Why Burgundy Still Rules the Roost

Ten years ago, director Alexander Payne introduced Americans to Pinot Noir. I am not drinking any Merlot!, Paul Giamatti declares on his ruthless crusade through California’s Central Coast, before ironically (and, in the in the eyes of every wine collector everywhere, sadly), cutting open the foil cap of a 1961 Cheval Blanc—half Merlot. While seated in the booth of a nondescript diner, he pours the sumptuous remains into a paper cup and tips it back. Ah, well. Glory gone. Back then, Cabernet Sauvignon had been the grape for all seasons, followed by Merlot and a hundred other reds. Pinot Noir, in all its grace and finesse, wouldn’t have registered in the collective oeno-consciousness.

A decade later, Pinot-philes are everywhere, and maybe we have Payne to thank (or blame), but long before there was Paul Giamatti, or San Luis Obispo, or the Russian River Valley’s red raspberry jam Pinot, there was a strip of land running north to south in France’s eastern interior. Burgundy. Pinot Noir’s native home. Home, too, to Chardonnay, that other grape that has fallen in and then out of favor. A region tarnished by its association with jug wine (don’t mistake it for that product put out by the Gallos—and don’t mistake Chablis for that watery, thin stuff shot out by soda guns at really cheap bars, either).

For any true wine lover or collector, Burgundy, with its fickle climate and difficult parcels of land that challenge grape and grower, produces winemaking at its finest. Considered the most terroir-oriented region of France, Burgundy places the emphasis on place. In Bordeaux, classification is dependent upon producer and awards are given to individual châteaux; in Burgundy, it is the land that is of import. The fame is given not to the producer but, rather, to the parcel of land itself. Grand Cru vineyards are held in the highest esteem, followed by Premier Crus, and then by village wines. In Burgundy’s central stretch of land, known as the Côte d’Or, only two percent of the wines in production are Grand Cru wines.

Made well, a fine Burgundy can sing. The band at Burgundy’s far north is laced with fossilized sea creatures, which has turned into a specialized soil known as Kimmeridgian Clay, offering up wines that are mineral, focused, clean, and filled with tension. These are the true Chablis, almost never aged in oak and able to age for decades. Premier Cru and Grand Cru Chablis are worth cellaring for as long as one’s patience will allow, though village-level wines are worth opening up immediately. This all-white Burgundy appellation serves up Chardonnay with backbone.

The Pinot Noirs of northern and central Burgundy—the slice of the Côte d’Or known as the Côte d’Nuits—could put California to shame. They teem with earth, ripe fruit, and indescribable brightness. Giamatti’s character, Myles, wasn’t wrong to dote on fine, fickle Pinot Noir; the grape is mystifying in its complexity. When it disappoints, it can be heartbreaking, like an incomplete painting by a great artist. But when a bottle performs, what other wine can compare? The balance achieved by a fine Pinot Noir in a great vintage can undo nearly any wine (perhaps even Giamatti’s Merlot-driven 1961 Cheval Blanc). Better yet, these wines fare well with nearly every cuisine, from cheese courses to fish to poultry to game to red meat to nearly any roast.

As can the great, muscular whites made from Chardonnay in Burgundy’s southern Côte de Beaune. These wines, fresh in their youth, can also age spectacularly, developing secondary and tertiary notes. These nutty, rich, and complex specimens are among the world’s finest and can hold up to whatever kind of food you throw at them. Consider your holiday ham a fine contender.

Whether you’re collecting or just opening a bottle for your own enjoyment, it’s worth recalling Myles as the holidays draw near. Grab your nearest and dearest, pick up a roast, and break out the Burgundy. These wines are stunning in their youth, collectible at any age, and worth your time. But if you’re more of the solo wine adventurer, you could always grab a booth at a diner and a paper cup—so long as it’s filled with Burgundy.