Centuries before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock, the French invented an ideal Thanksgiving wine -- red Burgundy. Because French Burgundy is typically among the lighter reds, it won't overpower even the whitest turkey breast meat.
Yet, because of the remarkable purity of its red fruit flavors, red Burgundy can also stand up to cranberries and sweet potatoes. Add to that the unique ability of the pinot noir grape, from which it is made, to fan out into a palate-stimulating "peacock tail" finish, and it's easy to see why this brilliant invention of the Cistercian monks remains a leading choice for American holiday tables.
We are further blessed this Thanksgiving because of the recent trans-Atlantic pilgrimage of the first red Burgundies from the excellent 1988 vintage, the best since 1985. Indeed, '88 is eclipsed only by '85 in the past decade. The '88s are an embarrassingly healthy lot, with a taut muscular structure for aging, and not a trace of rot. While this structure will mandate cellaring for the classics of the vintage, many other '88s are ready and waiting to be drunk now.
Among these are the oft-unsung Bourgogne rouges, the most basic appellation of Burgundy. Most are blends of good grapes from so-so vineyard sites combined with overproduction from grand cru, premier cru and village appellation vineyards. In the hands of top producers, many of whom bottle on their own estates to guarantee authenticity, Bourgogne rouge can be excellent -- as good or better in some cases than much higher priced wines sporting fancier labels.
The estate-bottled Bourgognes that follow are listed in order of preference. Producers' "home" villages are in parenthesis following each name. While a producer's Bourgogne rouge is not necessarily from that village, more often than not most of it is, which gives an important clue to those familiar with characteristic village styles. Prices are approximate. Your retailer may order from the wholesaler listed in brackets. (Maryland and Virginia distribution may differ from that in the District.)
Outstanding Serafin (Gevrey-Chambertin) 1988 "Bourgogne" ($15-$16): More Gevrey-Chambertin character than many $35 Chambertins. Classic Co~te de Nuits "bacon fat" nuances in the bouquet, mingled with cherry and vanilla oak scents. Forward, sumptuous smoky fruit on the palate; excellent concentration, soft, moderate tannins. A must try. (Robert Kacher Selections)
Pothier-Rieusset (Pommard) 1988 "Bourgogne" ($10, a best buy): Exotic, almond and ripe fruit bouquet shows lots of class. Loaded with silky, deep, elegant pinot noir fruit on the palate. Good to see this respected domaine back in top form after a rough patch that began with its disastrous, severe '83s. Could pass for a village or perhaps, a premier cru Pommard. (Ortmayer Wine Register)
Ambroise (Pre'meaux/ Nuits-St.-George) 1988 "Bourgogne Rouge" ($15): Deep purple color, chewy texture, gobs of earthy pinot noir fruit mark this as an old-style Burgundy of the best sort. Unlike the vast majority of wines today, this traditionally made wine is bottled without filtration. The resulting light sediment requires that the wine be stood upright 48 hours before service and then decanted. A slight inconvenience, yes, but it means that none of this wine's Cote de Nuits earthiness is sacrificed to the filter pads. (Robert Kacher Selections -- limited availability)
Joblot (Givry) 1988 "Clos du Cellier Aux Moines" ($15-$17): The little village of Givry just south of the Cote de Beaune is supposed to make lighter-style reds, but winemaker Jean-Marc Joblot defies the textbooks by making a wine that's full of stuffing, with a healthy sheen of new, smoky, vanilla oak. Has more in common with the heartier style of the Cote de Nuits than the softer style of the nearby Cote de Beaune. (Robert Kacher Selections)
Very Good Joblot 1988 "Clos de la Servoisine" ($17): Similar to Joblot's other Givry (above), but somewhat tougher, oakier and more closed in. With time, however, may turn out to be the better wine. (Robert Kacher Selections )
Mortet (Gevrey-Chambertin) 1988 "Bourgogne" ($12): Showing much Gevrey character, earthy, ripe bouquet opens splendidly after a half hour of breathing. On the palate, light to moderate tannins, smoky bacon-fat nuances mingled with complex red fruit/cherry flavors. Quite good. (Robert Kacher Selections)
Bruno Clair Bourgogne 1988 "Marsannay" ($10, a best buy): Better known for its outstanding rose's, the tiny village of Marsannay, just north of Gevrey-Chambertin, was granted appellation status for its reds in 1987. Clair's is made from very old vines, which give added complexity. Light style. Fine purple color; classic pinot noir expansion of fruit on the finish; silky, refined, with light tannins and purity of fruit. (Hand Picked Selections)
Volpato (Chambolle-Musigny) 1988 Bourgogne Passe-Tout-GrainS ($11): Perhaps the best Passe-Tout-Grain (a combination of gamay and pinot noir) I have ever tasted. Deep purple color. Plump, slightly herbal and earthy fruit. A substantial wine, which captures a balance of fruit and tannin that eludes most Passe-Tout-Grains. (Ortmayer Wine Register)
Average Gros Fre`re et Soeur (Vosne-Romane'e) 1988 "Bourgogne" ($15): No better than Gros Frere's '87 Bourgogne and I would have expected more concentration and depth from this coveted domaine in a year like 1988. Still, this is an appealing wine with complex, somewhat exotic fruit.
Chopin-Groffier (Comblanchien) 1988 "Co~te de Nuits-Villages" ($17): Though I am a great admirer of the elegant, silky style of this producer's higher appellation wines, this Cote de Nuits Village, though complex, lacks sufficient stuffing to rank higher.
Bouley (Volnay) 1988 "Bourgogne" ($10): A fair bargain at less than $10, this wine offers good color, clean pinot fruit, and nice concentration. However, the disjointed, tannic finish is presently a problem. (Ortmayer Wine Register)
Lespinasse (Rosey/Givry) 1988 Givry "En Choue'" ($15): More smoky oak than fruit is showing through at the moment. (Robert Kacher Selections)
Mongeard-Mugneret (Vosne-Romane'e) 1988 "Bourgogne" ($14): Correct, but bland. (Robert Haas Selections)
Mussy (Pommard) 1988 "Bourgogne Pinot Noir" ($10): Probably suffering from travel sickness, this wine was a bit disjointed. Judgment reserved. (Le Serbet)
Daniel Rion (Vosne-Romane'e) 1989 "Bourgogne Pinot Noir" ($10): Soft and fruity, but too gamay-like. (Le Serbet)
Lafarge (Volnay) 1988 "Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grain" ($10): Pleasant, but out of its class here. (Le Serbet)
Guitton 1988 "Ladoix Co~te-de-Beaune" ($13); Guitton 1988 "Bourgogne" ($10); Jayer-Gilles 1988 "Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grain" ($10); Bernard Rion 1988 "Bourgogne" ($10).
Ben Giliberti is Washington-based freelancer who writes regularly about wine.