Will the real Burgundy please stand up?

by Chuck Hayward

Will the real Burgundy please stand up?

Post by Chuck Hayward | March 29, 2011

Before team JJB descends on Bordeaux for En Primeurs 2010, a few of us are laying-over in Burgundy to have a look at the acclaimed 2009 vintage. Coincidentally, recent articles by Eric Asimov (New York Times) and Charlie Olken (Connoisseurs' Guide), as well as a seminar at the World of Pinot conference have placed a unique frame around the pinots we'll be tasting during our stay.

Street signs, Burgundy
Which way, which way?!

At issue? High alcohols, particularly in domestic pinot. Without rehashing the content of these articles (and without taking sides), it is safe to say that the debate remains as active and contentious as ever. Certainly the matter is certainly far from settled.

In another article, and one particularly germane to our trip, The Wine Advocate's Neal Martin examines the differences between the 2008 and the 2009 Burgundy vintages. While he doesn't seem to have a dog in the aforementioned fight, his preference is clearly for the 08's, and he alludes to the debate between the more classical, restrained styles of that year vs the riper, more forward examples produced in 09.

He is not alone in his assessment. Many industry insiders have proposed that the riper 2009's are not "typical" of Burgundy, ergo not as good as the more subtle and, as Martin calls them, "transparent" 08's. It's no great mystery that the cooler climate of many European wine regions results in vintage variation and some years are going to produce riper Burgundies than others. What is fascinating here is that what Mother Nature has given us has somehow become a topic of concern, where the "authenticity" of an entire vintage is put on trial. 

All in a days work
All in a days work...don't cry for us too much.

Although the timbre is different, the "real Burgundy" argument is at heart the same as the "high alcohol" issue in California pinot. Proponents on each side (classicists vs. modernists) both have clear and precise ideas about what pinot noir should be. Yet somehow, what was once friendly intellectual discourse has turned into a school-yard brawl, with invective for the opposition spilling over onto bulletin boards and the press.

The middle ground seems oddly absent from the debate. Where is the discussion of balanced wines that appeal to the so-called "silent majority", the enthusiasts that comprise the bulk of the wine drinking public? Perhaps consumers aren't qualified to judge what is "authentic" for themselves. An interesting idea, considering that the industry itself serves at their leisure. Heck, you're just looking for a wine that tastes good, right? As the French say, quelle idée!

Wine professionals might better serve their public by leaving the invective outside and providing them with more information. Our goal here in Burgundy, therefore, is to focus less on what a wine should be than on what a wine is. It's not that we don't have opinions and preferences, but you aren't buying the wines that would make us happy, you're buying them for yourselves. And certainly, you deserve to drink what you like. Stay tuned.