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Christopher S. Miller

Understanding Burgundy is difficult thanks mainly to that Napoleon dude. Due to inheritance laws he initiated, Burgundy vineyards, unlike those of Bordeaux, have been carved up since Marie Antoinette’s days. As a result a great vineyard, such as Clos de Vougeot, is owned by some producers that are meticulous and others that are less so. The resulting wines, although all from a Grand Cru vineyard, are defined by the efforts of the specific producers, both in the vineyard and in the cellars.

But the Byzantine vineyard system aside, how can a region based on (generally) only two grapes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, be so confusing? The wines can be amazing but equally disappointing. Anyone who loves Burgundy has stories to tell, one of which is often about the singular wine that ignited the love affair with both the Pinot Noir grape and the Burgundy region. I believe that first “wow” wine is not chosen by you. Rather, it is the wine that chooses you. My first love is a perfect example.

It was a 1979 Corton from Domaine Bonneau du Martray. That’s a mouthful and, for those readers who are Burgundy-literate, an interesting selection as there are a couple of problems with that particular wine. First, the vintage is not really spectacular. Second, Bonneau du Martray, while an excellent Chardonnay producer, is not really renowned for reds, now or then.

But that is Burgundy for you, full of surprises. If you’re lucky and do your homework you’ll taste good ones like Nicolas Potel’s. If not you could pay hundreds of dollars for the privilege of being very underwhelmed.

I recently tasted through a group of wines with winemaker Eric Fry of Lenz Winery in Peconic. Although Eric, who makes Old World-style Merlots and Cabernets, now devotes the vineyard’s Pinot crop to sparkling wine, we discussed the grape for a moment in terms of red wine. I don’t remember his exact quote, but it went something like this… “I hate Pinot Noir. I mean, if I had to choose one wine to take with me to an island, it would be a Pinot Noir, but it’s just so… well, it’s the holy grail grape. Everyone, I mean everyone, tries to make great red wine with it. You’re always searching for that elusive quality that made you love the grape in the first place.” I can only guess at the thousands of dollars spent on Burgundy each year for a few “holy grail” wines. A lot of pain, not to mention cash, for a bit of glory.

Then something extraordinary happens. Along comes a vintage like 2005. It’s odd because usually when there is a great vintage in Bordeaux, as 2005 seems to be, Burgundy is either fair or worse. But every decade or so both regions have a stunning vintage, and the Burgundy 2005 vintage has created a ton of excitement.

I have been able to taste many of these wines, and the biggest problem with the vintage is supply and demand, which obviously results in high prices. Throw our weak dollar on top of that mix and, well, yikes! I am not exactly sure how many of my clients, friends or associates will be able to get such wines as Meo-Camuzet Vosne-Romanée Premier Cru or Echézeaux, but I hope I am around when they open them up (hint hint).

The Vosne may retail for about $155 a bottle on release, the Echézeaux $270, and the wine is near impossible to get. When I was a sommelier in the late 1990s my mantra was, “have Burgundy, it’s really a good value.” A bit tough to say that today. So I need to carefully wade through these really amazing Pinot Noirs to find those that I think offer some kind of value for the big dollars required. For example, my favorite red so far – Bouchard Pére & Fils Chambertin Clos de Beze, for a paltry $275, or my favorite white of the vintage, Bouchard’s Le Montrachet at a release price of $550. Personally, I’ll stick to the reds in 2005. The whites aren’t on the same level, yet the prices are just as high. The reds, on the other hand, are going to be long lived, even though they are showing incredible fruit and complexity now. 2005 is a vintage that is easy for Pinot Noir lovers the world over to understand, something that is far from inherent in all red Burgundy.

As for the 2002 and 2003 vintages, both were excellent for red Burgundy even though they have much different styles. But I have noticed that both vintages are more difficult for New World Pinot Noir drinkers to appreciate. There’s tighter, more hidden fruit, more earthy qualities and the occasional barnyard notes in the 2002’s, all trademarks of great Burgundy. And be careful with the 2003 vintage. It was so hot that many winemakers weren’t clear how to handle the fruit, in the vineyard or the winery. Some hit homers, others fouled out. I feel Louis Jadot caught 2003 just right and the Premier Crus and Grand Crus will age for a very long time, 30 years or more.

Look for my recommendations (and where to buy them) for the soon-to-be-released 2005 red Burgundies in the May issue of Dan’s Wine Guide.