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The value of Burgundy, regardless of the price

May 17, 2019 5:50 AM

WE can talk about the aromas and flavours of a wine, possible food pairings, history and culture, personalities or glassware. But from where I sit, it often seems as if people have one overriding topic on their minds: price.

This is especially true when the topic swivels around to Burgundy, as it has this past month. We have been drinking the wines of Mercurey, an outlying region in the Côte Chalonnaise, just south of the Côte d'Or, Burgundy's heartland.

Speaking generally, Burgundy is nowadays the most coveted wine on the planet. It's a small place, with far less production capacity than Bordeaux or Champagne. Even in the best vintages, it produces a relatively meagre amount of wine. In recent years, spring frosts and sudden hailstorms have cruelly slashed this output further.

You don't have to be an economist to understand what has happened. The prices of Burgundy have shot upward in the last 20 years, to the point where the best wines are far beyond the means of most people.

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In the old days, by which I mean around 10 years ago, Burgundy lovers - whether frugal by nature or circumstances - would seek out good wines from less-exalted places, like Santenay, Marsannay or the Côte Chalonnaise. That's still a pretty good plan, although even those wines are no longer inexpensive.

We try to be conscious of good values in wine, and to understand the difference between price and value. But we also believe that the effort to better understand wine sometimes requires spending a little more than is comfortable.

That is especially true when the subject is Burgundy. A century ago, when consumers had access to a minuscule fraction of the wines we can now drink, Burgundy was one of the most important wines in the world. Yet today, it is more influential than ever, shaping the way wine producers around the world think about their vineyards and their wines.

In order to better comprehend Burgundy, wouldn't it be wonderful to compare three historic regions with clearly understood identities - say, a Gevrey-Chambertin, a Vosnes-Romanée and a Volnay? I am thinking of village examples of each, which in the hierarchy of Burgundy's vineyards are capable of expressing the identities of those places. A step up from the regional wine designation, villages do not have the enhanced potential of wines from vineyards designated premier cru, to say nothing of the grand crus, which are judged to be so distinctive that they are known simply by the name of their vineyard - Musigny or Le Montrachet, for example - transcending the need of a village identity.

Aromas, flavours and textures

Yet even the village wines are dear. Good examples can range from US$50 to US$125 or more now. So we settled for the Côte Chalonnaise, Mercurey in particular, which will not give the same picture of varied terroirs as those other wines. But at least they can suggest what red Burgundy can deliver in terms of aromas, flavours and textures.

The three bottles I chose for tasting included two from one producer, Domaine Faiveley: Mercurey 2017 (US$27) and Mercurey Premier Cru Clos des Myglands 2017 (US$45). The third was Domaine de Villaine Mercurey Les Montots 2016 (US$55). The bottles are cheaper than many Côte d'Or village wines, but not inexpensive.

I wish wine were more like books, for which you will pay roughly the same amount for a paperback volume of mind-blowing Shakespeare or Toni Morrison as you would for an inconsequential entertainment from James Patterson or Nora Roberts.

But it's not. So if we want to try to understand something of Burgundy, even by dipping a toe at the highly pleasurable fringe, we have to buy Burgundy.

Why make the effort? Winemakers from all around the world, including other parts of France and regardless of what sorts of grapes they are working with, talk about how they were crucially influenced by the wines and the culture of Burgundy.

Partly, this speaks to the notion of terroir, and to the idea that wine can express the detailed nuances of where it was grown. This is not merely a matter of belief in Burgundy; it's part of one's cultural identity, based on observations that have been confirmed again and again over the course of centuries.

The other element - our focus here - is the nature of the wine itself, specifically Burgundy's red wines, made entirely of the pinot noir grape. In order to display the nuances of terroir, the wines must be graceful, subtle, refined and suggestive, rather than simply powerful and coercive, in which case those fine notes can be lost.

Depending on the character of the vintage, wines can be intense, complex and concentrated, becoming more so when ascending from village to premier cru to grand cru, but never at the expense of finesse.

It's the capacity for finesse, the ability to express concentration and complexity without weight, along with the propensity for ripening even in difficult vintages, that has shaped the hierarchical rankings of Burgundy's vineyards.

The 2017 Faiveley Mercurey, the least expensive of the three, was probably the most enjoyable now for me to drink. It was pure and fine, with an aroma of earthy red fruit. It wasn't complex, but was surprisingly rich, bright and balanced, and I found it perfectly delicious. It may evolve some, but I don't think it will get a lot better; the pleasure is in the realised potential.

Its sibling, the 2017 Faiveley Mercurey from the Clos des Myglands vineyard, was a good illustration of the difference between the simpler village wine and a premier cru. The Clos des Myglands was clearly denser and more concentrated, with lush, spicy flavours of red fruit that lingered long after swallowing.

It's young, however, and, though perfumed, it is still tightly coiled, revealing little of its potential. You can enjoy this wine now, but a few more years of aging will soften its grip, allowing it to show complexity that is beyond the capacity of the village wine.

Faiveley is best known as a négociant, a merchant that buys grapes, makes the wine and sells it under its label. But like other leading négociants, including Louis Jadot, Joseph Drouhin and Bouchard Père et Fils, Faiveley has increased its own vineyard holdings in recent years as Burgundy land has become more valuable.

Both of these wines are from its own vineyards, and are designated "Domaine Faiveley" rather than "Maison Faiveley", which is used for the négociant wines.

What makes Burgundy so singular, so desirable

The third Mercurey, Les Montots 2016 from Domaine de Villaine, was the most expensive of the wines, at US$55. I would attribute this to the prestige of the proprietor, Aubert de Villaine, whose day job is co-director and the face of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which makes some of the greatest and most sought-after Burgundies, though he is modest enough not to mention this or anything else about himself on the Domaine de Villaine website.

The 2016 is a village Mercurey, which shows that the hierarchy of vineyards is just one of several factors in setting prices. This was quite different in character from the Faiveley village wine. Its flavours were slightly exotic, more cherry liqueur than cherry, with a floral element as well. But it also had a savory, saline touch. It was beautifully balanced and focused, with spicy, lingering flavours.

Each of these wines, in its own way, illustrates what makes Burgundy so singular, and so desirable to emulate stylistically. From the straightforward purity of the Faiveley village, to the tightly knit concentration of the Clos des Myglands to the emerging complexity of the Domaine de Villaine, they are lithe and graceful, valuing texture and transparency over weight.

For me, these wines were both modest and wonderful, conveying important elements of Burgundy's appeal without grandiosity. Are they expensive? Relative to what? The value outweighs the price. NYTIMES