Dan Berger

Finding the Greatness

Burgundy lovers say red Burgundy is the unchallenged king of red wine. Many Americans would add California and Oregon, along with areas of New Zealand and Tasmania, to that list.

The problem for Pinot Noir lovers is that as new regions come on line making excellent Pinot Noirs and new consumers develop who have never tasted the great Burgundy as it once was made, the shorthand of wine (writing in lyrical prose about greatness) reduces the image of what great Burgundy is to a few generalized words. And here we reach an impasse.

That’s because the definition of a wine in words cannot ever take the place of a sniff and a sip, and to capsule the expected greatness in a wine with words that include such horridly inexact terms as “weight” or “concentration” is to make a mockery of the fact that at its best Pinot rarely is dark, thick red wine. Great Pinot Noir, in my mind, is about aroma and flavor, which usually is found in lighter-colored wines.

To make a wine that’s dark from the Pinot Noir grape is to defy Mother Nature’s desire. And here we come to a dilemma: the weightier a wine, the more likely it is that any flaws will be masked in the weight, not initially noticeable, but potentially ruinous over time.

In fact, much of this “weight = flavor” argument is so much hogwash that I can’t believe so many people still buy it. I have wines in my cellar that are well past prime, though they’re not all that old. When they were young, they had the color and weight I thought would age well. I learned a painful lesson.

Some of the best Pinot Noir-based wines I have that have indeed aged well are lighter in color. The lesson in this that wines from the best sites generally do best. And wines made to taste great when young often are seen later to be frauds. (Key point: Oak is not fruit and never will be.)

So is Burgundy, the real stuff, our only answer here?

No, because even Burgundy ain’t what it used to be. This is the key message of Anthony Hanson, a Master of Wine, in his excellent work “Burgundy,” published in 1982 and revised in 1994 and which is still relevant today.

In the first few pages, Hanson spells out some of the key reasons why Burgundy has been forced to retrench in terms of quality. A huge part of why is related to its success: demand for more and more Burgundy sparked the planting of areas that decades ago were known to be marginal in terms of great quality.

In particular, Hanson looked at the districts of the Yonne, the Cote d’Or, and Saone-et-Loire. He noted that in those three regions “Pinot Noir production had more than doubled in size in 30 years,” from the late 1950s to the late 1980s, following the discovery of Burgundy in the early 1980s by vast numbers of Americans.

He adds that in the Cote d’Or, which arguably makes the best reds in Burgundy, Pinot Noir plantings had risen by 73%! The clear implication is that later-planted sites were not likely to make wine as great as those vineyards planted before 1958. And imagine what Burgundy looks like in the last 20 years since the 1994 revision of his book! Since then, many Asian communities have discovered Burgundy.

One additional drawback for all wines, not only Burgundy: There is a nasty myth that the more you pay for wine the more you get. Some properties have an in-the-industry reputation of delivering a lot less than the price indicates. Hanson notes this, too: “Many people (not just Americans) assume that if you pay top dollar, you will get top quality. With Burgundy, this is rarely valid.”

Yet the myth is fostered: the highest-scoring wines rise faster and higher in price, so a wine getting a 95 will rise faster and higher than one consistently getting 90. And the house that always gets a 95 stays there because reviewers (who almost never judge double-blind) have to protect their own reputations by manufacturing equivalent scores to verify the scores they gave in the past. Truly self-fulfilling prophecy.

As a result, we have to look elsewhere from the scores for recommendations of the best wines. Scores are generally generated by lone tasters looking at labels and price-tags and getting to know who made the wine. The conclusion is based not only on the basis of what’s in the glass but what’s in the head.

Blind tastings provide a better sounding board. A taster may well have Burgundy on the brain when judging Pinot Noirs from the New World. But the reality is that the decision on issuing a recommendation is best made without regard to who made the wine.

When buying Pinot Noir, it’s best to focus on estate-bottled wines; they typically do better than non-estate wines for reasons hard to explain in this short a space. Here Hanson had a suggestion worth noting. He hints that reviews of this intransigent grape are rarely an efficient way for folks to determine what’s best for them.

“One cannot grasp Burgundy without drawing corks and talking. That is the only way,” said Hanson. He clearly believes, as I do, that score-perpetuation is never to be considered. He points out, for instance, that when trying to impress someone with a wine, often that’s done with a recognizable label and a familiar smell, such as Bordeaux.

He says Burgundy and high-caliber Pinot Noir “is for friends, I think, not for impressing people.” He says that “deep-colored Cabernet Sauvignons and chateaux names do that.”

Keep that in mind when buying. And observe the 3-4 year time frame from the vintage.

-- Dan Berger is a nationally renowned wine writer who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif. He publishes a weekly commentary Dan Berger’s Vintage Experiences (VintageExperiences.com).

This story was originally published September 1, 2014 12:00 AM.

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