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Red Burgundy – The agony and the ecstasy

Posted by Thersites on UTC 2015-10-15 15:08.

As with all the great objects of desire, red Burgundy takes a fearful toll on you, emotionally and financially. There are disappointed wine drinkers out there who will read this first sentence, and who then can only look away, gaze into the distance and sigh deeply.

No rational person would do it: fall in love with this stuff. You are destined for repeated rebuffs, disappointments; you will be cheated and embarrassed, full of hatred and full of longing. Yet there will be one or two moments that you will never forget, paradisical, Dante’s first sight of Beatrice, when his soul said to him: 'Now your blessedness appears.' [1]

I overstate? If you think so, you are not one of those who are now gazing into the distance, remembering that moment. Perhaps you have never met this strumpet. Let me introduce you.

Get yourself to Dijon, famous for its mustard, and then head south, following the valley of the Saône. The river runs through a wide rift valley here, a gash through the eastern flank of the ancient block of the massif central. To your right you will see the steep-sided slopes of the edge of the massif, at points 200 metres above the plain. Be there early in the morning and these slopes will glow rose and gold as the first rays of the sun catch them. The rest of the valley is still in darkness.

The whole of this 75 kilometre slash of the Saône through the massif is Burgundy. Unlike most other wine growing areas, there is only one red wine grape grown here: the pinot noir. Red Burgundy is never a mixture of grape varieties; there is no possibility of balancing out or compensating for climate and territorial variations by mixing in other varieties. The pinot noir can sing for you or scream at you.

There are subtypes of the pinot noir grape, the most highly regarded being the pinot noir fin. 'All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare' [2] – was Spinoza a Burgundy drinker too? Probably not, even in the 17th century too expensive for a poverty-stricken, lens-grinding philosopher. But the pinot fin grape is certainly excellent, small compact bunches of berries, but also rare, its yield being very small in comparison to the common varieties. Here is the first sacrifice our love asks of us: under 30 hectolitres a hectare, and from one of these tiny plots – who can run a business on that basis?

And these small, tightly packed berries, they are indeed difficult: leave them damp with dew and they rot in front of your eyes. A year of care and devotion, hope and loyalty – all gone in days. Frost. Hailstones.

But there, at the northern end of the those hills on our right, on those east facing hills these damn grapes catch the early morning sun and dry off before they can be damaged. In other places no wine grower would take the risk with these fickle grapes, but on these hills, the Côte d’Or, you have a chance, the sort of gamble only the obsessed lover would take. If the season is right, and particularly those few critical weeks during the last ripening, if everything goes right we will be repaid for our devotion. Often it does not and we are spurned, like all hopeless cases hoping only for what the next time will bring.

Picked carefully by hand at just the moment – that one moment only the lover can know – our grapes go into the presses, then through all the laborious and nerve-wracking processes of wine making and then years of waiting, decades usually.

Most of this wine will be at best mediocre, and very often terrible. Hit the wrong year, the wrong grower, I sometimes think even the wrong bottle, and you will be spurned. Thin, mean, acidic, bitter – in a French bistro an anonymous verre rouge that tasted like this would be sent back immediately. Undrinkable. I just can’t bring myself to think of the sums of money I have spent on such muck, each bottle an horrendous price. Must it always be that unrequited passion ends in self-loathing?

Gone wrong, red Burgundy is irredeemable. It cannot offer the trite fruitiness of a New World wine, that uncork-it-and-quaff-it-quick, fruit-gum experience. There is nothing you can mix with it. It would probably even ruin any dish you cook with it.

And then, some enchanted evening, probably unplanned, you will have a Burgundy that is just so stunning you will think all the disappointments, all the wasted money, the embarrassed dinner guests looking at you pityingly, that this was all worthwhile.

It will glow ruby, sometimes terracotta. From this colour alone you will know it: bourgogne rouge ! When poured it will appear viscous, almost balsamic. Its perfume will whisper things to you that cannot be written here. It will have reached a seemly, barely legal wine age, probably at least 15 to 20 years.

Those who possess such things know how to treat them. Unlike the clunky deposits of red Bordeaux, the sediment in red Burgundy is very fine, almost dust-like. Once stirred up it can takes weeks to settle again. It will have been stored in the correct position, label up, and will be transferred to a basket as though it were nitroglycerine. Some decant, taking pleasure in the flicker of candlelight through the wine, some do not.

You will forget your food, there is no 'balancing' a wine like this, it is totalitarian. You will finish the evening, besotted and babbling. Where is the like of it?

The great names of Burgundy – like all the best objects of desire – are beyond reach. Never, ever, think you have got one for a bargain price. It just does not happen. If price reflects desire – well, there you have it. But then, what lover can bear the thought of the object of their desire hanging around in some supermarket or wine store, waiting to be picked up by any old punter? Classy burgundies are spared this fate, unless, of course, the producer knows something about them he would not care to reveal.

Affordable yet drinkable burgundies have to be sought out. Many producers sell their own wine directly, bypassing the great distributors. A good restaurant knows where to buy such wine, and also knows what to charge its customers. But beware: you will not be the first and you will not be the last tourist through Burgundy to find that the heavenly sample you tasted in the musty cave has nothing in common with the three cases of filth they sold you, now decomposing in your cellar.

And personal recommendation? It’s a test of friendship, whether someone is prepared to tell you where they found the wonderful stuff they served you. And real friendship, when they tell you the truth. Oh treachery, thy name is Burgundy!

Extremely pretentious references, specially selected for the discerning readers of this blog.

  1. ^ 'apparuit iam beatitudo vestra'Dante Alighieri, Vita nuova, II, 5.
    In quello punto lo spirito animale, lo quale dimora ne l'alta camera ne la quale tutti li spiriti sensitivi portano le loro percezioni, si cominciò a maravigliare molto, e parlando spezialmente a li spiriti del viso, sì disse queste parole: «Apparuit iam beatitudo vestra».
    At that point the animal spirit, the one abiding in the high chamber to which all the senses bring their perceptions, was stricken with amazement and, speaking directly to the spirits of sight, said these words: Apparuit iam beatitudo vestra.
  2. ^ 'Omnia praeclara tam difficilia, quam rara sunt': the last sentence of the last book of Spinoza's Ethics.Baruch Spinoza, Ethica Part 5, proposition 42, scholium
    His omnia, quae de mentis in affectus potentia, quaeque de mentis libertate ostendere volueram, absolvi. Ex quibus apparet, quantum sapiens polleat, potiorque sit ignaro, qui sola libidine agitur. Ignarus enim, praeterquam quod a causis externis multis modis agitatur, nec unquam vera animi acquiescentia potitur, vivit praeterea sui et Dei et rerum quasi inscius, et simulac pati desinit, simul etiam esse desinit. Cum contra sapiens, quatenus ut talis consideratur, vix animo movetur, sed sui et Dei et rerum aeterna quadam necessitate conscius, nunquam esse desinit, sed semper vera animi acquiescentia potitur. Si iam via, quam ad haec ducere ostendi, perardua videatur, inveniri tamen potest. Et sane arduum debet esse, quod adeo raro reperitur. Qui enim posset fieri, si salus in promptu esset et sine magno labore reperiri posset, ut ab omnibus fere negligeretur? Sed omnia praeclara tam difficilia, quam rara sunt.