Although my love for red Burgundy knows almost no limits, my wallet does. That means it's time to hunt for bargain Burgundies. Unfortunately, as most Burgundy lovers will tell you, the entry level for serious Burgundy is typically about $40 a bottle, an amount that puts a serious chill on the enthusiasm of most. Surprisingly, however, some very fine red Burgundies are now available in the $20-$30 range.
Made exclusively from the Pinot Noir grape, red Burgundy overflows with aromas of morello cherries and spring flowers, accented by hints of new leather. On the palate, it is rarely the heavyweight of legend, a reputation it obtained in the days when much so-called Burgundy was adulterated with heavy, alcoholic red wines from the Rhone, and even northern Africa. (Hint: While helping the French stretch their pricey Burgundies, the north Africans learned to make some pretty good red wines. We'll be looking at those in a future column.) Rather than "heartiness," red Burgundy's most amazing palate trick is to be thoroughly satisfying without weighing down the palate with a lot of dull, fleshy fruit or tannin.
This sleight of hand is best manifested by the so-called "peacock's tail." Red Burgundy enters the mouth narrowly on the tip of the tongue and then, unexpectedly, fans out its delectable fruit flavors across the back and sides of the tongue in a showy display of fresh cherry and strawberry. Much as I love Bordeaux, the peacock's tail is nowhere to be found in its wines. Nor, sad to say, is it found in the vast majority of American Pinot Noirs, which display all of the attributes of fine red Burgundy except the one that makes Burgundy so worthwhile. Surprisingly, the only other region where Pinot Noir flashes its peacock's tail is Hungary, which was considered the second home of Pinot Noir in the pre-communist era, much as Budapest was the Paris of the east. (Hint: there won't be an article on Hungarian Pinot Noir until the Magyars stop keeping the good stuff for themselves.)
A key to the recent price break is the 1997 vintage, a small vintage that produced relatively soft, low-acid wines. The 1997s have been overshadowed by the 1996s, a vintage celebrated in the wine press as a "classic," despite what strikes me as bothersome levels of tart acidity and tannin. For me, 1997 is the vintage to buy--and to drink.
The other price key is to look for wines from obscure communes that can't command the high prices of the Volnays, Chambertins and Cortons. Two communes that fit this bill perfectly are the neighboring vineyards of Savigny-Les-Beaune and Chorey-Les-Beaune. Nestled between the massive hill of Le Corton and the city of Beaune, these two communes have pockets of excellent soil and several quality-oriented small estates. My recent tasting of the 1997 Choreys and Savignys revealed a high level of overall quality. While the wines incline toward lightness, the fruit has great purity and depth. Last but not least, in the better wines, the flash of the peacock's tail is unmistakable.
The following wines are listed in order of personal preference based on quality and value. Retailers may order through the wholesaler/importer listed in parentheses. Prices are approximate.
Domaine Daniel Largeot 1997 Chorey-les-Beaune ($19; Best Buy); Domaine Daniel Largeot 1997 Savigny-les-Beaune ($22; Best Buy): Based in Aloxe Corton, Domaine Largeot is a small estate that gets my vote as the best value producer in this tasting. The texture of the wines is round and gentle, with a delectable polish of new oak over the pure, bing cherry fruit. Beautiful wines, beautifully priced. (Franklin Selections/Jocelyn Cambier Selections)
Rudolphe Demougeot 1997 Savigny-Les-Beaune 1997 Premier Cru "Les Peuillets" ($33): An extra $10 buys noticeably more concentration over the Largeot bottlings, above, yet the wine is still silky, suave and tender. The choice is really a matter of food compatibility. The Largeot is perfect for poultry or veal, but you'll need the added heft of this wine should you serve beef or lamb. Superb. (Franklin Selections/Jocelyn Cambier Selections)
Maurice Ecard 1997 Savigny-Les-Beaune Premier Cru "Les Narbantons" ($29); Maurice Ecard 1997 Savigny-Les-Beaune Premier Cru "Les Jarrons" ($29): Another pair of beautiful wines from a respected estate, these have a tantalizing earthy note that calls to mind a Nuits-St. George. With some tangy olive oil and crusty bread, either of these is a meal in itself. (Kysela)
Jean Luc Dubois 1997 Chorey Les Beaune ($17; Best Buy); Jean Luc Dubois 1997 Savigny Les Beaune ($19): Both wines offer considerable complexity and finesse at a price just slightly above that of ordinary Bourgogne rouge. The chunkier Chorey is a slight favorite. (Dionysis Imports)
Domaine Maillard 1997 Savigny-Les-Beaune ($21-$22); Domaine Maillard 1997 Chorey-Les-Beaune ($20): Exactly what village-level wines should be, these have Savigny and Chorey typicity at a good price. Quite charming. (Vinifrance/Olivier Daubresse Selection)
Questions or comments for wine columnist Ben Giliberti may be addressed to email@example.com