Variety and choice in wine. It is not always about grapes.
I wondered, as I travelled around Burgundy with a group of people invited by Burgundy Wines and the “Discover the Origin” campaign*, what it was that defined the region and really differentiated it in the minds of wine drinkers around the world.
We were here to ‘discover Burgundy’, but when I asked winemakers locally, “What is ‘Burgundy’?” I got very quizzical looks and rarely the same answer.
Simplicity full of nuance
The region is undoubtedly famous, in the sense of it being a name recognised even by those who cannot afford to drink its wines, but was this simply a benefit of longevity, or was there something else more fundamental?
I believe that one possible answer is that Burgundy offers a rare combination to consumers; a simplicity full of nuance that can be explored to whatever level of detail you desire.
Burgundy is like a diamond that can be admired simply for its beauty, but becomes ever more complex as you delve into its facets, its colours, its slight flaws and unique characteristics and what these tell you about how, when and where it was made. None of these are actually necessary to appreciate it, but offer endless scope for exploration.
BURGUNDY IS … Pinot Noir or Chardonnay**
… but it is also: the plot of land, delineated in some cases for over 1300 years; the choice of vine clone, of rootstock, of how many leaves are allowed per vine; of whether you treat with modern ‘medicine’ or rely on holistic, natural plant and ecological processes.
Burgundy is also the story of men and women, and their skills and practices; of their social and religious history; the tools the philosophies that guide their choices to influence the conversion of grape juice to wine; their own perception of what the end product should be.
But ultimately, it is still based upon Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
So take that for granted, and let’s look at something else for a change
This makes a big difference to the consumer that seeks some basic knowledge on which to build. It is easier to start to understand the effect of different places or winemaking choices if the key variable, the grape, stays the same. The sense of place, of terroir, is much harder to gleam if it is expressed through different varieties.
Expression of Place
What occurred to me is that, in Burgundy, probably more than anywhere in the world, certain variables were fixed.
The many variables that confuse the hell out of regular wine drinkers, such as what grapes were used (and why) and where it comes from, were not only clear, they were minutely detailed (should you care to ask). Now you could safely spend your effort on getting to know the different people behind the wines you liked most to help choose THE wine for you.
To be clear, lets contrast it with the alternative. In many New World countries any grape can be grown in any suitable location and made into wine by anyone who cares enough to do so, with varying levels of success. Wine making in such regions are a complex relationship not only of nature and human endeavour, but between the CHOICE of grape, the CHOICE of location and the many CHOICES of the winemaker.
This is the standard model UK consumers are used to. If Viognier or Tempranillo is trendy, expect to find it added to the range of your favourite Chilean or Australian wine brand. If you want to have a regular Sauvignon Blanc and a ‘cool climate’ one, just add one. Why not?
This model is absolutely driven by the winemaker (or brand owner).
This is not to say that others in those same regions are not dedicating themselves to a sense of place, or terroir, but that since that is undefined and not widely accepted, it is still effectively an individual’s choice.
(For a very interesting exploration of this, read Randall Grahm’s post: Terroir and Meaning)
Discover the Origin
In a place like Burgundy the winemaker’s choice is limited. To the extreme. Tradition, often codified into “Appellation Controlee” statutes, means that chasing trends like planting new grape varieties or using the very latest wine styles is not possible.
At the very core of Burgundy is a sense of place. Almost everything flows from that. That place was probably identified over 1000 years ago by monks as a place to grow grapes, then tested, patiently, for decades. Their decisions, right or wrong, but often interestingly consistently right, are now taken as gospel (!).
The nuance is added by how specifically you want to define ‘place’ – whether you are talking about the region (Vin de Bourgogne or maybe Cote de Nuits for example), village (e.g. Mercurey), or specific vineyards or even plots at premier or grand cru level.
The grape variety you plant is hardly a wide choice either, with the two main varieties accounting for 80% of plantings.
It is only after the place and grapes are chosen that people come into the picture to define how the land is maintained, how the vines are grown, when the grapes are picked and how they are made into wine. The person comes last.
Only at this stage did the campaign title of “Discover the Origin” (DTO) begin to make sense to me.
We came to discover the place, or places, and meet the people charged with looking after them. We weren’t meeting pioneers who literally broke new ground like we do in many other regions and countries. This place we were visiting is special because there can be no other place like it, and although it might not need protected from being overtaken by the market, it does deserve to be highlighted and promoted.
Now, while place (in terms of soil) is very fixed and obviously relevant to wine in Burgundy and the Douro, the DTO campaign also includes other products such as Parma ham (Prosciutto di Parma) and Parmesan cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano) and I will do what I can*** to explore the impact of place on these.
In the meantime, appreciate the diamond for what it is – beautiful, varied and unique, and if that immediate beauty encourages you to delve deeper, be prepared for some great discoveries.
* I was invited on a press trip organised by Discover the Origin, the EU funded campaign to promote “protected designations of origin” (PDO) for agricultural products, in partnership with Burgundy Wines
** I also realise that there is Sauvignon Blanc, Gamay and Aligote and maybe other varieties to be found in the region, but in principle these are minor
*** I love ham … but I hate cheese (so parmesan is out for me)