The beautiful frustration that is Burgundy

The Caveman Speaks
By Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

I am in Burgundy as I write this column. While I am gorging myself on some exceptional chardonnay, I’m here for the pinot noir. It is a bit of the holy grail. While most winemakers I talk with as I travel the globe might reference another place when talking about their wines, most seem happy to pursue an expression of where the grapes are grown. However mention to the vast majority of those winemakers who make pinot noir that their wine is “Burgundian” in style, and you will see even the most serious crack a smile.

What I like to call  “proper pinot” are wines that show a combination of fruit, acidity, minerality and tannin that are at once exceptionally delicate, and profoundly deep and lengthy. And I have tasted a number of very good pinot noirs from around the world, but few, if any, reach the heights of the best in Burgundy.

Why is that? Pinot noir requires a cool climate and a slow ripening period, which maximizes the aromatics and allows the grape to keep its acidity while at the same time developing ripe flavours and phenolics: tannins and colour. If the weather is just a bit too hot, the grapes can ripen too fast and you are left with grape juice. But too cool and the grapes don’t ripen fully and the resulting wines can be green and acidic. This is why the very best pinot noirs come from a relatively thin latitudinal band on the extremes of where grapes can be grown in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

While the mix of limestone and clay in the soils have something to do with it, Burgundy is home to very old vines. Add to that the accumulated wisdom of close to a thousand years of growing the grape, and you can understand why this place has it dialed.

But it is not without its hazards. Between 2011 and 2014, vignerons have had to deal with frost and/or hail every year. In some appellations, over 90% of the crop has been lost. Maybe that is why they are so humble. They are used to getting their butts kicked by Mother Nature.

There is something different about pinot noir people, those who collect and drink these wines. And for those of you who aren’t one of us, it might be a bit difficult to understand. But if they can be characterized by one word, I will borrow the characterization uttered by a wine writer friend of mine, Stuart Tobe: masochists.

Maxime at Domaine Georges Noellat makes a killer Echezeaux

Maxime at Domaine Georges Noellat makes
a killer Echezeaux

What’s it like to be a devoted pinot drinker? For me, it is more often than not a case of unrequited love. It might seem strange to spend inordinate amounts of cash on wines where you always expect to be disappointed in one way or another. Despite having drunk hundreds of pinots from around the world, I have to say that I have yet to have 100% satisfaction from any of these bottles. It’s not unlike having kids. Despite that they drive you absolutely nuts most of the time, nothing they can do will really stop you from loving them. And one, albeit brief, moment of joy is ample payback for all the annoyance and occasional disappointment.

Believe me, I have been close. Drinking pinot noir is about nuance, requiring patience and attention. When the wines are at their peak, and the vast majority of the best require at least a few years to reach that point, they are as fun to smell as to drink. The bouquet can be intoxicating, and if I tend to associate this with some sort of sexual act, it is because it can be a sensual experience.

I remember drinking one Vosne Romanée that was sooo close. I compared drinking it to having the lips of my truest love so close that I could feel her breath, yet we remained separated by the thinnest of veils. The closer we got to the end of the bottle, the more sensual the experience became. It smelt of a liquified rose, perfumed, delicate. My nose was so close to the wine in my glass, I almost inhaled it. We took over an hour to drink the bottle, and as I got to my last sip, I swirled and swirled my wine. Please, I thought, just give me one perfect sip. But no, the wine coated my mouth like satin, so complex, so rich, and then just as I was getting that shiver, it cut short.

I wrote in my tasting note: “You stick your nose in the glass, it draws you closer but there is a thin veil of tannin and acid that keeps pushing you away. It is why we drink Burgundy. To on one hand be given a glimpse of perfection, only to be denied by the other.” It’s a beautiful frustration and if that experience did anything, it was to add fuel to the fire: to buy, cellar and drink even more of these wines.

So why do we do it? Marq deVilliers, in his book about pinot noir, The Heartbreak Grape, nailed it for me. “They called it (pinot noir) the heartbreak grape because it was so stubborn, so particular, so elusive, so damn difficult to get right. And also because when it was at its best it made the most sublime wine of all. The heartbreak grape? You cannot break a heart without having captured it first.”

Burgundy is expensive. Over the past week I have tasted so many great wines, from such fabled Grand Crus like Musigny, Richebourg. But these wines are unaffordable and even if you could pay for them, they are incredibly hard to find. So I have found some good, relatively inexpensive example for you to try.

There are some excellent generic Burgundies on the market. If you want a more classic style, with bright acidity and crunchy fruit, try the 2013 Ursuline from Jean-Claude Boisset, or the 2012 Le Chapitre from Rene Bouvier.

Jean Claude Boisset Bourgogne Les Ursulines 2013 Domaine René Bouvier Bourgogne Pinot Noir Le Chapitre 2012 Domaine Des Perdrix Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2012

If you want a richer style, with darker fruits and a more Cote de Nuits style, the 2012 Bourgogne from Domaine des Perdrix is very good.

One of my favourite inexpensive Burgundies is from the Mercurey appellation. The 2012 Chateau de Chamirey is a beautiful wine that shows impeccable balance between power and finesse. In Ontario you pick up the 2012 Domaine Faiveley also from Mercurey.

Château De Chamirey Mercurey 2012 Domaine Faiveley Mercurey 2012Nicolas Potel Santenay Vieilles Vignes 2011 Maurice Ecard Savigny Les Beaune 1er Cru Les Narbantons 2009

Part of what I love about pinot noir is the aromatics. If you want a nose full of beautifully ripe fruit try the 2011 Vieilles Vignes Santenay from Nicolas Potel. If you are in BC, you can find the lovely 2009 Savigny Les Beaune 1er Cru Les Narbantons from Domaine Maurice Ecard.

For more selections. Set your “Find Wine” filter to “Pinot Noir” from “Burgundy” and let us help you find the best examples at stores near you.


“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial

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Louis M. Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

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