Friday, September 21, 2007
San Francisco Chronicle
Discovering bargains in the out-of-the-way burbs of Burgundy
Alice Feiring, Special to The Chronicle
Friday, September 21, 2007
(09-21) 04:00 PDT Beaune, France -- There exists a kind of snob who wouldn't ever be tempted by a Burgundy of lesser pedigree than a grand cru. "Outer-borough Burgundy?" scoffed a buyer for an East Coast wine house. "You'll find out why no one drinks them."
Fine for him to be so snooty - he gets to drink grand cru all of the time. For the rest of us who need to satisfy a Burgundy fix, some serious know-how is required. Right now, with the weak dollar and fierce competition for the best of the slam-dunk 2005 vintage, you'll need a bargain instinct equivalent to knowing how to spot haute couture after the label is snipped out. It comes in handy when seeking the best of Marsannay, Fixin, Maranges, Auxey-Duresses and St. Romain - not exactly household names.
Burgundy's Cote d'Or is made up of two prestigious lobes, Cote de Nuits to the north and Cote de Beaune to the south. This yam-shaped piece of land is justifiably famous for unpredictable climate and limestone soils (laced with clay, marl, slate and gravel) that work their magic on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The prevailing wisdom of Burgundy terroir dictates that the region's center cut (which include famed villages such as Montrachet and Vosne Romanee) provides the world with its best and rarest wines.
Top wines from the 20-acre Richebourg vineyard in the Vosne commune can start at $400 and climb up to five times that amount. However, tentacles of that precious ancient limestone and complex mix of soils spread out into the less glamorous areas as well. For as little as $15 you won't find a stand-in for those very top bottles, but you can bask in excellent Burgundies, as long as you're willing to be flexible about the appellations on the labels. The 2005 vintage was praised by most critics for lushness married to structure, and even wines from the lesser-known territories will evolve beautifully.
Pity poor Marsannay, a 10-minute drive south from the Dijon train station. Appellation status came late to this most northerly village in the Cote de Nuits. With the help of its champion, resident winemaker Bruno Clair, designation was granted in 1987 and its Pinot Noir started to get noticed. Part of Marsannay's problem was lowballing. At the turn of the last century, instead of raising up serious red wines like their neighbors to the south - Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne-Romanee, Chambolle-Musigny - they decided to go for the fast buck and sold Gamay Noir and ros to the nearby workers of Dijon.
Besides the Pinot-based ross (a must-drink for anyone into pink), the whites can offer relief for Chardonnitis, as oak rarely dominates. Think of a leaner Chablis style.
British wine expert Clive Coates once wrote that Marsannay is not a serious wine. Recently, Coates corrected himself. "I wrote that before the arrival of Sylvain Pataille, whose wines rather contradict my point."
Pataille had been a consultant for domaines like Roumier and Groffier before he started his own winery in 2001, believing in the soils of his hometown. As of the 2007 vintage, his vineyards are organic. He is a passionate convert, even taking the time, as he did in one of his vineyards, to plant from seed instead of cuttings or clones. In June, the 2007 vintage was already proving difficult with the crazy weather and the work in the vineyards intense, especially for those who work organically, but Pataille didn't mind.
"I love the idea of biodynamic. I love the idea of organic. In the vineyard, it is more difficult. You have to be married to your vineyards. But it's worth it."
"Marsannay has everything except the name," Pataille adds. "I work very hard in these vineyards. I work very hard on the wines ... to prove that they can be excellent, because the terroir is there. We have everything except the high prices."
Like a true terroirist, Martin Bart, whose father started the domaine in 1955, pulls out his map and points to his monopole vineyard Les Finottes. Bart is another Marsannay standout. The appellation doesn't even have one premier cru in its tiny 2.2-square- mile area, but it has several vineyards of distinction, including Les Finottes, whose well-drained sand and gravel soils produce a forward, juicy red wine (think a baby Chambolle-Musigny). In a region where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir rule, Marsannay also seems to be a magnet for exciting white oddities. Pataille's Marsannay Les Favieres is made of three other Pinots - Blanc, Beurot and Gris - and has a distinct wintergreen appeal. Bart made a 2004 white from Chardonnay Musqu, with a honeyed Muscat nose and a dry Chardonnay finish.
Some 25 miles south from Marsannay, at the very end of the Cote d'Or, red wine country thrives. Maranges produces Chardonnay but the Gamay and Pinot Noirs are the standouts - delicacy laced with nuance. Maranges has a distinctly rural appeal, and like all of these outer boroughs of Burgundy, it's not very wealthy and that's reflected in prices: The wines range from $15-$40.
Motoring through Cheilly les Maranges, a visitor sees swaths of vineyards filled with weeds that in a week or two will be weed-free, as chemical farming is the norm. It's a discouraging sight, until lighting upon rows of well-tilled soil - the vineyards of Domaine Chevrot, one of the best domaines - if not the best - in the area.
