The Grape Beyond

From Burgundy to Tuscany, the basics on wines one might soon find in Austin

The Bret brothers, owners of Domaine de la Soufrandière
The Bret brothers, owners of Domaine de la Soufrandière (Photo by Wes Marshall)

Earlier this month, I had the chance to visit a number of French and Italian wineries, mostly hoping to find some new wineries to tell you about but also to try the new vintages before they hit the U.S. shelves. That way I could give you a heads-up. I know: tough work.

For the French part of the trip, we based ourselves in the town of Beaune, the epicenter of the Burgundy wine trade. People in Burgundy are both knowledgeable and opinionated about their food. Ask two people on the street who makes the best jambon persillé or the best fresh goat cheese, and you'll get four different but equally passionate responses. And wine is the most argued-about of all the foods.

Unfortunately for us, no wine area in the world is as inscrutable as Burgundy, mostly because of its labyrinthine classification. I'll try to make it at least basically understandable (also see Selections From Burgundy for my recommendations).

The first thing you have to know about Burgundy is that there are three main grapes grown there. If a Burgundy wine is white, nine times out of 10 it will be a Chardonnay. If it is red, unless it is a Beaujolais, it will be Pinot Noir. Why don't they just say Chardonnay or Pinot Noir? Those nutty French people take terroir (an all-encompassing word meaning dirt, weather, slope, and anything else that can define a single place) as religion. They think where the wine comes from and who makes it are more important than what grape they use.

The next thing to know is there are a number of huge wineries that purchase grapes or juice, then make the wine and market it. These are called négociants. All négociants try to buy the best grapes they can, and many vineyard owners will sell grapes to several négociants to keep the bidding fierce. But that's confusing because you might see several companies producing a wine with the same name.

Laurent Ponsot
Laurent Ponsot (Photo by Wes Marshall)

Here's how Burgundies are labeled:

Grand Cru is the designation for the top wines in Burgundy. We see only a handful of Grand Cru wines in Austin because of their rarity. They are punishingly expensive, frequently north of $300 a bottle and occasionally more than $1,000. These wines are always listed by the name of the place, like Clos de Vougeot, Montrachet, or Chambertin.

Premier Cru (look for "1er Cru" on the bottle) is the next-highest designation. There are more than 500 Premier Cru vineyards. No one living in Beaune can even name them all. Some of the Premier Cru wines can be priced as highly as the Grand Cru. But with a little skill and help, you can frequently find great bargains in this category.

Village wines can be made from any number of vineyards within a village's boundaries. This is where you find wines named after towns. Of course, if you've never traveled Burgundy on a bicycle, it's hard to tell a town from a vineyard. What's worse, years ago, several towns added the name of a Grand Cru vineyard to the name of the town. Puligny became Puligny-Montrachet, and Aloxe became Aloxe-Corton.

The lowest designation we see in the U.S. is simply called Bourgogne. These wines can be made from anywhere in Burgundy, and increasingly we are seeing them marketed here as Bourgogne Pinot Noir or Bourgogne Chardonnay. Bourgogne wines can also be named after a place. Like Macon-Villages. Which leads us to the last snag in labeling.

Burgundy comprises six areas: Beaujolais, Chablis, Mâconnais, Côte Chalonnaise, Côtes de Beaune, and Côtes de Nuits. Moreover, those last two are referred to collectively as the Côte d'Or.

Banfi Super Tuscan wines
Banfi Super Tuscan wines (Photo by Wes Marshall)

Finally, you should know that there is no apparent connection between price and quality in Burgundian wines. There are négociants – like Jadot and Drouhin – where you can trust most of what they make to be good value for the money. But once you get into the smaller wineries, all bets are off. The best strategy is to talk to a trusted wineshop person, then try some of the least expensive wines. When you find one you like, start moving up that maker's ladder.

As you can tell, getting to know Burgundies requires a good deal of traveling on the back roads of France, which we did. Chablis was our starting point, an area planted almost totally in Chardonnay. These wines, like all Burgundies, are food wines. There's plenty of acid to cleanse your palate when you have it with a meal but probably too much acid to sit around sipping it on a hot Texas afternoon. The people of Chablis set four classifications of their own. Petit Chablis is the least of the wines, followed by Chablis, Chablis 1er Cru, and Grand Cru at the top. Of all the Burgundians, they are probably the biggest proponents of terroir. Decades ago, some wine-born pathogen settled in their oak barrels, and the winemakers burned every barrel in the area and installed stainless-steel tanks. Today, almost all Chablis is made without oak, so when you taste a glass of Chablis, you are tasting nothing but grape, terroir, and the winemaker's art.

