Value in Burgundy? I’m kidding,right? Not at all. There is such a thing as value in Burgundy. You just have to know where to look. That’s where I come in. Here are my three favorite Burgundy value sources.
A literal step sideways – in this case up and to the west of the Côte d’Or – is the idea of the “Hautes Côtes” appellations. While the north-to-south-running, east-facing Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune are the two ridges that make up the Côte d’Or, there are two more north-to-south-running, east-facing ridges behind them: the “Hautes Côtes de Nuits” and the “Hautes Côtes de Beaune”. There are no “Appellation Controlee” named villages from within these appellations so all the wines are sold either as Hautes Côtes de Nuits-Villages” or “Hautes Côtes de Beaune-Villages” or simply as “Bourgogne”. The Hautes Côtes vineyards that were producing in the 1800s were largely abandoned in the first half of the 20th century. Many of the famous names of the Côte d’Or own land in the Hautes Côtes and some are making excellent wines from very old vines, some of which have been reclaimed or revitalized from abandoned vineyards. Some of the Hautes Côtes wines can be thin and tart. The best, especially in warm years, can be excellent. Hautes Côtes de Nuits-Villages is both better and a bit better known. Look for fine Hautes Côtes wines from Michel Gros, Anne Gros, Lechenaut, and Bertand Ambroise and lots of other fine domaines.
Better Bourgogne Rouge
Then there is Bourgogne. It seems pretty simple; Bourgogne Rouge is the least common denominator of all the red wines of Burgundy, right? Well, yes and no. There is Bourgogne Rouge and then there is “Better Bourgogne Rouge”. If you look at the shelf, you see Bourgogne Rouge priced from just under $10.00 per bottle to over $40.00. What is the difference? The $10.00 stuff, while it can be pretty good, is mostly from vineyards outside the Côte d’Or and in fact can be from just about anywhere in greater Burgundy (it doesn’t even have to be Pinot Noir as Cru Beaujolais – which is made from Gamay – declassifies to Bourgogne Rouge). A lot of the Pinot Noir labeled Bourgogne Rouge comes from south of the Côte d’Or in the Côte Chalonnaise or from the north in the area between Dijon and Chablis. At the other end of the scale is the Better Bourgogne Rouge that makes you think you might be drinking Vosne Romanee or Chambolle Musigny or … This is Bourgogne Rouge from a domaine that has a hectare or few of vineyards in an area outside the village appellation. Maybe it is on the wrong side of the highway or the back-side of the ridge, but maybe the clones are well selected and the yields low and the vines old. In any case, these Better Bourgogne Rouge vineyards are part of a particular estate, even though they are not entitled to the same appellations as the rest of their domaines’ wines.
Some of these “off-the-slope” Bourgogne vineyards have a bit of Gamay still planted and so yield a wine made from two grapes – a blend of Pinot Noir with some Gamay called Bourgogne Passe tout Grains. While the law requires that Passe tout Grains must be at least 1/3 Pinot Noir, most of the better Côte d’Or producers use in excess of 70% Pinot noir.
Typically, these domaine-bottled Bourgogne wines are made with the same skill and resources as the best of the domaine’s wines. They are often at least fine and can be quite excellent. Look for domaine-bottled Bourgogne Rouge from Pierre Labet, Gibourg Mugneret, Michel Gros, Liger-Belair, Faiveley, Arnoux Lachaux, and Groffier. For higher-end negoçiant Bourgogne Rouge, look for Vincent Girardin and , for one with some age on it, Leroy.
Just as there is Bourgogne Rouge and Better Bourgogne Rouge, there also is Village Burgundy and “Village Villages (vee-lahj villages) Burgundy”. Which is to say that some villages are best know for their fancy premier cru and grand cru vineyards while others are best known as Village Villages – fine sources for value-priced, easy drinking Burgundy. These “village villages” fall into three main physical groups: one located at either end of the Côte d’Or and one sort of in the lower middle third of the Côte d’Or. At the north end of the Cote de Nuits are the villages of Marsannay and Fixin (fee-sahn). At the south end of the Cote de Beaune are Santenay and Maranges. Sort of in the middle wrapped around Aloxe Corton are Ladoix, Chorey les Beaune and Savigny les Beaune. One more of note is Monthelie which is tucked into a notch above the border between Meursault and Volnay. Although all these lesser known villages except Marsannay and Chorey have premier cru vineyards (some better than others) and little Ladoix actually has 28.45 hectares (70 acres) of grand cru on the hill of Corton (divided between Corton red and white and Corton-Charlemagne), all are most closely associated with good village level wines priced between $20 and $40 or so per bottle.
These “Village Villages” wines, along with the “Hautes Côtes” wines and “Better Bourgogne Rouge” are what I call “Professor Pinot” as they have that right combination of quality and price to appeal to college professors who often have the experience and knowledge of fine wine without the budget to indulge in the most sought after wines. These sorts are often the smart buyer who is looking for flavor and cares little about the flash of a fancy appellation. Many, in fact, take pride in finding a delicious over performer from an unglamorous or at least lesser-known area that has been overlooked or under-discovered by the points-driven wine trophy hunters – and that is the whole point of Pinot alternatives.