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Burgundy Bites Back

October 04, 2000|CHARLES E. OLKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column that turned out to be rather controversial. I had the temerity to say some kind and optimistic things about California Pinot Noirs, and apparently I offended the fans of Burgundy. I sure got an earful in the wine forum I moderate on America Online.

A serious Burgundy cultist who uses the cyber-name BurgHound quoted a sentence from that article: "Even the best of them [red Burgundies], with few exceptions, fail to measure up to the West Coast's leading Pinots in body and intensity." Then he commented: "I find the above to be an incredible statement. I do not doubt that you believe it, because you wrote it, but I can only imagine what Burgundies you've been tasting to have come to this conclusion."

A wine industry insider with ties to California and Europe posted:

"Well, I am in both camps, with both feet. There is no question that California Pinots (and other wines) frequently have the kind of in-your-face intensity that comes from ripe fruit. My experience with French wine encourages me to look for wines with elegance and finesse, as well as fruit."

A New York-based English wine writer commented:

"I am with Charlie here, the wines from California are certainly fuller and more intense. But I tend to drink California Pinots very sparingly, as I find that jammy over-the-top quality they exhibit rather misses the point of what Pinot Noir should be in the first place--an elegant complex wine that doesn't overwhelm the palate."

From the Napa Valley came this comment: "Pinot should be whatever it is depending on the place. . . . Now that California (and Oregon) are getting handles on areas, we're seeing more expression of growing regions. If an area's best efforts are a particular style, so be it. It's up to each taster to decide what's 'over the top' for them."

A very proper Bostonian, who has posted about red Burgundy at great length, set us all straight:

"The bottom line is that the proof is in the pudding. I have put the Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyard 1985 'Matteson Vineyard' four or five times into double-blind tastings of the top 1985 red Burgundies, and not one of the 13 or 14 very experienced tasters picked it out as a ringer. I have done the same with the 1986 Williams and Selyem 'Rochioli West Block.' I knew there was a ringer, and I couldn't pick it out, and I have tasted a lot of red Burgundy."

In fact, I remembered a posting by BurgHound himself a few years back, talking about being fooled by the 1994 Dehlinger "Octagon Vineyard" in a double-blind tasting.

BurgHound more or less closed the discussion by 'fessing up: "You are quite right. I did think that '94 Octagon was a young Echezeaux, albeit one in that pumped-up, highly macerated, lots-of-new-French-oak style. Nonetheless, I guessed a '94 Echezeaux, and I still think it was a good guess, at least in the context of the characteristics of the wine with its stylish black fruit, good finesse and solid breed. Wrong, but still a good guess, if that makes any sense.

"Anyway, both domestic Pinots and Burgundies have much to offer, and whoever commented that it would be a shame if one region tried to be the other is exactly right. At the top levels of both regions they resemble one another but are hardly duplicates, which is to the good. In these days of the celebration of uniformity and the loss of individuality, differences such as exist between Californian and Burgundian Pinots are to be applauded, not denied or apologized for."

I could not have said it better myself. Here, then, are tasting notes on a very solid group of French red Burgundies. They tend to be a little pricey, but they are nowhere near the top of the red Burgundy price range. (Rather, they're at the top of the California Pinot Noir price range.)

I find they prove both sides of the argument. The best of them are full of the kind of finesse and refinement that is hard (but not impossible) to achieve in California, but few of them are as full in body and as deep in character as some of California's best.

I make no claims that one product is better than the other. That conclusion, dear reader, is for you and you alone.

1996

My Burgundy-loving pals at America Online have been debating the merits of the 1996 vintage because the wines have tended to be tight, a bit tannic and somewhat slow to open. Their "innards" seem to be the classic stuff of balance and richness, but their exteriors are a bit gruff for some.

* 1996 Geantet-Pansiot Gevrey-Chambertin "Les Jeunes Rois," $35. Here is a complex, somewhat fleshy wine that manages to belie its vintage by teaming aromas of nuts, earth and dried flowers with moderately ripe flavors that firm up but avoid any sense of rigidity in the finish.

** 1996 Domaine Henri Gouges Nuits-St. Georges "Les Vaucrains," $45. This wonderfully concentrated wine combines aromas of cocoa, dusty rose petals and ripe cherries, and though it does run into some stiffening acidity in mid-palate, it reprises those rich and inviting elements in its flavors.

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