That’s the approach taken by Jeannie Cho Lee in her latest book, “The 100 Burgundy: Exceptional Wines to Build a Dream Cellar” (Assouline Publishing, 2019). Lee is the Korea-born, U.S.-raised, Hong Kong-based wine educator who in 2008 became the first Asian to earn the master of wine title. Her previous works have focused on pairing wines with Asian cuisines; in her latest, she takes us on an essential tour of Burgundy. Wine fiends will lap it up. Those of us who can only dream about such a cellar can at least let her point the way on our limited forays into Burgundy.
“I wanted to bring together a hundred wines that could be my daughter’s dream cellar,” Lee explained at a recent wine tasting in Bethesda, Md., sponsored by the Capital Wine School. “About half of them are benchmark wines, the classics that as burgundy lovers, you should have the chance to taste sometime in your lives.” The rest of her selections are divided between “modern classics” that are consistently strong in quality, and Lee’s personal selection of “rising star” producers “that probably won’t be affordable 20 years from now, when my daughter tries to put a cellar together for her daughter.”
You may have noticed how Lee slipped seamlessly there from benchmark wines to rising star producers. The transition reflects the dizzying array of information Burgundy throws at us. It’s not just the source of the world’s best pinot noir and chardonnay. It’s a complex map of appellations and vineyards — grand cru, premier cru and villages — that can produce dramatically different wines from either side of a stone wall or a narrow lane. It’s also a phone book’s worth of names, negociant houses and family domaines young and old, multi-generation vignerons and upstarts setting out on their own. You need to know not just which vineyards are famous, but also which vignerons own the best parcels within those vineyards. It’s an imposing legacy of French history, revolution and tax laws. It’s also very much part of Burgundy’s allure.
Lee offered three factors to keep in mind when choosing a burgundy. The first: “Producer, producer, producer,” she said, mimicking the famous maxim about real estate being all about location. Lee, like most burgundy lovers, is particularly enamored of Lalou Bize-Leroy of Domaine Leroy (who wrote the foreword for the book). There are 71 producers included in the book — plenty to get to know.
Second, “the vintage matters tremendously,” Lee says. A vintage-savvy buyer will look for whites from the cooler 2017 and reds from the riper 2015. Hail or frost might have hit certain vineyards in the Cotes de Nuits north of the city of Beaune, but left vineyards south of the city unscathed. These wines are not the same year to year, and that’s a large part of their appeal.
Lee’s third factor is terroir — location, for wine-loving Realtors. We need to know not just the famous appellations within Burgundy, but their vagaries. It helps to know that Corton is the largest grand cru, but heterogeneous in soil types, largely owned by large negociant companies, and inconsistent in quality. Eighty producers own vines in the Clos de Vougeot vineyard, which is 50 hectares (almost 125 acres) in size — it helps to know which vines are owned and farmed by the best producers.
Lee has succeeded in crafting a book for multiple audiences. Master of wine candidates will find the nerdy data they need, as each producer profile includes information on vineyard holdings, farming practices and total production, neatly summarized in a sidebar. She also includes a three-word elevator pitch for each producer, such as “Exceptional, transparent, tender,” for Domaine Francois Lamarche, or “Inspiring, dazzling, impressive” for Domaine d’Auvenay. These are words the rest of us can grasp on to, as we enjoy Lee’s brief and engagingly written descriptions of producers and their wines without being bogged down in minutiae. And by searching for the basic Bourgogne rouge and blanc from Lee’s favorite producers, we can catch an affordable glimpse at the greatness Burgundy has to offer.
The book also includes art to remind us that no matter how serious wine can be, it is also spiritual, ribald and even profane. Parisian diners enjoying a haute cuisine meal, Cistercian monks working a wine press, sweaty vineyard workers celebrating the end of harvest, it’s all here. There’s even a full-page drawing of a cherubic Bacchus swilling wine from a bottle while peeing. I would love that as my Facebook profile photo.
“Great red burgundy should whisper to you,” Lee said at the Bethesda tasting. “But the words keep going, and you think, wow, this wine has a lot to say.”
Or as Bize-Leroy wrote in the foreword, “It will enchant with its song, an intimate and sublime music for those who have the patience and inner silence to hear it.”
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