I am beginning this bi-weekly journal with Burgundy because it is a touchstone region that is easy to love, yet difficult to know.
A Burgundian wine does not have to be from Burgundy at all. Very often it is an ideal, a poetic model winemakers the world over use as a guidepost. It is a quality most wine lovers can identify, especially those who have had the good fortune to taste a benchmark pinot noir from the Côte de Nuits or chardonnay from the Côte de Beaune. Burgundian wines possess elegance, balance and finesse. They are neither crass, nor monolithic, nor weighed down by the artifice of high alcohol or excessive oak treatment. Most of all, Burgundian wines prepare us for the pleasure of the real thing, the aha moment when you bring a glass of Premier Cru Volnay or Pommard to your lips and realize, or remember, what all the fuss is about.
How do you move from appreciating the wide sweep of wines from Burgundy, and bottles from around the world that capture its spirit, to knowing the unique expressions of Burgundy’s individual towns, called communes or climats. Reading will only get you so far. Tasting one bottle at a time, however lovely, will not provide a reference point. Comparative or technical tastings often seem stilted in a home setting.
Holiday meals, however, especially more intimate gatherings or holiday season dinner parties, offer a stage ripe for exploration of wines that may stretch the budget in other circumstances. The table is set. Someone, maybe you, is already cooking a multi-course seasonal meal. Instead of just pairing wines and foods, why not use the opportunity to take your guests on a journey? A couple of well-chosen bottles of Burgundy can certainly elevate a celebration.
Which brings me back to Volnay and Pommard. Perhaps no two communes illustrate terroir in Burgundy as clearly as these neighboring villages. Like Barbaresco and Barolo in Piedmont, they are unmistakably feminine and masculine expressions of the same grape variety, in this case pinot noir. Drive or bicycle south from Beaune on the Route des Grands Crus and you will arrive in Pommard, an appellation whose relatively low elevation, underground spring water, and sediment composed of a heavy mix of clay and iron yield wines of deep color, intensity and structure. These are appealing, powerful, ageworthy wines that will be especially attractive to fans of collectible cabernet sauvignon.
Upon crossing Pommard, the road makes the gentle climb up the limestone and chalk hill to the village of Volnay. The appellation comprises two such hills with a valley in between and stretches on a north-south axis from Pommard to Meursault. Volnay is home to a cadre of superb producers and more than half of its vineyard land is designated Premier Cru. Its east-facing vineyards produce refined wines with silky tannins and floral bouquets. In the hands of skilled vintners, Volnays more than make up for what they lack in power with lacy complexity and a strong point of view. It is as if, upon crossing a border, the wines reflect the sky instead of the earth.
This year, we will serve Volnay and Pommard at our second Thanksgiving meal, the one we celebrate at home on Saturday evening with friends or family we missed the first time around, the one I shop for on Black Friday after the crowds have left the markets. We will begin with a Volnay from a classic producer such as d’Angerville or Lafarge served alongside a butternut squash soup infused with cardamom. It will be the Volnay’s first act. I am already dreaming about the way the wine’s red berry and violet aromas will mingle with the soup’s sweet spices of the orient. We will be sure to pour it judiciously so that enough remains for everyone to have an ample second glass later in the night.
It can't be stressed enough that in Burgundy the producer of a wine matters as much as designation or price. Be it village level, Premier or Grand Cru, the wines of the the best domaines are marked by vitality: an integration of acidity, tannins and fruit that awakens the senses. Vitality can be present in a quiet wine or one with an explosive flavor profile. It is a quality you feel in your mouth and crave once it is recognized. Some very expensive wines from Premier Cru vineyards taste good but still seem heavy and dull. These wines tend to be less interesting on the third sip than on the first. A wine with vitality will give the impression of being lifted and multidimensional. It will hold your attention over the course of the entire meal.
With the main course we will bring out a Pommard, likely a Les Fremiers from Domaine de Courcel, to go with our small turkey, a gravy made from the jus, herbed stuffing and cranberry-shallot compote. The hope is that the wine’s firm tannins and darker fruits will bring a level of sensuousness to this classic dinner without overpowering its understated flavors.
The turkey will be followed by a cheese course, at which point we will pour the remainder of the Volnay. Volnay is a wine that transforms in the glass, especially younger vintages. Once the bottle has been opened, it undergoes a kind of alchemy. After an hour or so of exposure to oxygen, the wine often seems substantially fuller and more brooding.
I asked Laurent Drouhin, the US Market Director for Joseph Drouhin, why this happens. He explained that when you open a Volnay, you get very refined and delicate fragrances. Then, as the wine integrates, those fragrances give way to deeper aromas of dark flowers and rich fruit. While the backbone of the wine and the structure of the tannins remain constant, the wine grows more harmonious, giving the impression of being a bit fuller and more intense.
My hope is that by lingering over these wines at the end of the meal and experiencing the grace and power of the Pommard alongside the increasingly complex and harmonious Volnay, the impressions gleaned from savoring these benchmark wines will be etched into the memory of everyone at our table.. That way, on a cold winter night when looking for something deep and meditative to go with a tagine, perhaps we’ll pull out that Pommard tucked in the back of the cellar. Or maybe we will turn to the ethereal perfumes of a Volnay instead of sake next time we venture out for sushi.
On the practical side, just being able to communicate our experience of these wines to a sommelier or wine merchant will help them guide us toward other wines we might enjoy from Burgundy and beyond. Within the region, the feminine qualities of Volnay are amplified in Chambolle-Musigny and the muscularity of Pommard takes on another dimension in the wines of Gevrey-Chambertin. That is the classic extension of the conversation. Once we begin to have reference points, there are so many unexpected directions it can go in.
Some outstanding Volnay producers include: Domaine Marquis d’Angerville, Domaine Michel Lafarge, Domaine des Comtes Lafon, Domaine de Montille, and Joseph Drouhin. In Pommard, exceptional wines can be found from Domaine de Courcel and Domaine Comte Armand. Keep in mind that many of the top Volnay producers make wines in Pommard and vice versa. If you are drawn to the style of a particular domaine, it’s worth trying an array of their vineyard designate wines and their wines from across the appellation's border.