Since first-time customers at the huge wine shop I worked at in New Jersey would often look overwhelmed, we’d always patiently explain how the place was organized. One time, I told a gentleman where we kept domestic wines, new world wines, dessert wines, etc. “And upstairs,” I concluded reverentially, pointing to the balcony, “we also have Burgundy, red and white, including Chablis.”
Just then, his friend came in from the parking lot and asked what was upstairs.
“Jug wine,” my customer said without a trace of irony.
Jug wine? Burgundy and Chablis? For a moment I was perplexed.
But then I remembered — these were the names given to jug wines by big California bulk wine producers like Gallo, Almaden and Carlo Rossi. Intending to lend an air of respectability to their products, they “appropriated” the names of some of the world’s great wine regions and plastered them on their US-made bottles.
You see, in France, wines are generally named for the place where they’re produced, rather than the grapes used to make them.
That’s because centuries of experimentation and tradition (and now French wine laws) have determined what grapes grow best in certain areas, so that practically all red Burgundy is made from Pinot Noir, and all whites are Chardonnay. (Like everything, there are exceptions and special cases, but we won’t get into that now.)
So while real French Burgundy is made from the finest Pinot Noir grapes grown in the ancient limestone-enriched soil of the grape’s ancestral home, “Hearty Burgundy” refers to nothing except (perhaps) the wine’s color. Likely made from a blend of inexpensive Central Valley hot-climate grapes, these wines are for gulping, not contemplation. And the price differential can be significant, with decent red Burgundy starting around $20 and the finest bottles selling for hundreds or more.
Chablis, on the other hand, is a specific region within Burgundy that produces some of the purest, most ethereal versions of Chardonnay anywhere on earth.
If you’re still not sure about Burgundy, the wonderful 2006 Gachot Monot Cote-de-Nuits Villages ($30) will convince you. If you can spend a little more but still want to get a bargain, look for premier cru Burgundies that hail from lesser-known areas, like Maranges and Fixin. Producers Philippe Colin and Regis Bouviere make excellent examples in the mid-$30s. If the economy hasn’t hit you too hard, then blow your Christmas bonus on a Chambolle-Musigny, Volnay or Gevrey-Chambertin.
In Chablis, look for Domaine Raveneau, reportedly called “the greatest Chardonnay producer in the universe” by wine critic Robert Parker, but prepare for serious sticker shock. To try an outstanding (and reasonably priced) Chardonnay from vigneron Bernard Raveneau, ask your retailer for the 2006 Domaine de la Cadette Bourgogne-Vezelay ($24).
But be forewarned: The experience of drinking any fine Burgundy might affect your drinking habits (and your wine budget) for a lifetime.
CONTACT MICHAEL SCHIAPARELLI: firstname.lastname@example.org