Originally created 03/06/02

Burgundy remains testament to Napoleon's day



Compared to comprehending the vineyard system of Burgundy, understanding the history of the Balkans is easy.

A small but renowned wine-producing region in eastern France where chardonnay and pinot noir rule, Burgundy presents the most fragmented hierarchy of vineyards in the world. Blame it on the Napoleonic code that banished primogeniture in favor of equal inheritance. Thus, simply speaking, if a man with four children owned a 12-acre vineyard, at his death, each would inherit three acres of vines. Imagine what could happen to that vineyard after a century.

The result is that most of the great vineyards of Burgundy are owned and farmed by many individuals or firms, some of whom make the wine and bottle it themselves, some of whom sell the grapes or the wine to other individuals or firms for making into wine or distributing. The most famous example is the 120-acre Clos Vougeot vineyard (huge by Burgundian standards), parceled among 80 owners, some of whom have control over only a few rows of vines.

The same circumstance occurs with Burgundy's myriad other great vineyards, many of which consist of only a few acres. The complexity of the system means that consumers must rely far more on the name of the producer of the wine than the name of the vineyard.

Basically there are three levels of wine produced in Burgundy: 1. Village wines; 2. Premier Cru wines; 3. Grand Cru wines. These designations are codified by law.

1. Labels of village wines will bear only the name of the village from which they originate, for example, Chambolle-Musigny or Puligny-Montrachet, and the name of the producer. (Most villages also have vineyards called lieu-dits, and their names are allowed on labels.)

2.Premier Cru wines bear the name of the village and the name of the Premier Cru vineyard, as in Chambolle-Musigny "Les Amoureuses" or Puligny-Montrachet "Les Pucelles," and the producer's name.

3. Grand Cru wines are entitled to designate only the great vineyard on the label, foregoing the name of the village, as in Le Musigny or Le Montrachet.

Let's examine a few vineyards and their situations using examples of recent vintages from the firm of Bouchard Pere et Fils, a Burgundian house founded in 1731.

Bouchard is the largest owner of Grand Cru (30 acres) and Premier Cru (183 acres) in Burgundy, having obtained some of the parcels in the late 18th century. Though known for generations as a top-notch producer, Bouchard Pere et Fils fell on hard times in the 1970s and '80s. Help came in the form of Champagne Joseph Henriot, which bought Bouchard in 1995 and instituted careful practices in the vineyard and winery. Improvements have been tremendous.

These white wines are 100 percent chardonnay.

Meursault is one of the most famous white-wine-producing regions in the world. It boasts no Grand Cru appellations but has 16 Premier Cru vineyards. Though Bouchard's Meursault "Les Clos" is a village appellation wine, it carries the designation of a lieu-dit vineyard, of which Bouchard owns 22 acres, about 47 percent of the appellation. For 1999, the wine displays a lovely earthy, minerally, slightly cheesy bouquet that glides effortlessly into a deep, dense amalgam of pineapple-grapefruit flavors, baking spice, limestone and flint and ringing acid; it's wonderfully substantial for a village wine. Excellent. About $50.

The medieval city of Beaune ("bone") is the economic and cultural heart of Burgundy and gives its name to an appellation of which about 90 percent of the wines are red. There are 44 Premier Cru vineyards and no Grand Crus.

The 4.95-acre Beaune "Clos Saint-Landry" Premier Cru vineyard is a monopole or monopoly for Bouchard Pere & Fils. You taste the vineyard's earth, minerals and rocks in the ultra-powerful '99 rendition, a chardonnay of remarkable size and weight; its dense, chewy, almost powdery texture seems platonically permeated with flowers and oak. It could age three to six years. Excellent. About $60.

Bouchard owns 6.6 of the almost 42-acre "Genevrieres" Premier Cru vineyard in Meursault. Bouchard's Meursault "Genevrieres" 1999 breathes lemons, limes and pears from the glass; tremendously ripe and earthy, resonant and vibrant, the wine offers an astonishing array of spice, oak and mineral notes in a plush yet crisp package of luscious pineapple-grapefruit flavors. Five to eight years. Excellent. About $80.

