The other day I was invited to a friend’s birthday party where the wine was given star billing. It was a Santenay 2012 and we were told it was “amazing”. I was bitterly disappointed: it was green and desperately thin, like over-diluted Ribena without the vitamin C. And probably cost a fortune. It put me off Burgundy for some weeks. Then another friend gave me a bottle of his birthday wine. This time it was an Echezeaux 1999 and it was one of the loveliest wines I’ve ever tasted: rich and dark, with fruits like blackcurrant mingling with cloves and liquorice (he’s a director of Berry Bros, so he should know a good drop).
These two wines sum up for me the maddening enigma that is Burgundy. At one end of the scale it’s safe to say this is a region that has been living off its reputation for years, knocking out distinctly vin ordinaire at prix extraordinaire. At the other it produces the world’s finest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, wines of such power and finesse that they blow you away and are sadly outside the budget of most mortals.
It takes a lifetime to navigate your way between the two extremes. No wine region on earth is so complex, with so many producers, such tiny appellations and a geology so diverse that the wines vary not by hillside or village but from field to field; a Grand Cru often rubs shoulders with something very ordinary.
If that weren’t enough, the wines also vary hugely between vintages. Burgundy’s often soggy climate leaves the vines prone to late frosts, violent hail and early autumn wash outs.
So how do you find your way through this vinous minefield without requiring a second mortgage? I admit I’m still, after 20 years, a novice, but I have learnt a few rules.
• Buy average wines from good vintages rather than special ones from poor years. The good news is that 2011, 2012 and 2013 were pretty good for red Burgundy, although I’d give 2013 a miss for the whites.
• Ferret out less well known wines. Yes, they still exist. One of my favourites is Auxey Duresses, tucked up an unfashionable side valley in the Côte d’Or. The Auxey Duresses Premier Cru from Comte Armand is a regular fixture in my cellar. Right now Berry Bros is selling cases of the 2013 for £244 in bond so that’s top quality Burgundy for little more than £20 a bottle before tax.
• Look south towards the Cote Chalonnais. This region of Burgundy is the country cousin of its northern neighbours, the Côte d’Or and Cote de Nuits. While it doesn’t have the same grandeur you can find very drinkable wines indeed. My tip is the Montagny Premier Cru 2011 from the Vignerons de Buxy, a snip at just £9.74 from Majestic. While this doesn’t have the same buttery quality as a Puligny Montrachet and is more acidic, it comes from the same family and is a bargain nonetheless.
• If all else fails, just hope for a few presents. That 1999 Echezeaux was awesome; perhaps I’ll hang out a stocking this Christmas, just in case.