white Burgundies vary in style quite a bit. Most Chablis wines are not aged or fermented in oak (the exception being some of the few Grand Cru Chablis wines). Not aging in oak makes the most of the natural effects of the terroir of the area, a very cool climate and limestone soil, giving Chablis wines a crisp, acidic and flinty character with citrus notes. Further south, in the Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais, more wines tend to be oak aged and/or fermented, lending a toasty quality to the wines and more apple/pear to baked apple flavors and aromas.
All these white wines undergo a secondary malolactic fermentation, which converts tart malic acid to a softer, more plush lactic acid. This is what results in the buttery texture in so many California Chardonnays. But in Burgundy, because of the cooler climate, the grapes don’t ripen as fully and therefore retain more acidity so the malolactic fermentation provides a perfect balance and a texture and flavor profile that is special to the region.
Winemakers use this and oak aging to different degrees to achieve their preferred style and a fuller body. However there are wines in the southern part of the Mâconnais that are as crisp and acidic as those from Chablis, but without the flintiness and chalkiness found further north. This style is sought by more and more California winemakers through earlier harvesting and a more neutral oak regimen. I can say that a great example of this is none other than Carl Tiedemann’s Glenwood Cellars Sonoma Coast Chardonnay.
A few years ago, when I was still working outside the USA for a French company, I was able to be in France several times a year. Carl knew this and forwarded to me a website for a huge wine industry event held only every two years, called Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne (“Great Days of Burgundy”). This is a five-day tasting event held in towns from Chablis through the Côte d’Or, each location featuring wines from that area. It is attended by wine and hospitality industry professionals from around the world.
Carl told me that if I was able to attend, I could use Tiedemann Wines as my industry ID. Naturally, I tried to arrange to do this. My schedule at the time only allowed me to do two days of this amazing event, but that was enough to make for a lifelong memory. I stayed in the town of Beaune, which is roughly in the center of the Côte d’Or and is the center of the Burgundy wine trade. Thus, a modest sized town of around 20,000 is teeming with wine shops and bars, tasting rooms and top quality restaurants. It was a great opportunity.
Carl’s only request was that I report on my trip for his blog. I was proud then to be his first ever guest blogger! So I will cheat on the word count of this week’s blog by adding links to the two-part report on that, my first visit to the region. I enjoyed it so much that I returned later that year on my way back home to start this new life in the restaurant business. It will forever be one of my favorite places in the world. Thanks one more time to Carl for that opportunity and for the opportunity to contribute to his blog once again while he recovers. So if you are still awake, here are the links to that report 3½ years ago: Tom Welsh Reports on French Burgundies: Day 1 and Tom Welsh Reports on French Burgundies: Day 2.