Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Book Review: Simply Burgundy – “A Practical Guide to Understanding the Wines of Burgundy” by Mark E. Ricardo

Picture: Simply Burgundy – “A Practical Guide to Understanding the Wines of Burgundy” by Mark E. Ricardo

Burgundy is the most terroir-oriented region in France if not in the whole world. The focus is on the area of origin, as opposed to Bordeaux, where classifications are producer-driven and awarded to individual chateaux. A specific vineyard (climat or lieu-dit) will bear a given classification, regardless of the wine's producer. The main levels in the Burgundy classifications, in descending order of quality, are:

Grand Cru wines are produced from a small number of Grand Cru vineyards in the Côte d'Or and make up 2% of the production at 35 hectoliters per hectare. There are 33 Grand Cru vineyards in Burgundy.

Premier Cru wines are produced from specific vineyards that are considered to be of high, but slightly lower quality; they make up 12% of production at 45 hectoliters/hectare.

Village appellation wines are produced from vineyard sites within the boundaries of one of 42 villages. Village wines make up 36% of production at 50 hectoliters/hectare.

Regional appellation wines are wines which are allowed to be produced over the entire region, or over an area significantly larger than that of an individual village. These appellations can be divided into 4 groups:

The new Coteaux Bourguignons appellation covers wines made throughout the greater Bourgogne region, from the Chablis region in the north to and including the Beaujolais region in the south.

Bourgogne, the standard appellation for wines made anywhere throughout the region excluding Chablis and Beaujolais; these wines may be produced at 55 hectoliters/hectare.

Subregional appellations cover a part of Burgundy larger than a village. Examples are Hautes-Côtes de Beaune and Mâcon-Villages.

Wines of specific styles or other grape varieties include white Bourgogne Aligoté (which is made with the Aligoté grape), red Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains (which can contain up to two thirds Gamay) and sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne.

Picture: Christian Schiller in the Bourgogne. See: Bourgogne Tour by ombiasy WineTours (2015), France

Simply Burgundy – “A Practical Guide to Understanding the Wines of Burgundy” by Mark E. Ricardo, a practicing attorney, a registered investment advisor and the founder and President of Trellis Fine Wine Investments, focusses on exactly that: the classification of Burgundy. With 45 pages plus 3 appendices, it is about the same number of pages as the Burgundy chapter in Karen MacNeil’s popular Wine Bible. I would call Simply Burgundy a booklet.

While the Wine Bible provides a good introduction to Burgundy, Simply Burgundy – “A Practical Guide to Understanding the Wines of Burgundy” is not an introduction to Burgundy, but an introduction to the classification of Burgundy. Furthermore, it does not go deep into the ins and outs of the Burgundy classification, but stays with the essentials, leaving aside details and aspects of lesser importance of the classification.

The structure of the booklet: Following 1 page on “Regions and Grape Varietals”, the author explains on 7 pages the concept of the Burgundy classification. This is followed by reviews of the classification region by region: Chablis (3 pages), Côte d’Or (23 pages), Côte Chalonaise (2 pages), Mâconais (3 pages) and Beaujolais (3 pages). Yes, the booklet includes Chablis and even Beaujolais, which in many books about Burgundy are excluded.

An essential part of the Burgundy classification is the system of climats, which I would have liked to be more developed by the author. Climat is a term for a specific vineyard site of a few hectares. The system of climats in Burgundy was granted World Heritage Status by UNESCO last year. Although the author never uses the word climat, he refers to the climats with grand cru and premier cru status, but leaves all the other climats aside (village climat). You can find the latter regularly on Burgundy labels, more in Burgundy’s export than domestic market. Interestingly, the new German wine classification system, which is modeled after the Burgundy classification system, does not allow winemakers to indicate climats on the label that neither have grand cru or premier cru status.

There are practically no numbers in the booklet. You do not find anything about the size of the various regions, sub-regions and vineyards, or yield restrictions at the various levels of the classification, to name a few areas, where numbers would have been helpful to understand Burgundy.

At the lowest level of the classification, the regional level, the booklet is silent on most categories. That may have been motivated by the thought that the targeted readers of the booklet will mainly be interested in the upper levels of the classification.

Looking beyond the classification, the Burgundy lovers agree that while the classification is important to ascertain the quality of a wine before opening a bottle, equally important, if not more important is, who produced the wine, i.e. the winemaker.

The famous Clos Vougeot, for example, is owned by about 80 different vignerons and they all put exactly the same text on the label of their wine bottles, while the quality of Clos Vougeot (and price) varies widely among the range of producers.

The author touched on this issue by adding a list of top producers for each region. The effort is commendable, but I would have appreciated some background information on the producers, such as: annual production; négociant (that buys the grapes) and/or domain (that grows its own grapes); price range.

Continuing looking beyond the classification, there is, of course, nothing in Simply Burgundy – “A Practical Guide to Understanding the Wines of Burgundy” on the history of Burgundy nor is there anything on the structure of the industry.

The origins of Burgundy's classification can be found in the work of the Cistercians who were able to delineate plots of land that produced wine of distinct character. The Roman Catholic Church had an important influence on the Burgundy classification. As the power of the church decreased, vineyards were sold to the Bourgeoisie. The Napoleonic inheritance laws resulted in the continued subdivision of many vineyards so that some winemakers hold only a row or two of vines.

In terms of the structure of the industry, the role of négociants, who do not own vineyards, is not referred to at all. Négociants play a vital role in the Bourgogne. Négociants sell wines at all quality levels, including grand cru.

To sum up: This is a very small book (a booklet) with the objective of providing “A Practical Guide to Understanding the Wines of Burgundy”. The author is concentrating on one aspect: the classification of the wines of Burgundy and leaves many other aspects that are equally important to the “Understanding of the Wines of Burgundy” aside. And on the aspect he covers – the classification – he does not go into the ins and outs of it, but focusses on the essentials.

I like the booklet very much as a reference. For the next edition, I would love to see more maps in the booklet. In the current issue, there is only an overall map of the Burgundy region with its five sub regions.

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