Pablo Chevrot, 31, an endearing enthusiast, took over the control of the domaine from his father in 2002, and when he speaks of organic farming, it is with the fervor of having just tasted his first white truffle. As if on some crazy cue, his father comes in during a tasting to tell his son that a fungicide-spraying helicopter is in town and wouldn't he please reconsider this organic nonsense? Pablo is firm. He will spray fenugreek instead.
Maranges has the last bit of limestone soil in the Cote de Beaune. There is no doubt that he will serve it well. The 2004 Chevrot Maranges Sur le Chene's delicacy encompasses a deep combination of violet and rose aromas. And it shows how great this undervalued vintage could be.
Perhaps the ugliest duckling of them all - with wines that are rustic in youth but evolve into swans in adulthood - is a bit northwest of Maranges: Auxey-Duresses (pronounced either Aus-SAY or auck-SAY; the town's name is a tongue twister even by French standards). Because Americans don't like to buy names difficult to pronounce, the wines were often giveaways, hovering around $13-$15 - far below other Burgundies.
"Few people buy this because only a tiny percentage of wine drinkers could pronounce the name," Gerald Weisl of Weimax in Burlingame said in an e-mail.
Some in Auxey-Duresses, like Domaine A & B Labry, gave up on the U.S. market, but others like Michel Prunier and Gilles Lafouge have stood their ground, breaking through to those with no linguistic fear. In exchange for such bravery, drinkers are rewarded with wines of scents of earth and violets, well knit and grounded with a nice dollop of tannin.
The village borders its lesser-known neighbor, St. Romain, and some exalted ones, such as Pommard (known for reds) and Meursault (known for whites), and in Auxey, expect both colors of high quality. Many great winemakers, like the flashy Comte Armand and the humble Marechal, farm here as well. Auxey-Duresses bottlings are longer lived than anyone gives credit for.
Beaune-based wine importer Jeanne-Marie de Champs, who exports some of these wines, observes that the best producers from the outer boroughs do not mess with their wines' basic nature, overextracting flavors from the grapes or using too much new oak. In return they make wines of purity, "the real thing," says de Champs.
Not that the status-priced, extravagant wines of the type a buyer for an East Coast wine house likes to drink, such as Domaine Leroy's Richebourg or Domaine Ponsot's Clos de la Roche, aren't real. These superior winemakers, who are lucky enough to work the best of the best vineyards, produce wines that can make the Burgundy lover quiver and stutter with joy.
But considering a price differential of $500 or more per bottle, a stash of outer-borough Burgundies is looking better and better each minute.
The wines from these lesser-known areas of Burgundy can be a true treasure hunt, but often you can get stunning bargains and some terrific older vintages at old-fashioned prices. Some producers to seek out for their Maranges are Domaine Chevrot and Camille Giroud. In Auxey-Duresses buy Domaine Marechal (which also makes a delicious Fixin, the town just south of Marsannay). Michel Prunier (especially his Vielles Vignes and Clos du Val) and the divine Lalou Bize Leroy's D'Auvenay are also golden in Auxey. From Saint Romain look for Henri and Gilles Buisson.
2005 Gilles Lafouge Auxey-Duresses Les Boutonniers ($34) Lafouge makes beautiful wines, but his whites might be the most superb. This one has a very happy aroma, with just a hint of pineapple and a lick of lemon. Fantastic for Chablis lovers.
2005 Domaine Bart Marsannay Champs Salomon ($21) Bart believes in this plot of land perfectly situated on the slope. He hopes it will be Marsannay's first premier cru. This is the most fruit forward of his wines. A fierce blast of cherry hits the palate. Then it backs off, calms down and then sinks into firm texture. Expect a never-ending melange of berries and rose petal stitched together with veins of iron. Bart's wines age up beautifully and this one should be a perfect example.
2005 Domaine Bart Marsannay Les Longeroies ($21) Martin Bart makes several vineyard-designated wines and this one struts fragrant cherry strawberry and threads of ink. The wine is filled with texture and substance. Right now it shows a lot of flash but there is plenty of raw material to evolve.
2005 Domaine Bart Marsannay Les Finottes ($21) From sandy, gravelly soils, this is profound Pinot. At first it grabs with flash and berry then the fruit settles down into smells of the Mendocino woodlands. Beautifully structured.
2004 Bruno Clair Marsannay Les Grasses Tete ($30) Bruno Clair is the man who put Marsannay on the map. This wine has definite aromas of cannabis and fall earthiness. It has a long race of a finish ending in a jumble of slate-like minerality, with a hit of cherry.
2005 Gilles Lafouge Auxey-Duresses La Chapelle ($36) A wine with all sorts of curves and angles, filled with kirsch-like fruit, firm tannins that will loosen up with some age and laced with woodsy smells of a warm country day.
Alice Feiring is a wine journalist and blogger. Harcourt will publish her book, "The Battle for Wine & Love," in spring 2008. E-mail her at email@example.com.