If you are going to embark on a journey of wine discovery and education, knowing the basics about French wines is a must. There’s no way around it. And one of the foremost appellation regions in France is Burgundy. Lying roughly in the middle latitudes of the eastern half of the nation and catching the tail end of the Rhone River in the northwestern Alps, Burgundy makes some of the best and most acclaimed wines in the world, with a proud viticulture dating back to the first Roman settlements of the area.
Before I started spending real money on bottles, my wine classifications were naively generalized by country name — France, Italy, Austria and so on. But once I graduated to the next level, I became keenly aware of the huge differences in French winemaking and taste from appellation to appellation, beginning with the grape varietals that are grown. Burgundy terroir and wines are heavily controlled, and, with only a few exceptions, their reds are made from pinot noir and whites from chardonnay.
I love Burgundies. To me, they define Old World flavor. The reds are dry, savory and multilayered. The whites are spritely, tangy and rich with none of the domineering sugariness or fruitiness of New World crushes. In fact, both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were bred and matured into their distinct contemporary lineages in this region.
My love of Burgundy peaked when I toured the Côte-d’Or department (as sub-regions are called in France) in style via hot-air balloon, floating from vineyard to vineyard and sampling the world’s finest drops alongside some mouthwatering cheeses and food. On a tangent, worth tasting are Burgundy’s many Dijon mustards and its classical stew recipe, beef bourguignon, as well as its époisses cheese — an orange-colored, salty, creamy curd dubbed the “king of cheeses” that truly lives up to this name. (This trip was pretty far from inexpensive, I might add.)
The Côte-d’Or department happens to be the epicenter for reputable winemaking in the region, all codified under the Grand Cru system as the stamp of supreme quality pertaining exclusively to Burgundy wines. If you’re fortunate enough to get your hands on a Grand Cru (only about 1% to 2% of total bottles from the Burgundy region), savor every drop, as this mark of distinction is not handed out lightly; you are drinking one of best wines in the world. Secondary wines are classified as Premiere Cru, followed by just Burgundy AC.
The best of Burgundy is known as DRC, or Domain de Romanee-Conti. These wines are not just some of the finest in the world, but also are so sought after that they hold records at auction houses that quite literally make them worth more by weight than pure gold. While the vineyard is considered a Mecca for oenophiles, the DRC complements of Grand Echazeaux, Echazeaux, Romanee-St.-Vivant, Richebourg and La Tache in private tasting rooms with a selection of vintage magnum bottles is a memory I’ll never forget. And while there was a spittoon, I can guarantee you that not a single drop was wasted on a metal pail.
With this as an introduction, if you want your wine menu to connote the same esteem and sophistication as your cuisine, consider segregating your French listings by regional subsections. Think Burgundy, Bordeaux, Côte du Rhône and Loire Valley — wholly permissible because of the tight controls on grape-varietal production within each region and the distinctive flavors that result. A Burgundy pinot noir tastes nothing like a Bordeaux cabernet-sauvignon-merlot blend, and you’d be wise not to lump them as such.
Furthermore, stocking one or two Grand Cru bottles, although quite expensive, is an important investment for celebratory occasions. Indeed, with only a dozen or so Grand Cru bottles in my cellar, I can remember every time they have been consumed. The last one? My 60th birthday a few months ago: Ruchottes-Chambertin 2000. And for those who are interested, it was drinking very well.