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Terroir of the Deep

By Debra Meiburg MW

In at least one respect, wine is the opposite of religion. A religious proselytiser’s goal is to spread the word, so all might be saved along with him. A wine geek, on the other hand, secretly hopes the hordes won’t find the path to his jealously guarded private nirvana.

Sadly for China’s Burgundy lovers, the game is up. Not only is Burgundy all over the Chinese press, its Hong Kong auction prices are ascending. Labels such as Jayer, Rousseau and de Vogue might, we fear, become accessible only to those who know them by their Chinese epithets, à la “Chairman Mao” for Mouton-Rothschild.
But before the wailing and the gnashing of teeth commences in earnest, remember Burgundy is, and has always been, a wine that rewards the studious.

We don’t mean Burgundy can only be enjoyed by “wine nerds” – if anything, it’s one of the world’s rare great wines that can be savoured at many levels at many stages of its life.

But to state the obvious: Burgundy is complicated.

And so, for those who treat Burgundy as they do Bordeaux and primarily derive pleasure from a few top brands, the next few years may be markedly less enjoyable, or at least more expensive. However, for the person who appreciates variety and is willing to put in the effort, there will always be a small supply of vinous salvation.

We were recently reminded of the true pleasures of Burgundy by the visit of two young winemakers – David Duband, of the eponymous domaine, and Jean-Nicolas Meo, of Meo-Camuzet. Observing their wines side by side showed perfectly the diverse character of Burgundy: the lucid, flirtatious pink of Duband’s delicate, perfumed wines stood in stark contrast to Meo’s more brooding, contemplative mauve. A quick primer for those who are not (yet) veritable Burghounds: “Burgundy” is a fairly damp, chilly French wine region, and the wine produced there is from either pinot noir (red) or chardonnay (white) grapes, although never a mix of the two. Unlike pinot noir from the New World, which tends to emphasise fruit, opulence and, in some cases, oak, Burgundy was traditionally made with the aim of expressing the terroir (local character) of its hundreds of carefully delineated vineyards.

If that has you scrambling for the nearest bottle of Central Otago pinot, take heart – Burgundy’s complexity can be an opportunity.

Its appellation system is straightforward once you have the breakdown. The “appellations” can be based on region (as in Bourgogne rouge), village (as in the ubiquitous hyphenates like Vosne-Romanee and Nuits-Saint-Georges, where Meo and Duband respectively grow most of their grapes), or by their specific vineyards, either premier cru or grand cru (as in Romanee-Conti, home of DRC wines).

If you are the skeptical type who’d like to know ahead of time the benefits you might gain for your time and effort, the proof is in the pudding. The wines of Duband and Meo, for example, are derived from vineyards no further apart than Western Market and The Landmark, but what a difference it makes.

Vosne-Romanee, the home of Meo-Camuzet, is arguably the king of Burgundy’s villages: aristocratic, high-toned and slightly austere in its youth, with layers of complexity exposed over time. Nuits-Saint-Georges, the village of Duband that some consider one of Burgundy’s most underrated, could be called its prince: rough around the edges but areal charmer, with more substance than meets the eye.

If you have no head for geography but are intrigued, take note: in a way, Burgundy is also a land of big winemakers (not to be confused with big brands). Henri Jayer was one such, with an iconic style that has been the apex of many a Burgundy lover’s drinking career. Jayer’s unfiltered, oak-coddled wines, with their aroma-plumping cold soaks and nary a bitter trace of grape stem to mar their plushness, are some of the most prized.
This same Jayer, until 1988, made the wines of Meo-Camuzet, although you wouldn’t know it from the label. The wines stay true to the legacy and offer those of us who may never have the chance to sip a Jayer an extremely palatable alternative.

We needn’t give up on Burgundy because of the developing cult of its top brands – although we will miss them, they are not the be all and end all of Burgundy. There will always remain at least a few bottles affordable enough for us to make occasional direct contact with the divine. Burgundy is a different place now than it was in the days of the legends. Jayer, for example, would not have had to deal with the concept of climate change, which has come to the fore in recent years, nor concepts such as organic or biodynamic viticulture.

“Definitely there is a difference in taste,” Meo remarks. “The grapes produced by organic viticulture are more acidic and tannic.”

What does Jean-Nicolas have to say about Jayer’s legacy? “I immediately liked his wines, but I have to live my own life. Things are naturally different than they were, but the linkage is still there.”

As published in the South China Morning Post

Comments 4 Comments for “Terroir of the Deep”
  1. Peter L. Zachar on 09.12.12 at 15:44

    Terrific review of all that Burgundy is and can be!

  2. Debra Meiburg MW on 09.12.12 at 21:06

    Thank you so much Peter. A much needed smile for the day!

  3. David Lloyd on 09.14.12 at 07:48

    I love looking for terroir in burgundy. Great fun getting hold of say 3 bottles of Pommard Rugiens by different producers and then a wine by one of these same 3 producers from a close vineyard e.g. Volnay or Beaune. Try them blind and look for the similarities and differences. Sometimes this is really insightful and other times it is disappointing. Disappointments are usually caused by excessive brettanomyces or heavy handed use of new oak. To put the brett issue in perspective I usually get the wines tested and brett is usually present, OK at lowish levels but its the high levels that obscure terroir and foil the learning exercise. The closest I have come to this in the New World is in Central Otago where 3 makers have access to the Calvert vineyard.

  4. Debra Meiburg MW on 09.15.12 at 12:06

    Thanks David! Fascinating to note where the winemaker’s hand is more prominent versus characteristics of vineyard site! I feel a grid/spreadsheet coming on…

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