If Burgundy confuses you, don't worry – you're not alone

Wines from this great region often confound even the experts. But there is a solution.

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The answer to my first question turned out to be edible entrails, although naturally my waiter did not phrase it quite like that. I was in Cabotte, a French restaurant not far from the Bank of England, and considering ordering the wild mushroom and onion tart with confit duck and sautéed umbles, subject to confirmation of what on earth an umble was and what I should drink with it.

The answer to the second question was Domaine Duroché Gevrey-Chambertin 2013. It was perfumed with a very Burgundian earthiness – and earth, it turns out, is what you want with your umbles.

I rarely write about Burgundy, not because I don’t adore it, but because it is so hard to explain. The grapes aren’t the problem. The reds are almost all Pinot Noir, the whites Chardonnay. There are exceptions: the Sauvignon Blanc of Saint-Bris, or the Aligoté that mostly ends up served with crème de cassis as Kir. But it is by far the easiest region when it comes to varieties. The problem is everything else.

Take this wine. Gevrey-Chambertin is near the top of the Côte de Nuits, which, with the Côte de Beaune to its south, makes up the Côte d’Or, the “Golden Slope” that is home to most Burgundy grapes worth worrying about. (The little stone huts in the vineyards, in which workers eat lunch, are called cabottes.) It has several grands crus, the top classification, the best known of which is Chambertin; the name of the village used to be simply Gevrey. Most other grands crus here also have names that end in Chambertin, such as Griotte-Chambertin or Charmes-Chambertin.

As for the laughable notion that the best winemakers have the grands crus, the next best the premiers crus, and so on, down through regional to village appellations – forget it. Armand Rousseau, the
best-known domaine in Gevrey-Chambertin, has grand cru land, but also premier cru and village. Then there are the tiny parcels of vines, often dotted all over the place, and the vagaries of terroir and winemaking, as a result of which my wine may taste quite different from yours, even though the vines are just a few metres apart. Add to this the Napoleonic laws requiring inheritance to be split fairly between children, so that those small vineyards often have owners with the same surname, and you have a tangle that any entrail would envy.

Napoleon, who reportedly drank a bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin a day, should have managed things a little better, but what can you expect of a man who preferred his Burgundy mixed with water?

Cabotte has made wiser decisions. C—, who has lived in Burgundy, points out that this is the kind of restaurant you wish you could find there but rarely do. He is drinking Domaine Jacques Girardin’s Les Terrasses de Bievaux 2014, from Santenay, 50 kilometres south of Gevrey-Chambertin in the Côte de Beaune, and nibbling happily on a tiny fried drumstick dunked in a truly excellent tartare. It’s a frog’s leg. We are following it with beef cheeks bourguignon and tarte Tatin. Unlike Napoleon, we don’t do things by halves.

Cabotte, opened by two master sommeliers, Xavier Rousset and Gearoid Devaney, is the answer to my Burgundy problem, because the best way to love and understand the wine is just to drink it. This is true of all good wine but Burgundy is so unfathomable that I know wine lovers who can probably recite all 300-odd indigenous Italian grape varieties, yet blanch at the sight of a Pinot Noir from this recalcitrant, impossible, wonderful part of France.

That’s a failure of guts – or should that be entrails? Burgundy can be boring and insipid, but then so can conversation, yet nobody gives up talking. We just seek better company.

Next week: John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2018 and 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and the 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman, and the author of The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, published by Bloomsbury. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.


This article appears in the 03 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind