The Hidden (Affordable!) Gems of Burgundy
There's no gentle way to put this: Burgundy has become stupidly expensive. By now, many menu-building sommeliers have written the entire region off, trading in their exorbitantly priced red Burgundy for Oregonian Pinot Noir or even (yes, Gamay-based) Cru Beaujolais. And when shopping for Chardonnay, why should we sell our organs on the black market to afford the best of the Old World when California is trading in its buttery new oak for leaner, more elegant wines at a fraction of the cost of white Burgundy?
Well, don't abandon Burgundy just yet—you only need to know where to look.
See, while Burgundy gets most of its notoriety—both in price and quality—from its Premier Cru and Grand Cru classified wines, these bottles only make up a combined total of less than 20 percent of the region's output. The real value can be found in Village wine (about 36 percent of all production), which is less refined than cru wine made from grapes grown on specifically designated plots of land, but generally more complex than regional Bourgogne (about half of all production).
Of course, you can't just pick any old village at random, as some present a very inconsistent range of quality. But a few appellations in particular reliably offer excellent wines that won't require you to declare bankruptcy on your way home from shopping.
For additional insight, I've consulted Youri Lebault, a Burgundian educator, author, and founder of the Bourgogne Gold Tour, a luxury wine tour service which offers guided visits and tastings at nearly every domaine in the region. Lebault helped me lock down top picks in each of the five major wine-growing areas of the region, highlighting three producers from each with affordable wines in the U.S..
Here's what you need to seek out, from north to south:
Côte de Nuits
Marsannay-la-Côte is the first stop on the famous Route des Grands Crus, the "Champs-Élysées of Bourgogne," as Lebault calls it, which runs from Dijon in the north to Santenay in the south. "Marsannay's rosé is fresh, but with a very nice structure," Lebault explains, "while the reds and whites are both fruity and elegant. The reds can be more masculine, and perfectly balanced with fantastic structure and freshness." There are no Grand Cru or Premier Cru vineyards in Marsannay yet, but Lebault suggests that upgrades are in the works for 2018 or 2019—so now is the time to buy!
Head one village south of Marsannay to find Fixin, a "rustic cousin" to the third town on the route, Gevrey-Chambertin (home to famed Grand Cru, Chambertin). "In Fixin, the geology is similar to that of Gevrey-Chambertin, but with shorter slopes and more alluvial soils like in Marsannay," says Lebault. Though often overshadowed by its other southern neighbors (which include Morey-St-Denis and Chambolle-Musigny), the appellation features five Premier Crus – one of which, Clos de la Perrière, was classified as a Grand Cru by Doctor Jean Lavallé in his 1855 tome, History and statistics of the vine of the great wines of the Côte d'Or. Fixin's red Village wine is probably the best bang for your buck in Côte de Nuits!
"The small town of Nuits-Saint-Georges lends its name to the Côte de Nuits, but has had to fight for its own identity," Lebault laments. This southernmost village of the sub-region may get less attention than its neighbors—but with 41 (41!) Premier Crus, the appellation is obviously capable of producing some incredibly fine juice. The reds are bursting with ripe, red fruit when young, and display notes of leather and game when matured. You'll pay a bit more for these muscular Pinot Noir-based wines than those of the two previous appellations, but they're a steal when compared to what you'll find next door in Vosne-Romanée–home of the most expensive wines in the world.
Côte de Beaune
The northernmost village in the Côte de Beaune famously contains three exceptional Grand Crus—Corton, Corton-Charlemagne and Charlemagne -- but unless you feel like burning a Benjamin or more on a single bottle, you'll want to seek out Pernand-Vergelesses' Village-level wine for maximum value. "The Village vineyards produce both red and white wine with nice structure (due to the superb marls of the soil) and great acidity (thanks to northeastern exposure)," explains Lebault. Robust Pinot Noir or lively Chardonnay-based wines from a world-class wine-growing region for around $30? Now, that's a deal.
Some of these amazing, overlooked appellations don't produce any red wine. Montagny, for example, in the far south of the Côte Chalonnaise, produces excellent Village-level, varietal whites from 100% Chardonnay. But one particular white-producing outlier in the Côte doesn't even permit Burgundy's darling white grape: Bouzeron is the sole appellation that can (and must) use Aligoté, an indigenous Burgundian grape with a slightly herbal, floral character and a higher acidity than that of Chardonnay. Officially established in 1998, Bouzeron is a relatively young AOC for Burgundy. But its under-the-radar status is all the better for fans of light, vivacious whites—excellent Bouzeron can easily be found for under $30!
The southernmost appellation of Burgundy, Saint-Véran consists of eight different communes (one of which is, confusingly, Saint Verand–with a "d"–for which the appellation is named). Like most appellations in the Mâconnais, you'll only find white wines in this AOC, where the soils are ideally suited for Chardonnay. But while the quality of output is incredibly high, prices are low; granted appellation status only in 1971, Saint-Véran doesn't have the longstanding reputation or fame of neighboring Pouilly-Fuissé. Yet the wines are generally bright and packed with aromas of honeysuckle, peach, or fresh almond, and show off a flinty minerality on the palate.
Okay, this unique appellation isn't actually in Chablis–but at less than 10 miles outside the town, it's pretty damned close. Still, you won't find a drop of Chardonnay in a Saint-Bris Village wine, which must be made from 100% Sauvignon Blanc. This peculiar exception to all of Burgundy produces a citrusy, floral white wine with a touch of salt or spice in the finish. Youri Lebault also points out that Saint-Bris produces some César and Melon de Bourgogne grapes for production of Crémant de Bourgogne. Though not unique to Saint-Bris, these sparkling wines—made via the traditional Champagne method—are inexpensive treasures worth sampling.