THE BEAUTY OF BURGUNDY

Burgundy is one of the most beautiful, as well as the most complicated, of European wine-producing regions. The wine varies from a simple, inexpensive accompaniment for country fare to complex wines that are the envy of the rest of the world. The less distinguished grapes include gamay, from which so much good -- and indifferent -- beaujolais is made, and aligot,e, which makes a sharp, interesting white best drunk young. The classic grapes, however, are pinot noir and chardonnay. Red burgundy, considered the apex of pinot noir, is easier for the novice to appreciate than red bordeaux because burgundies are softer, without the initial hard tannins of bordeaux. The white burgundies tend to have more finesse and often more character than California chardonnays, their New World counterparts.

In Burgundy, the best wines are unique in terms of taste, composition and marketing. Macon, in southern Burgundy, makes good, uncomplicated chardonnay that is a real bargain. But the wines of the C.ote d'Or ("the golden slope"), southeast of Paris, and in Chablis, also part of Burgundy, are rare and wonderful and priced to match. The reds can be drunk at any age, but the complexity and the pure pleasure of an old burgundy can't be topped. Unfortunately, good burgundies are in short supply and beyond the means of even the most dedicated enophiles. Mastering them can take a lifetime. A passionate Burgundian who works for a large exporter in the little city of Beaune told me last summer, "I was born here and have studied these wines for 20 years, and I still don't know burgundy."

One of the problems is the plethora of small, individual producers and laws that generally protect them from too much outside scrutiny. Unlike palatial wine-making estates elsewhere, the burgundy-maker is usually an individual working in a small cellar under his own house. He sells wine to visitors, blends more or less according to whim and doesn't worry too much about exporting.

The C.ote d'Or is divided into the C.ote de Nuits, the northerly portion between Dijon and Beaune, and the C.ote de Beaune, stretching south to Santenay. The C.ote de Nuits, which takes its name from the town of Nuits- Saint-Georges, is known mostly for its reds. The visitor from Bordeaux or the lower Rh.one valley is struck by the relative formality of the vineyards laid out above the road and the compactness of the scene, where less than an acre of prime pinot noir habitat is worth a fortune.

This is one of the most famous wine-making regions on earth, and it occupies only a few miles of eastward-facing slopes. The Cote de Beune produces good reds but is most noted for its whites, which are possessed of a power and delicacy all their own. Driving south from Beaune, one passes through villages with such legendary names as Pommard, Meursault and Chassagne-Montrachet.

Because of the extreme variety of vineyards and vinification, even wines from recognized locales and vintages can be disappointing. For that reason the consumer has to depend upon an established negotiant -- a local wine merchant who accumulates the wine from different producers, ages and bottles it and assures that it is shipped in good condition.