An overdue reflection on red Burgundy

So, I have kind of used up all possible excuses to postpone writing about Burgundian pinot noir, bar a sudden and inexplicable allergy for the variety. It’s a though one as Burgundy does have some of the greatest, most moving red wines out there which are unfortunately either way too expensive, or hidden in a cesspool of mediocre wines that would have been better off as vinegar (and even then they are sold at prices that would make other regions blush). This turns off a lot of people who try to understand Burgundy. Others keep going on with their quest, looking for the one true pinot noir that somehow clicks, that gives you a glimpse of true greatness.

It took me years to like pinot noir, it will take a couple of years more to really understand it and it will unfortunately take an eternity to really get it. When I started to explore red wine I was looking for clear and easily understandable flavours, concentration and power. At nearly every tasting I went to I preferred Bordeaux or Rhône wines to Burgundy and why wouldn’t I? If you start off with Bordeaux, a delicate pinot noir simply stands no chance. Even when I was getting more serious about wine and made an effort to discover as many regions as possible, Burgundy remained a blind spot. I could like it on occasion, but I did not understand what the big deal was.

Oddly enough, it took me a detour around half the world before ending up back in Burgundy. New Zealand was a first stop; home to what is probably the most exciting pinot noir in the New World. Oregon appears the place to be right now and I am inclined to agree with this based on the five (five!) wines that made it to Belgium, but this hardly qualifies as an overall opinion on what the state stands for. What does find its way from New Zealand is a lot more encompassing though, and in the beginning I took a liking to ripe, fruity pinot noir. You don’t have the tannins that deliver power and structure but simple, overly fruitiness, the delicate red berries and raspberries so typical of pinot noir and readily present in the New World.

Next stop, Germany! This was probably the eye opener when it came to pinot noir/spätburgunder. The bar is still set high and there is a lot of spätburgunder out there that does not make the cut, but when done right it is simply amazing. Shelter Winery, Furst, the late Bernard Huber, Nelles. Their wines are among the best that you can find in the country and still available at affordable prices. I mentioned the pinot noir vs. spätburgunder tasting a couple of weeks ago and if there is one thing that I would consider differentiating between the two I would say that it’s the openness displayed in Germany. It may unjustly come off as simpler, but the wines are a pleasure to drink, energetic, with a zingy acidity and complexity already present in their youth, which can develop well with a couple of years of cellaring.

So, the New World prepared me for the fruit and Germany showed me the energy a pinot noir could display. At the same time I was looking for more subtle wines, less in-your-face or concentrated than what I had been drinking up until that point. Alcohol was a point as well as at a certain moment you get tired of a normal wine that could might as well have been port. I was finally ready to discover and learn to appreciate Burgundian pinot noir.

I would therefore dare to say that Burgundy is not a beginner’s wine. Too subtle when you are just starting to drink, too complex a region to allow you to understand the quality differences between wines that seemingly have the same origin and too diverse to just buy 20 different bottles to try and discover what terroir really has to offer. This should not scare anyone away though. On the contrary, red Burgundy presents a challenge that comes with a potentially wonderful reward. Austerity in its youth which develops to an eloquent form of grace with age, subtlety and a deceptive lightness to the nose that presents itself with true depth in the mouth, that is the greatness that Burgundy has to offer.

Just like riesling, pinot noir is a grape that is a perfect conduit for terroir characteristics. I may still not be fully convinced that the reputations and prices some premier or grand crus command are warranted, but I cannot deny the nuanced differences that they all seem to offer. That is exactly what makes Burgundy so interesting. There is so much to discover, it can be such a pain in the behind to get what makes one wine different from the other, but the payoff makes it worth all the energy you have to put in it. Even if you have to taste through too many mediocre wines on the way, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is worth the effort. The skepticism that I had towards the region is still there and I partially still stand firmly behind it while at the same time I began realizing that a wine capable of such tiny nuances as pinot noir is also deserving of a more nuanced perspective. Let’s say I’m on the right track!

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