Monday, August 13, 2007

Exploring Burgundy: Bourgogne Rouge

If there’s a great love of which I’ve spoken over the years but one with which I’ve spent far too little time, it’s Burgundy. Its wines, both white and red, are hard to beat for their possibilities of finesse, character, depth and charm. Exploring them can be a daunting task. Given the geographical intricacy of the region’s AOC system, the bewildering number of producers, the ever present conundrum of style and the flat out question of quality, choosing a good Burgundy is one of the more complicated events faced by those interested in exploring its potential. Starting me on the road where I currently find myself taking one of those long overdue visits was a chain of relatively unrelated events: eye-opening inspiration in the form of a workday tasting of Nuits-St.-George “Grandes Vignes” from Domaine Daniel Rion, a trip to New York which included a shopping stop at one of my favorite wine stores and, most recently, participation in Wine Blogging Wednesday #36.

It was WBW that really got the ball rolling. Given the theme of Unoaked Chardonnay, I selected the latest vintage of a wine with which I’ve been familiar for years, the Saint-Véran “Tirage Précoce” 2006 from Gilles Corsin. Browsing around, I found that one of my favorite wine bloggers, Brooklynguy, also tackled Burgundy, writing up wines from both the Maconnais and Chablis. Taking inspiration from this chain of events, I’ve found myself leaning hard toward the Burgundy section of my cellar when making decisions about what to open with dinner over the last few days. The first selection in the chain came from among the wines I’d picked up in New York. It would prove to showcase some of the risks inherent with buying any wine, risks that tend to be magnified with red Burgundy.

Bourgogne Rouge, Domaine René Leclerc 2005 (Fruit of the Vines, New York, NY)
René Leclerc is a well respected grower-producer based in Gevrey-Chambertin, the largest commune of Burgundy’s red wine heartland, the Côte-de-Nuits. This bottle came with the recommendation of a knowledgeable sales person in a top-notch wine shop. And it’s from the much heralded 2005 vintage, the latest “be-all, end-all” vintage in Burgundy. As soon as I pulled the cork though, warning signs started to flash. The sides of the cork were stained pink in bands of varying width and height, a telltale sign of the possibility of heat damage. All wine is susceptible to the bruising, dulling effects of heat exposure but few wines show it as quickly and clearly as the delicate, Pinot Noir based reds of Burgundy. It’s not that the wine was undrinkable; it hadn’t been cooked to that extent. Rather, it was rendered rather dull and one-dimensional. Aromas, not particularly forthcoming, were mainly of sour red fruit and a clay-like earthiness. On the palate, the wine sang only one note. It was soft, texturally quite silky and showed good acidity but the fruit was hard to find. There were hints of the griotte notes often associated with the more delicate expressions of wine from the Gevrey district but those hints were far more muted than I would have expected and liked.

Aside from the wine falling short of expectation on the palate, I was a bit surprised, even puzzled, by its appearance in the glass. Its color was quite pale. This is no surprise for Bourgogne Rouge in general; Pinot Noir grown in a cool climate with minimal sunlight intensity has naturally thin skins. It does not tend to give dark, opaque wines. However, in a warm vintage like 2005 and in the Côte-de-Nuits in general, I would have expected a darker red or violet robe. This was surprisingly pale; it could easily have passed for a wine from a cool vintage in the Côte-de-Beaune or even from a typical vintage in Chitry, in the northern reaches of the Yonne Department. The puzzlement came not so much from the wine’s color but rather from its clarity – or lack thereof. Cloudy is more like it. I’d be interested to hear from others as to whether that is a typical characteristic of Leclerc’s wines or, perhaps, if it could be a less prevalent side effect of heat damage.

In any event, I was disappointed but undaunted. Quality control is a known peril of Burgundy exploration. While it does tend to scare me away from dropping big dollars on the big names and top bottlings, I can’t let it keep me from exploring the region’s many more reasonable treasures. I’ll be writing up a few of the others I’ve recently tried in the coming days.


Brooklynguy said...

Hi David,

Thanks for the shoutout! I didn't know the pink banding is a sign of hpossible heat damage. I have had a few wines this summer with such bands and I wish I had kept rtack in order to look back now and see if I found them dull and baked. Now i know. Too bad about the LeClerc. I heard that his 05 GC Clos Prieur is quite good, especially for the $35 price tag. Looking forward to reading about whatever you next tasted.

David McDuff said...

Those pink stripes can be a sign of quirks on the bottling line. More often than not though, they are the result of heat exposure. A warm enough temperature, usually 80F or higher, will actually cause the juice to expand in the bottle, forcing its way up the sides of the cork. In extreme examples, you might find wine that's made its way all the way to the top of the cork, under the capsule and down the side of the bottle. I always give capsules the twist and sniff tests when shopping but a whacked bottle still sneaks past from time to time.

Anonymous said...

Red Burgundy is a land mine for wine buyers. When it's done right, it is succulent.

When it's not right, it become a $50+ mistake.

How can a consumer know what to buy, when price is often not an indicator of quality?

Brooklynguy said...

I always do two things before i buy a bottle: check the capsule to make sure it can be moved, and check the level of the cork to make sure it is below or level with the end of the bottle. What is the sniff test???

David McDuff said...

Both of your usual tests are important stand-bys. I add the sniff test: quite literally, I stick the capsule/top of the bottle under my nose and take a whiff. If I get a hint either of sweetness or vinegar, it's a good sign that the wine has at some point leaked and pooled up under the foil. The twist test will usually reveal the same thing; I just look at the sniff as being added insurance.

Thanks for stopping in. You've asked the million dollar Burgundy question. The answers are really the same as for any other wine; they're just amplified in Burgundy where prices are high and damage is easily done. Know your producer. There's no better way to shop. Due to the incredible number of small producers in the region though, it's impossible to know them all. So, cultivate a good relationship with a knowledgeable sales person in a wine shop that cares about what it selects and how it cares for its wines. That will get you much closer to finding the holy grail -- ot at least to enjoying the search with fewer disasters along the way.

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