White spirit

Wine - Roger Scruton thanks the gods for Burgundy

How do you describe a taste? This elementary question has baffled wine writers for a century, and their efforts to answer it have all but discredited their profession: "honey-nosed beauty on a cushion of cream"; "clarion calls of blackberries with muted undertones of horse-shit"; "loads of luscious fruit and big oaky flavours you could hang your knickers on". From the loftily pretentious to the downright vulgar, wine writers have vied with each other to degrade and sensualise their subject. My approach is different, since I consider wine to be a spiritual rather than a sensory phenomenon. Wine entered our civilisation as a gift from the gods, has been forever associated with religious festivals and rites of passage, and even today speeds from its bottles to our disenchanted lips with the mission to re-enchant us. No wine more beautifully illustrates this than white Burgundy.

The white wines of Burgundy range between two poles: golden, complex products, matured in oak and designed for keeping; and fruity green wines, finished in steel and offered young. The first come mostly from the Cote d'Or, the others either from the outlying regions of the Cote d'Or or from the Cote Chalonnaise to the south of it. I have tried to discover affordable wines towards both ends of the spectrum, but a general rule should be observed: don't spend less than £6 a bottle on white Burgundy. Below that price you will be offered mass-produced wines that have no character other than the hooligan self-confidence of the Chardonnay grape.

At £6.50, however, you can obtain a fresh and sappy Macon Villages from Paul Talmand, sold by Adnams (01502 727 222) as the house white Burgundy. This, from 2000, is as young as could be, and all the better for it. As well as the ubiquitous Macon, the Cote Chalonnaise produces well-known village wines - Rully, Givry, Pouilly, Montagny - with some premiers crus that can sometimes rival the best, or at any rate the second best, from the Cote d'Or. The discovery of last month was a truly glorious 1999 Montagny Premier Cru from Chateaux Wines (01454 613 959), a family business in Bristol that captures some of the old romance of the wine trade, linking grower to customer and face to place. This wine has everything: phenomenal strength (13.5 per cent), harmonious fruit, depths that come from the vine and not from oak, and a fresh, alert quality that makes it eminently drinkable now, though built to last. It is grown at the Domaine des Moirots in the hamlet of Bissey-sous-Cruchaud, and if those names don't move you, then it is clear that you will never really understand Burgundy. A snip at £9.95, sold by the case (free delivery for two cases or more).

Comparable fresh and full young wines are made on the Cote d'Or: I greatly enjoyed the Hautes Cotes de Beaune 1999 from Morris & Verdin (020 7357 8866), at £101.52 by the case. Such wines are, however, peripheral to the Cote d'Or, lacking the well-known oaky depth of its greatest products. For this more complex taste, you must either spend £15 or more on Puligny, Chassagne or Meursault, or rely on a merchant to guide you through the lesser villages of Auxey, St Romain and St Aubin. Majestic Wine has two excellent examples of these lesser Cote d'Or wines, both from the reputable house of Bouchard Pere et Fils, and both at £10.99 - a St Romain and an Auxey-Duresses. I tasted the 1998s - soon to be replaced by 1999s. They were flaxen-coloured, with complex after-tastes. Both will improve. For those who can afford the extra £3, however, I recommend the Auxey-Duresses 1997 from Berry Bros and Rudd. Among the many reasons for becoming familiar with the old, honourable and club-like establishment of Berry Bros is that its wines are properly aged. Economic pressures have led to other merchants relaying vintages direct to the table, without the mysterious years when they are lost in underground passages, briefly sighted off the shores of Cornwall, or carefully sequestered in some goblin's cave. This wine has a touch of the subdued harmony of Meursault, recalling stained-glass light in a distant chancel (£13.85; orders 0870 900 4300).

Roger Scruton is a philosopher and countryside campaigner as well as an author and broadcaster. Widely regarded as one of Britain’s leading right wing thinkers, his publications include the Meaning of Conservatism. He has also written on fox hunting.