The commune of Aloxe-Corton has two well-known Grand Cru appellations, Corton (or Le Corton) for red wine and Corton-Charlemagne for white. At about 124 acres, Corton-Charlemagne is the largest Grand Cru vineyard; Bouchard owns 8.15 acres. Bouchard's Corton-Charlemagne 1999 is extraordinary, exotic, unique. Very ripe, scintillating with limestone and flint and a mammoth supply of toasty oak that manages not to overwhelm the fruit; the wine remains a beautifully balanced and integrated example of the purity of vineyard and grape. It gradually yields notes of honeysuckle and jasmine, mango and ginger to bolster the luscious grapefruit-pineapple flavors. Among the most impressive half-dozen young chardonnays I have ever tasted, it could age six to 10 years. Exceptional. About $123.

These red wines are 100 percent pinot noir.

Bouchard is sole owner of the 8.4-acre Clos de la Mousse vineyard in the Beaune appellation.

Bouchard's Beaune "Clos de la Mousse" Premier Cru 1999 sports a cranberry-ruby color and a clean, earthy, slightly creamy bouquet focused on vivid and vibrant red currant and plum scents and a hint of dark chocolate. The wine is more reticent in the mouth, where a seamless blanket of oak and tannin could take three to six years to subside. Very good+. About $38.

One of the best-known anecdotes in Burgundy concerns the origin of Bouchard's 10-acre monopole Vigne de l'Enfant Jesus, part of the Beaune Greves appellation. It was called thus, says tradition, because the nuns who owned the vineyard before the revolution always swore that the wine went down the throat as smoothly as "Baby Jesus in velvet pants." Bouchard acquired the vineyard in 1791.

Bouchard's Beaune Greves "Vigne de l'Enfant Jesus" 1999 is as sumptuous, as elevating and as spirited as the nuns could have asked for. It's a substantial wine, dense and satiny, intense and vibrant with black cherry and red currant flavors leading to a resolutely tannic finish. Five to eight years. Excellent. About $80.

The Volnay Caillerets Premier Cru "Ancienne Cuvee Carnot" 1999, represents truly serious pinot noir. Bouchard has owned its 10-acre portion of the 36.5-acre vineyard since 1773. Volnay, lying southwest of the city of Beaune between Pommard and Meursault, possesses 35 Premier Crus and no Grand Crus.

This wine seems to hold truckloads of crushed velvet; it's gloriously endowed with smoke, spice and clean earthy notes and deeply perfumed with rose petals and violets, and in the mouth, its complement of very ripe black cherry and cranberry flavors laced with mocha and cinnamon is seductive, but boy, does the dense, chewy tannin ever sweep up from the finish through the midpalate. Six to nine years. Excellent. About $50.

Bouchard owns just more than an acre of the 18-acre vinyard Les Cailles in Nuits-Saint-Georges, an appellation that possesses 37 Premier Crus and no Grand Crus. A gorgeous, intensely earthy and floral bouquet, decked with canisters of exotic spice, leaps from a glass of Bouchard's Nuits-Saint-Georges "Les Cailles" Premier Cru 1999; in the mouth its fine-boned structure and polished tannins can't disguise a voluptuously satiny texture but will require lots of time, as in six to eight years. Excellent. About $60.

Bouchard has owned its 9.2-acre parcel of Le Corton Grand Cru since 1909. I tried the 1999 and the '98. These are both large-framed, almost brutally tannic wines, closed in and truculent. It required considerable patience to elicit elements that could testify to their excellent potential. Bouchard's Le Corton Grand Cru 1999 slowly yielded spicy, floral qualities and notes of black cherry and currant but will need six to 12 years to come around. About $80.

Le Corton '98 offers macerated black cherry and plum fruit and a huge earthy, almost mossy bouquet, but the defining characters now are structural and textural. Five to 10 years. About $87.

Pick of the week

Camelot Vineyards, an arm of the ubiquitous Kendall-Jackson empire, continues to offer some of the most delicious and best-made inexpensive wines around. The Camelot Merlot 1998, California, bursts with very ripe black currant and black raspberry fruit, a hint of toasty creamy oak, a wide range of dried spices all wrapped around a floral-dark chocolate core. It's a warm, attractive wine with a silken texture. Also attractive is the Camelot Pinot Noir 2000, California, another terrific and authentic little wine that sports lovely cranberry-cherry cola scents and flavors, a modest touch of earthiness and a seductive satiny flow through the mouth. Each about $10.