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Still Much Hype Over the Quality of Burgundies


Any wine lover who has tasted a sip of a great red or white Burgundy swoons at the thought of repeating the act.

There is little like it--the sublime spice and richness of the Chardonnay, the intense decadence of clove-scented cherries in the Pinot Noir. This is the essence of great Burgundy and it's what makes these wines so desirable and so elusive.

And yet it is with great sadness that I report my own disenchantment with Burgundy in the last decade. I know it can be great wine. I know it can offer some of the greatest and most expansive flavors and tastes the human body can grasp. And yet more and more I come away from tastings of young Burgundies with a growing feeling that there is a tad of prestidigitation going on here.

No, it is not fraud. No one is intentionally putting anything over on us. It's just that after all the hype I have heard for some of the latest vintages of French Burgundy, I have been expecting nirvana-like exploitation of my palate. And what I have seen, in recent tastings, is some merely exceptionally good wine.

I'm not angry about this, just wistfully sad that what I anticipate from Burgundy is rarely what I get. This is not true of Bordeaux. I had heard of the greatness of the 1986 Bordeaux and I tasted anticipating greatness. By and large, I got it.

It reminded me of my feeling about the pre-Super Bowl hype, people talking about the greatness of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. I knew there was a chance both would flop in the Big Game, just as I knew the hype for the '86 Bordeaux might be overstating the case. But right on schedule, the '49ers and the '86 Bordeaux both delivered.

Burgundy? Well, that's another story. I have been mildly disappointed with what I have seen in the last few years. The wines are good to excellent, no question about it, but a lot of them lack a certain je ne sais quoi and leave me asking "Is that all there is?"

Then comes the second half of my disappointment, which is best left for the tag line to the following story:

Jean-Francois Bouchard came to town the other day to show off some of the acclaimed 1989 Burgundies.

Among the four white wines he poured was one I found wonderful--1989 Bouchard Chevalier-Montrachet, which has a magnificent textured aroma of earth/chalk, spice nuances and oak tones. It is rich and mouth-filling; and though it didn't remind me as much of a Chevalier-Montrachet as a Meursault with a trace of Chablis, it is appealing and rewarding.

I didn't know the price of the wine while evaluating it; I guessed it would be expensive, perhaps $50 to $75 a bottle.

The press kit said suggested retail is $91. A bottle.

What's going on here, of course, is high worldwide demand for a product that is always in short supply. Not every Burgundy is this high in price, of course, but demand for all Burgundy is so high that virtually everything is priced higher than it ought to be based on quality alone, and too expensive for me to recommend for all but defrocked Wall Street brokers.

Now, I may be accused of having the dreaded California Palate, but a lot of what I tasted in the last few weeks of French Burgundy reminded me of the better California Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, which sell for a fraction of the price. Examples abound.

--A lovely Beaune I had at a tasting recently that retails for $30 a bottle reminded me of the Pinot Noir from Saintsbury in the Napa Valley--reminding me also of Saintsbury's wonderful slogan "Beaune in the U.S.A."

--The '89 Chevalier-Montrachet mentioned above was superb, but I asked myself if it was that much better than the wines of Kistler or Chalone or Hanzell or Kalin or Sanford or Sterling or Ferrari-Carano or Babcock or Flora Springs--wines that run less than a third of the price of the Bouchard wine.

Red Burgundy causes a weakening of connoisseurs' knees, and the debate these days is not high pricing but merely whether 1988 or 1989 is a greater vintage. (It's fortunate for the French that they have this "problem" to deal with rather than the real question of high price.)

Dale Sharp, wine buyer for Red Carpet Wine & Spirits in Glendale, thinks the debate is a chance for buyers to find the excellent and "well priced" 1987s, which he said are "very good and may get lost in the rush to get the '88s and '89s." Yet that phrase "well-priced" is only relative; the wines are still mighty dear.

Sharp said the French may be trying to recoup for a number of mediocre vintages. He said 1985 was a great year in Burgundy, but, "You have to go all the way back to '78 before you get to a substantial vintage," said Sharp, so the French may be trying to recoup a bit after lower prices in the years 1979 through 1984.

He noted that after the high prices for the '85s, prices for the hard 1986s dropped only 10%. "That means that the '86s were too high," he said.

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