It is an absolute shame that today most consumers do not get a chance to drink serious Burgundy on their journey of wine appreciation. Unlike any other wine region in the world the entry point for Burgundy is beyond the reach of most consumers, with very little serious wine produced for less than $50 a bottle. And by the way, $50 is really the bottom, the truly serious stuff really starts at $100+. As a result most learn Pinot Noir through California, where $50 is the premium level, and drinkable examples can be had for way less. Unfortunately the climate and prevailing culture of winemakers in California produce wines the consumers want to drink, not ones that actually taste like Pinot Noir.
There is also Oregon, specifically the Willamette Valley, where I personally think the intention of winemakers is generally more authentic when it comes to making varietally correct Pinot Noir. Thanks to a fairly serious glut of production, prices have dropped for many entry level wines and now good examples can be found for $25 or even a little less. Unfortunately many examples I have tasted with the 2018 and 2019 releases all seem to be a little darker, oakier and hint to a kiss of sweetness, ala California. This goes back to winemakers giving the people what they want, not what is real, because they have to move the product. This is thanks to the phenomenon of a certain, very popular Pinot Noir that does not look, smell or taste anything like Pinot Noir.
Becoming even more relevant as sources of real, and pretty series Pinot Noir are some less well known places. such as the coastal regions of Chile, the Yarra Valley of Australia, Hemel-en-Aarde in South Africa Marlborough, New Zealand and Germany, among others. Producers in these areas are all waiting in the wings, making some very nice examples and often for good prices. As prices have risen in Burgundy to their current stratospheric level, these will all be discovered in due time. But in the end, all arrows for real Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay, still point to Burgundy.
To light a small fire of hope for this badly lost-at-sea category, this week we present two examples from one of the Burgundy region’s most enlightened, and savvy producers, Bertrand Ambroise. I first met him in 1993, on a rainy February day, tasting wine while standing in his driveway because his “winery” was too small to accommodate our crowd of roughly 25 people. The winery at that time was nothing more than a shed, with barrels and a few pieces of old equipment. He had been making wine since 1987, although the family had been growers in the region since the middle 1800’s. Those early wines were big, dark and a little oaky, but they were also clean, which was very rare in those days.
Understand that in the early 1990’s the wines of Burgundy were revered, but it could be said the emperor was not wearing clothes. Most producers were working with sick vineyards, the result of over fertilizing since WWII, so ripeness was an issue. In addition the wines were relatively cheap so producers used old barrels for years, with minimal cleaning. To smell most Burgundy in those days was a study of flaws; under ripeness, volatile acidity from sporadic fermentations, and the worst, brettanomyces from the old barrels. (If you wonder what this smells like, think cattle pen before cleaning…) I tasted at a dozen domaines on that trip, and it was very obvious who was modernizing and who was stuck, either by dogma or circumstances, in the old style. Ambroise was definitely looking to the future.
For three decades Ambroise has continued to produce serious, powerful examples and grow his domaine holdings. Today they farm 52 acres around the villages that make up Nuits St. Georges and Corton. He is one of the few domaines that produces a fair amount of white wine in the Cotes de Nuits, from sites he feels are better planted to Chardonnay instead of the higher value Pinot Noir. Also unique, there is no step down in his whites, which are just as good as the reds and often, in cooler years, even more compelling.
Today Ambroise is easing into retirement, his son Francois comfortably at the helm. At his insistence they began farming organically in 2008, fully certified in 2013, and have moved into a new, state-of-the-art winery. My tasting there in April 2019 was extensive, 20+ wines, and my notes often finished with the comments, “wow,” and “buy all you can get.” These wines are bottled under their “other” name Victor Fagon, because like many domaines they now split their production between multiple importers. The wines are not “second labels” but the same wines just divided down the middle, because the producers have learned not to put all their eggs in one basket. Of course I also buy these direct, and clear through a distributor who takes 1/3 the margin of his regular distributor, so these wines are roughly half the price of his regular label.
In the case of both wines I “bought all I could get” which is roughly 20 cases of each. That sounds like a lot but wines of this quality will fly when we pull corks on Friday, Saturday and Sunday (at the Orlando store, check your location to confirm.) My guess is they will be sold out within a couple of weeks, so stop in this weekend, taste them, and buy like you have three hands and an Amex Black card, because you don’t get this quality for these prices very often.