I know about terroir but was still surprised when I tasted 10 different Chablis, all from one maker, La Chablisienne. All had the wonderful wet slate aroma common to Chablis, but all were completely different. The wines ranged from overly acidic and thin at the Petit Chablis end to magnificent, well-structured richness at the Grand Cru level. Another winemaker, Clotilde Davenne, was my pick of the best winemaker in Chablis. Even her simplest wines, Bourgogne Blanc, had depth and opulence. She also has one of the few vineyards in Chablis that is allowed to grow Sauvignon Blanc, called Les Temps Perdue Saint-Bris. It's elegant and restrained with the aromas hitting you as an afterthought. We were smitten.

The Mâconnais area is around the town of Mâcon. This is where most of the least-expensive Bourgogne wines come from, but it's also where most of the affordable action is these days. It has long been the bastard stepchild of the better areas, but things are changing. The Bret brothers, owners of Domaine de la Soufrandière, had a bumper crop, qualitywise, in 2006. Their hand-tended, organic vineyards are producing fruit as good as any in Burgundy, and the brothers are young enough to make a difference in the Mâconnais for many years to come.

Knowledgeable French wine lovers have been scarfing up the wines of the Côte Chalonnaise district for years, because the prices are low compared to the Côte d'Or. The Château de Chamirey showed some incredible 2005 wines that haven't yet hit the U.S. market. The U.S. will only get 25 cases of their Mercurey 1er Cru "Les Ruelles," but it's worth trying to finagle a bottle any way possible. This is quintessential Pinot Noir. A bit easier to find, if more expensive, is the Château de Perdrix Nuit Saint George Premier Cru "Aux Perdrix."

Once we move to the Côte d'Or, the négociants take control of the marketplace. While there are dozens of good négociants, two I trust are Louis Jadot and Joseph Drouhin.

Luca Fedrigo
Luca Fedrigo (Photo by Wes Marshall)

We spent most of an evening with Jadot's winemaker Jacques Lardière as he took us through their barrel room, blithely tasting wine that will retail at anywhere from $9 to $900. I tasted 11 different wines that I would give my highest possible score, and luckily, two will be less than $25 when they hit stores over the next year. The 2006 Pernand Vergelesses Blanc will give you a good idea of what their $200 white Burgundies taste like, and it's under $20. And the 2006 Fixin similarly gives a strong hint of what the $400 Pinot Noirs taste like, and Lardière says it should come in around $25. At the end of the evening, Lardière wanted to show us how long his wines last, so he poured us a 1971 Pommard Rugiens and a 1961 Bonnes Mares. Both were still youthful, brightly colored wines with amazing complexity. These wines really do live a long time.

Drouhin wants to get young people interested in their brand by offering affordable wines. That way, as their taste and wallets mature, they'll be Drouhin fans and go for the higher priced wines. Their starter wine – the $20 2006 Veró Pinot Noir – is a perfect example of a simple Bourgogne level wine, but they have flexed their winemaking muscles to make something dazzling for the price. I'd pick it over a lot of $100-plus Burgundies.

Not all Côte d'Or wine is made by négociants. Winemaker Laurent Pon­sot operates the winery named for his family. He is a tall, thin man with a long gray ponytail, an ex-mountain climber who took a big fall so now gets his fun flying acrobatic planes. And making wine. He is another of the terroir-as-religion folks. "The wine must be a vector between the earth and your glass," he says, as we sip some of his 2006 Morey-St.-Denis Premier Cru Clos des Monts Luisants Vieilles Vignes Blanc, a rare wine made from the Aligote grape. "I am not a winemaker. I am a conductor." The French have a way of tossing these grand statements like we might say our address. My favorite Ponsot quote: "A bottle is too big for one, and a magnum is too small for two."

On to Italy

We rented a car and headed over the Alps to the town of Neive in Piemonte, the northwestern corner of Italy, to La Contea, one of our favorite restaurants in the world. I don't say this lightly. We've been around, and we've been back to La Contea often enough to know that not only is it dazzling, it is consistent. There, Tonino Verro has a small empire as a winemaker, shop owner, restaurateur, and innkeeper. His wife, Claudia, oversees the kitchen, while a crew of young, eager family and friends watches over the front of the house. It is cozy, with fewer than 20 tables, never snobby, and the food is simply glorious. We were there at the beginning of white-truffle season, and Tonino was going table to table, gently imploring the people to try Claudia's Tagliatelle With Tartufo Bianco. It was amazing. Later, Tonino walked through the dining room carrying a box with what looked like a cat in it. When he got to our table, it turned out to be a huge rabbit, freshly shot by a local hunter and ready for Claudia's roasting. We bought an Arnais and a Barbera from Tonino's winery and relaxed into a wonderful meal. The night couldn't have been any better.

Since we were in Italy, we thought it would be a good idea to visit some of the wineries that Austinite Steve Lawrence represents. Romana Carlo is just a few kilometers from La Contea and operated by the nicest family. They set up a lunch Momma cooked (including semolina dolce, a wonderful, sweet, fried polenta), and we tasted through all their wines, tops being the 2004 Terra Verus Barbera Riserva, a dense, delicious wine with a hint of oak. One benefit for all of us, since Steve is local, is that Austin gets these wines first.

With a few days until our next visit, we headed down to Tuscany to see the Banfi operation. This is one of the world's largest wine companies, yet everything we saw was handled like a small winery. We were there as they were bringing in the Sangiovese for their Brunello and watched as the workers literally separated grape by grape to assure the quality. We had three nights at Banfi, staying in a room they reserve for traveling employees. They also have a hotel with a two-star Michelin restaurant, but it starts at $500 a night! Staying in the worker's area allowed us to infiltrate the local scene. We had a chance to be away from tourists. Sitting outside in a breezy piazza, sipping a cup of espresso ... I didn't want to leave. My favorite Banfi wine of all was Principessa Perlante Gavi, a $15 white wine with tiny bubbles and a beguiling, yummy flavor. I love finding great cheap wines. I also had an opportunity to try a double-blind tasting of 13 2001 Brunellos. Now these are some of Italy's most expensive, sought-after wines. The good news was that the most expensive – Pian Delle Vigne by Antinori ($100), Pieve Santa Restituta by Gaja ($125), Biondi-Santi Tenuta Greppo ($120) – were not my favorites. I picked Castello Banfi Poggio Alle Mura as the best (and were the folks at Banfi pleased) and Castelgiocondo second. Both are still pricey, at about $75, but as Brunellos go, they were more than reasonable.

The other ultrapremium wine of Italy is Amarone, and Steve had been able to wangle me an invite to the Yoda of Amarone, Giuseppe Quintarelli. His wines are very rare in the U.S. and are snapped up by collectors. I had a tour of the winery and saw the incredible expense of carefully drying the grapes in lofts, down to the point that there is only a drop or two of decadently rich juice before the press. The outcome is one of the richest red wines on earth. And while Quintarelli's wines go for astronomical prices, the wines of his protégé, Luca Fedrigo of L'Arco, are much more reasonable. Those are the wines Steve Lawrence brings to Austin, and after having tasted both Quintarelli and L'Arco wine next to each other, I can vouch for Luca's efforts. Luca takes every wine he makes to Quintarelli for his blessing, and you can taste the training Luca has received from the old master.

Our last stop before heading home was to meet with the owners of one of Italy's top white-wine brands, Venica & Venica. We met Giampaolo Venica over lunch at the Ristorante Al Cacciatore in Cormons. As an open fire slowly cooked a batch of polenta in the background, we talked about how his father and uncle had inherited the winery from their father. From the beginning, in 1930, these wines have been in demand all over Italy, but it was only recently that the wines have started building a reputation in the U.S. We tasted through everything they made, at least what wasn't already sold out, and the family style rang through. Sauvignon Blanc, Tocai, and Pinot Bianco are all well-extracted wines, but with plenty of snappy acidity to make them perfect food pairings.

Jetting Home

The trip home from Trieste took 28 grueling hours, most spent at the lovely Newark airport. But it gave us time to talk about what we'd learned, most important being that the French and Italians consider wine to be a living thing. They don't think of it as a means to get drunk or a fun something to put in your hand while you're at a party. They see wine as part of the daily meals, lunch, and dinner. Children drink wine, albeit watered down, but they wouldn't anymore think of depriving a child of wine than asparagus. To them, they are the same. Like a vegetable, a fruit, a piece of meat, or a loaf of bread, wine is food. We should learn from them.

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