Jasper Morris MW: Why I love Burgundy
Author: Jasper Morris MW
Jasper Morris MW, one of Burgundy’s leading critics and fine wine voices, explains the enduring allure of this remarkable region.
My 40-year love affair with Burgundy shows no signs of dwindling. As I – and some of the wines in my cellar – grow older, I’m mindful that age, in wine at least, can be a good thing.
When I first came to Burgundy, the leading producers were dangerously complacent, leaning on the past and the elements of pageantry that went with Burgundy’s glorious history rooted in the medieval duchy. For most people, Burgundy meant either a colour (in fact, much too deep a red to be true to Pinot Noir) or a reference to Good Hearty Burgundy – a wholly inaccurate image.
Then came the renaissance of the late 1980s through the 1990s. This saw the establishment of many more domaines bottling their own wine. There was also significant refinement in production techniques, which came about through a mixture of professional training and far better social interaction. At last, producers started to visit their neighbours’ cellars to taste each other’s wines. Welcome to the Golden Age of Burgundy.
Burgundy: Wonderfully, wickedly complicated
Two main grapes, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; two main soil types, clay and limestone; two main groups of producers, négociants and domaines: Burgundy is so simple, isn’t it? Sadly not. Burgundy is wonderfully, wickedly complicated.
Partly it is the interlinked network of families who keep marrying each other, Moreys and Colins and Coffinets and Gagnards in Chassagne-Montrachet, Rossignols in Volnay, Mugnerets and Noellats in the Côte de Nuits. It is hard to keep up with the Morey family where you may find wines labelled Albert, Bernard, Caroline, Jean-Marc, Marc, Michel, Pierre, Sylvain, Thomas, Vincent, and probably a few more I don’t know about. The Colin family could probably raise an XI to play against them (Michel, Marc, Bernard, Pierre-Yves, Damien, Joseph, Philippe, Bruno, Simon for starters).
Partly, too, it is the vinous landscape, with the patchwork mosaic of small plots, each farmed in its own individual style by the owner, such that you can easily tell where one plot ends and another starts through subtle differences in the height of the trellising or the vigour and colouring of the foliage.
The allure of Burgundy
But don’t let Burgundy’s complexity deter you – because, for me at least, it’s part of its charm: it is here, after all, that the nuance and subtleties are to be found.
The range, too, is wonderful. For those with disposable income to match what are undoubtedly high prices these days, there are some glorious Grands Crus to choose from, each of them offering a distinct flavour profile that makes that vineyard worth separating out and labelling on its own. These vineyards represent more than the quintessence of their appellations: they are each of them unique characterisations of a particular strand of Burgundy. To my mind, there’s no other region that can hit the pinnacle of brilliance so evenly in both colours.
But we cannot all afford the Grands Crus and the top Premiers Crus; I certainly cannot. Thankfully, Burgundy also offers a wealth of wines at more manageable prices – whether they be generic Bourgognes from famous producers, gems from the Mâconnais or the Hautes Côtes, or relatively under-the-radar appellations such as St-Romain and Marsannay. These are the wines I choose for my cellar.
What gives me the most pleasure is opening a bottle of wine at any level and, on tasting, realising that it could not have been made any better – that it has realised its full potential. That is what brings the satisfied Burgundy smile to my face.
There’s another element to Burgundy’s appeal which is less obvious: I cannot help but admire the downright, indefatigable resilience of its winemakers. With problems such as Flavescence Dorée, a new disease; the fact that one of the stalwart rootstocks, 161-49C has suddenly stopped working; the challenges of global warming and, of course Covid, many would have stumbled. But the sangfroid of the vignerons remains impressive.
I’m privileged to call Burgundy home for most of the year, but I’ve never lost sight of the fact it is a deeply rewarding place to visit. Those who know Bordeaux well and are used to the 20-minute drive between Margaux and St Julien, are amazed, on visiting Burgundy, to be able to stand on the hill alongside one of the famous villages and to be able to see the church spires of three or four more household names. I love to walk in the vines and from the top of the Beaune hillside, just above the Clos des Mouches vineyard, I can see to Pommard, Volnay, Monthelie and Meursault with a hint of Chassagne-Montrachet in the far distance.
It is the combination of the wine, the people and the place that makes Burgundy so magical. To me, Michel Lafarge, who left us after 70 vintages at his family domaine, was the embodiment of all that is most wonderful in Burgundy. One of the most emotionally charged moments that I will treasure, was dinner at Michel’s house to celebrate his 86th birthday in 2014. His son Frederic showed the next bottle in the line-up to his father before he served it: a beatific smile lit up Michel’s face: “That’s a wine that my grandfather made…” It was in fact the 1915 Volnay 1er Cru Clos de la Cave des Ducs.
I am sure that the 2019 will last as long.
Jasper Morris MW is the author of Inside Burgundy.