Burgundy: the very syllables swell and contract with the sounds of distant violence and the somber chanting of monks from matins to vespers. Grandeur and violent change, after all, are the legacy of this strip of land at the heart of modern France. From the time of the Gallic Wars, when Julius Caesar divided the area into Roman provinces, to 1477, when the death of her father and her marriage to Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I provoked Louis XI to seize Marie of Burgundy’s ancestral lands for France, this tiny, turbulent kingdom was the center of both conflict and culture, setting the standards by which the courts of England, Austria, and Spain would be measured.
The royal past of the region we know best, however, is that of the “king of wines.” By the 18th century, when the first châteaux of Bordeaux began to press their wine, the abbots of Bourgogne had already mastered the subtleties of the pinot noir and chardonnay grapes—no mean accomplishment. The weather of this region is as chaotic and unpredictable as its politics once were: Temperatures can vary radically among different vineyards on a given day, and it is not unheard-of for hail to pelt one while leaving the other untouched.
These meteorological idiosyncrasies account for Burgundy’s image as a temperamental, inconsistent wine. “Only about 20 percent of Burgundy is good,” observes Paul Wasserman, a California buyer of French wines who was raised in Burgundy. “Ten percent is very good; and less than that is truly brilliant.”
Many enthusiasts, unfamiliar with the region, are put off by the pitfalls of choosing appropriately—a process that requires a knowledge of specific vintages and of Burgundy’s intricate enological peerage. This is especially true of the white Burgundies, which have been overlooked by many in favor of the popular American chardonnays. With prices ranging from over $100 to as high as $700 per bottle for the grands crus, even impetuous buyers will want to avoid buying blind.
The successful vintages are prized for their seamless structure, in which acidity, fruit, and wood fuse to create a harmonious symphony of flavors. They are crafted to age, as well: Whereas a California chardonnay should be consumed early in its career (within two to three years), most white Burgundies peak at between five and 10 years.
There are no shortcuts to selecting white Burgundies for your cellar. Quality among reds is tied closely to conditions that render low fruit yields; in the case of whites, these factors have proven less vital, and so the key vintages for each type vary. Weather conditions made 1989 an exceptional white vintage characterized by ripe, full-flavored wines (such as the exceptional Bouchard Montrachet 1989 Grand Cru) that are now mature yet difficult to find. A benchmark year for whites, 1990’s offerings (Domaine Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet, for example) have aged well, retaining their freshness and fine, deep aroma. An outstanding vintage, 1996 seems destined to become a classic, thanks to a hot summer that enhanced the maturity of the fruit, rendering vivid, elegant, and full-bodied whites.
Those looking to acquire young wines should note that the 1999 and 2000 vintages are considered the best since 1996, though the peaks of 2000 will be richer and fatter than those of ’99. Among the 1999s, an excellent Meursault Perrieres from Pierre Morey offers hints of apple and vanilla. Though the finish is short and a slightly citric overtone emerges, this wine should mellow over the coming few years. From the distinguished firm of Bouchard, the Chevalier-Montrachet “La Cabotte” blends butter and lemon in a lighter wine that should come into its own around 2005. An imminently drinkable 1999 vintage can be found in the Gagnard Chassagne Blanchots Dessus, which delivers a balanced, rich flavor, a soft perfume, and a clean finish.
From 1998, we suggest the de Montille Puligny-Montrachet Le Caillerets, a round, sophisticated Burgundy with complex layers and a lingering finish. Also, the Leflaive Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet 1997 is a ripe, rich, assertive white that possesses the power of some reds: It has been described by some imbibers as a meal in a glass.
One final wine deserves mention here: Domaine de la Vougeraie Le Clos Blanc de Vougeot 1999. This tiny, little- known vineyard, which abuts the magnificent Clos de Vougeot, is a small monople planted with white grapes and tended for centuries by monks. A beautifully balanced Burgundy, La Vougeraie brings subtle transitions of flavor to the tongue, as richly layered as the history of the region itself. A personal favorite of Wasserman’s, he notes: “La Vougeraie is all a Burgundy should be.”