Wine's World

The Burgundy Brawl

Wines that can start a fight.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Wine is a reasonably genteel hobby, pursued mostly by happy lushes. But the corkscrews stab for the jugular when the wine in the decanter is a red Burgundy. Red Burgundies—made from the fragile, ornery, and thus quintessentially French pinot noir grape—cause acrimony because they are Rorschach wines, taking the measure of your inner hedonist. How you feel about them is really a statement of first principles, about what kind of satisfaction you believe wine should deliver: immediate and obvious or gradual and subtle.

Red Burgundies are a distinctive breed. In contrast to the heavy, dark, and brutish wines that are the fashion in California, Australia, and increasingly Bordeaux, a good red Burgundy is light on its feet, a paragon of harmony and finesse. The difference between, say, a top‑notch Napa Valley cabernet and a Musigny—a grand cru red Burgundy—is the difference between Ginger and Mary Ann. The cabernet is a voluptuous sexpot. The Musigny, by contrast, is all discreet charm, understated, reserved, but unmistakably sensuous. The cabernet is a sure thing; red Burgundies make you work for it.

(Literally. Just trying to sort out all the wines that fall under the red Burgundy rubric can trigger severe cerebral cramping. Click here for why.)

The biggest problem with red Burgundies is that they serve up a lot more whiffs than hits. Pinot noir is a fickle grape that only rarely converts into ambrosial, holy-shit wines. (In fact, some connoisseurs think fecal aromas are a telltale sign of quality in a mature red Burgundy.) Even after bottling, red Burgundies are maddeningly capricious—generous one day, surly and unyielding the next. Pulling the cork is usually a costly crapshoot (the top wines from Burgundy’s two most acclaimed estates, Romanee Conti and Leroy, fetch well north of $500 per bottle). As always in matters of table and vine, A.J. Liebling summed it up best: “Burgundy is a lovely thing when you can get anybody to buy it for you.”

Burgundy is a lovely thing only when it is good, but when it is good, it is sublime—liquid silk and lace with a dash of earthiness thrown in, to put it rather purply. A great red Burgundy can be epiphanic, and once you’ve had the pleasure, you might well conclude that the risk—throwing away lots of money on disappointing bottles—is worth the potential reward.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

In fact, Burgundy has a cultish following among quite a few oenophiles, and there would probably be many more acolytes but for the financial barrier to entry. Like surfers roaming the globe in search of the perfect wave, they spend their dinner hours, and jaw-dropping amounts of cash, chasing the elusive “Burgundy high,” stoically enduring lots of expensive mistakes along the way. They have their own exclusive gatherings (La Paulée de New York, for instance, a biannual festival), their own specialty shops (New York’s Burgundy Wine Company), and their own insider publication (Burghound, a quarterly buying guide put out by L.A. banker‑turned‑Burg-obsessive Allen Meadows).

While most are not dogmatic about it, Burg-philes do believe themselves to possess particularly noble palates and pity the unrefined masses who think fine wine is all about gobs of fruit. They abhor the bigger-is-better ethos sweeping the wine world and see Burgundy the last redoubt of sensible, food‑friendly winemaking.

Just as there are Burg fanatics, so there are equally impassioned Burg-phobes. These are drinkers who have no patience for the region’s Byzantine complexity and no desire to wade through scores of thin, acidic, ungenerous wines in pursuit of that one elusive gem. They generally regard the Burg fanatics as masochists and cranks. As in most wine controversies, Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate figures prominently in the dispute over Burgundy. Indeed, he is considered the pre-eminent Burg basher.

That’s not an entirely accurate characterization: Over the years, Parker has gone weak-kneed over plenty of red Burgundies. But it is fair to say that they are not his preferred style—he’s a Ginger man, a fruit bomber—and that he is a reviled figure in Burgundy. In fact, he no longer covers the region; several years ago, he hired an assistant, Pierre Rovani, to do the reviews. It is also true that Parker does seem to go out of his way to bait the Burg crowd. If a Burgundy vintage falls short in his view, he tends to dismiss it in sweeping, contemptuous terms, something he almost never does with feebler years in, say, Bordeaux or the Rhone.

The chief bone of contention at the moment is the 1993 vintage. Most Burgundy aficionados consider the reds produced that year to be the best of the decade—perfectly balanced, elegant wines. Textbook Burgundies. Five years ago, Parker rated the vintage a modest success but has since downgraded it dramatically. He and Rovani now judge the wines barely fit for a saucepan. Likewise, the Advocate has trashed the 1998s, which are also well-regarded by the die-hards. But for Burg‑philes, the impulse to fire back is tempered by the realization that Parker and Rovani are actually doing them a huge favor. If the Advocate says a vintage sucks, scores of potential buyers who take its advice to be infallible—the “sheeple,” as they are known—will steer clear, which keeps prices down.

But you can only bite a tongue so much. Last December, Rovani took to the message board affiliated with Parker’s Web site and launched a bulging-eyed assault on his boss’s many Burg-phile detractors. In his screed, which he titled “Parker, Burgundy, and Know‑Nothingitis,” Rovani wrote that Burgundy followers “believe what they believe and any critic that disagrees with them are [sic] morons, know nothings, pariahs. … I’m disgusted by the complete lack of fairness, or judgment, or rational thought.” What ensued was a chat room brawl for the ages, years of accumulated bile spewing out from keyboards around the world. It was nasty. It was fruitless. It was irresistible. (It starts at the end of the Rovani post, and goes and goes and goes.)

Should you wish to see what all the flaming is about without having your bank account singed in the process, the options are limited. There is no such thing as a decent red Burgundy for under $10, and most of what you find for $10 to $20 is flavored water. There are two noteworthy exceptions. Domaine Leroy (pronounced “le rwah”) makes a terrific, long-lasting Bourgogne rouge—a generic wine usually sourced from the sorriest sites—that retails for around $20 a bottle. A bit more scarce, and a step up in quality, is Michel Lafarge’s Bourgogne. Lafarge is one of the best producers in Volnay, a village that turns out some of the most ethereal red Burgundies, and he devotes unusually good grapes and extraordinary care to his most basic bottling. Should you find yourself swooning over either wine, you probably have it in you to develop a serious Burg jones. If, on the other hand, you find yourself wondering who took the wine out of your wine, consider it a blessing: Think of all the money you’ll save and teeth-gnashing you’ll be spared.