Can wines made mostly from four different grapes in one concentrated part of France really be all that different?
Vintners in France’s second-most important growing region of Burgundy pride themselves on yielding different wines from the same grapes, making the most of small differences in land.
Though they make for an interesting mosaic of taste these differences can also lead to consumer confusion over the many names and denominations.
One wine from a certain village may please the palate, but there is no guarantee another from there will do so too.
“Of course we could bring out just several wines with the mention Pinot Noir (the main grape in red Burgundy wine).
But that would be over simplification and when we simplify Burgundy we risk losing our soul,” said Pierre-Henry Gagey, the president of the Burgundy wine association BIVB.
“There is no need for Burgundy to do so – other countries from the new world (South Africa, Chile, Argentina) do so very well but what is good for them is not right for us,” he added.
But then, Burgundy does not really have to stage a big marketing push to sell its bottles. There is more demand than supply and the trade regulates how many bottles go to buyers.
Bordeaux prices are set by the market in ‘primeurs’ – young wine that is not even bottled yet – and speculation pushes up those prices.
“The biggest dangers we face are the strength of the euro and that we would lose our heads,” Gagey said.
“The United States and Britain are our main export markets and their currencies, especially the dollar, are weak against the euro and we’ll have to absorb part of that by giving up some of the profit margin,” Gagey said.
He said that the past several years should not persuade growers to believe the good times can go on forever.
“Last year our exports were up by 21 per cent, that cannot continue,” Gagey said. “I would not be disappointed if this year exports went down by five per cent.”
The Burgundy region in eastern-central France is divided into five vineyard areas – the Chablis and Grand Auxerrois region, the Cote de Nuits, the Cote de Beaune, the Cote Chalonnaise and the Maconnais.
Some Burgundy houses also make wines in the more southern Beaujolais region.
The official capital of Burgundy is the city of Dijon but for the wine trade the centre is Beaune with its medieval town centre and the Hospices former sick-house where the annual charity auction of top Burgundy wines still takes place.
The total planted area is 29,500 hectares (72,890 acres) that produce 200 million bottles per year. Bordeaux makes over 700 million bottles.
There are 100 appellations in Burgundy against 57 in Bordeaux. Burgundy mainly uses four kinds of grapes, against eight in Bordeaux, and Burgundy wines are made of a single grape variety while Bordeaux wines are blends.
Of the Burgundy wines there are 32 Grand Crus in Cote d’Or and one in Chablis that make up just 1.5 per cent of production.
This includes wines like Romanee-Conti of which a bottle of 2003, 1999, 1996 or 1995 can sell for as much as US$12,000.
There are 562 First Growths, such as Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru, making up 10 per cent and 44 villages such as Irancy, Mercurey or Pouilly-Fuisse making up 34 per cent.
The rest, 54.5 per cent, are regional appellations such as Bourgogne, Bourgogne Aligote or Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains.
Because of the weight of the lesser wines, the average price of a bottle purchased from the grower before tax, is 7 euros (US$11).
The wide variety in tastes became clear during the spring tasting of the Chevaliers du Tastevin, which selects certain wines so they can carry a special seal of approval on the label as a help to a consumer trying to make a choice.
At a tasting of 14 wines from Savigny-les-Beaune reds, all from 2006, none tasted the same and the jury handed out notes between six and 15 out of 20 for the wines.
There used to be big rivalry between Burgundy and Bordeaux but that has changed and the two defend common interests.
“For my grandfather, Bordeaux was just a colour,” Gagey said.