The Long Pour: The Not-So-Basics of Burgundy

Château de Meursault in Burgundy, France, Photo: 123RF
Château de Meursault in Burgundy, France, Photo: 123RF

Burgundy. Nicknamed the “queen” of French wine regions, Burgundy is complex, dramatic and above all, elegant.

This wine region has everything—trade wars, medieval politics, family rivalry. Think Game of Thrones meets Succession, just with grapes. These wines first became famous in the 14th century, during the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy in Avignon. For those of you who are a bit rusty on your medieval history, this is the time when seven popes resided in France rather than Rome and, after the arrest, torture and execution of Pope Boniface VIII by the King of France. During this time, the papacy forbade the import and export of wines made in Burgundy, launching Burgundy as the “It Girl” of the 14th century wine world.

In the 18th century, the King of France pretty much swiped the lands owned by the Catholic Church in Burgundy and did what any monarch of the time would do—sell them off one by one to the bourgeoise to finance whatever war, bribery or home décor he needed to finance. After all, those 2,300 rooms in Versailles weren’t exactly going to decorate themselves.

Enter the complex, byzantine laws of the Napoleonic code. As Gerald Asher once said, “Bordeaux is a hierarchy, whereas Burgundy is a democracy.” The Napoleonic Code, which did away with a single heir system, mandated that a vineyard be split equally among all heirs. Democratic? Sure. Confusing? Absolutely. After a few years, some families owned a single row of vines, leading to a rather complex structure of 84 different appellations (i.e. wine geographic regions) and the rise of…the negociants. Think of negociants as the derivative traders of the wine world, picking grapes from various parcels and bundling them together to make a wine. Imagine if Joseph Phelps was no longer Joseph Phelps but split among 80 different winemakers—all legally able to call themselves Joseph Phelps, but differing wildly in production and fermentation methods.

Phew. Hopefully that gave you some serious cocktail conversation for your next party (under 50 people, please).

Pouring red wine
Image: 123RF

If it is high praise to say a wine is complex, then certainly no wine region is more complex than Burgundy. But in some ways, it is (deliciously) simple. Like pizza (and for that matter, tacos), a glass of Burgundy is always good, and when it’s great, it is magical.

The region essentially makes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (calm down, wine nerds, we will get to the greatness of Gamay and Aligote in a future column). It includes the wines regions of the Cote D’Or,. Puligny-Montrachet, Beaujolais and, of course, Chablis.

White burgundy is classically paired with buttery dishes (roast chicken, sole meuniere, pot pie), rich seafood (scallops, crab, lobster, monkfish) and umami vegetable dishes (wild mushrooms, cauliflower, fennel).

Called the world’s most flexible food wine for its high acidity, medium body, low tannins and medium alcohol, red Burgundy Pinot Noir is ideal for sharing in a restaurant amongst friends ordering many different types of entrees. Naturally, rich and umami-forward dishes like duck, truffle and mushrooms are perfect with these wines. The queen bee of the Pinot Noir world endures because it is light, elegant and complex—but not so in-your-face that it obliterates everything but a massive steak.

Here are some of our favorite regions in Burgundy:

Chardonnay—Meursault
A classic Meursault is akin to licking a marshmallow while smelling a vanilla bean: it is rich, decadent and powerful. Though the French oak characteristics certainly differ from the American sort, California Chardonnay fans will find a lot to love in these wines compared to their more austere cousins to the South.

Chardonnay—Chablis
The Black Sheep of White Burgundy, Chablis is actually closer to the Champagne region of France than to Burgundy. Similar to Sancerre, Chablis’ soil was once home to an ancient seabed that gives the wine notes of salt and fossilized aquatic life.

Pinot Noir—Gevrey Chambertin
The Gold standard for red Burgundy wines, these wines have the characteristics of a classically dressed country Frenchman; elegantly rustic and smelling of smoke.

Pinot Noir—Fixin
More intensely powerful than most other Burgundies, Fixin (pronounced Fissin) is our favorite for either a Village-level table wine or a finessed Premier Cru. With notes of inky pomegranate, gamey charcuterie, and sensual violet flower, this wine was made for the winter dinner table.

Kylie Monagan and James Mallios, Photos: Courtesy Calissa

James Mallios and Kylie Monagan are Partners in Calissa Restaurant at 1020 Montauk Highway in Water Mill. Visit CalissaHamptons.com

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