Though I’m a “localophile” and a great admirer of Santa Barbara Central Coast wines, I often look elsewhere for stimulation. Recently, I filled that need by crossing the Atlantic, figuratively, and asking myself “Why Burgundy?”

The venue was the Wine Cask seminar, “The Wines of Burgundy,” presented by Master Sommelier Peter Neptune. To a sold-out audience Neptune shared his insight with aplomb and humor. Through maps, personal photos of villages and vineyards, and annotated descriptors of the Burgundian districts, he led us through the climate and critical geology from Chablis through Côte d’Or to Beaujolais. Complementing the visual feast was an interspersed guided tasting of nine representative wines.

Several factors make Bourgogne a rich wine-growing region. In northeastern France, it is situated between 45-47th parallel latitude where colder winters and cooler, shorter summers push ripening to the edge. The key soils are Jurassic limestones found in the Kimmeridgean chalk hills in Chablis. The soils are deep, forcing the feeder roots to extend 50 to 1,000 feet from where they bring up trace minerals that enhance flavor.

In the northern Côte de Nuits lie the Pinot Noir vineyards of Chambertin, Bonne Mares, Musigny, Echezeaux and Romanée. The southern Côte de Beaune’s wetter and more temperate climate gives rise to the Chardonnays of Pommard, Volnay, Meursault and the Grand Cru of Puligny and Montrachet. Within a narrow band of land lie the Grand Cru vineyards upslope and below, in the rich alluvial soils, reside Premier Cru (1er), which are generally excellent and usually more affordable.

Farther south, Côte Chalonnaise yields Pinot Noirs from Mercurey and Chardonnays from Montagny. Mediterranean influences begin to infuse the Macconais region’s Chardonnay with the wines of Macon and Pouilly-Fuissé, mixing fruitiness and minerality. In the most southern region, with more granite northern Rhone terroir, lies Beaujolais, noted for Gamay from communes such as Brouilly and Morgon.

The viticulture in Burgundy is ancient, as the Benedictine monks first recognized the finer terroir. The nobility became involved, and as was the manner of the wealthy, Prince DeConti purchased the Romanée vineyard in 1769 for pleasure and status. When the French Revolution disbanded individual ownership, the lands were auctioned off and fractionalized. Negociants began serving as middlemen, securing allocations of grapes or juice for producers.

In 1861, the AOC system ranked wines designating Grand Cru (32), premier Cru (scores), Village and Regional (AOC Bourgogne). Labels reflect ranking flowing downward from vineyard/producer alone for Grand Cru; village, vineyard alone, and producer in 1er cru and commune/villages often with the more renowned local vineyards now hyphenated and incorporated into the village name to give their local wines status and improved marketability. Production-wise, the AOC determines the earliest picking date, demands hand harvesting and allows chapellatization (the addition of sugar to the juice) in less ripe years to raise alcohol percentage.

Ground to Glass

So how does the golden slope translate into the Burgundian style? Amongst those sampled, Chablis Vieilles Vignes (old vines), Savary 2004 ($26) exemplified the northern style. Vibrancy infused with green apples and minimal oak provided a crisp experience. While it is described as an intellectual wine, my tablemates agreed Savary has a “wet minerality.” The Grand Cru Echezeaux Mongeard-Mugneret 2003 ($90) reflected the northern characteristics, with elements of dark fruits, plums, aromatic Chinese 5 spice and a sweet, long, black earth finish. Georges 1er Cru Les Chênes Carteaux, Henri Georges, 2003 ($70) was muscular, Chambertin-like, with peppery-spiced black fruit and balanced tannins for aging. A fine value, the Volnay, Bouley 2002 ($44), described as classic Burgundy structure and fruit, was checked on the purchase list of many attendees. Unique features were noted in the Meursault-Genevrieres, Bouchard Père et Fils, 2003 ($82), a Chardonnay displaying smooth crème brulée with butterscotch and a characteristic hazelnut. Finally, from Chassagne-Montrachet, Vieilles Vignes, Bernard Moray ($49) came the classic features of a softer, accessible, harmonious balance of fruit and minerality, displaying apples, peach and even tropical kiwi.

These and other wines were swirled, inhaled and tasted both alone and with the accompaniments of breads, cheeses, pâté, fruits and nuts. Neptune recommended we expand our senses and search out the flavors in our surroundings – smell and taste the exotic fruits and spices abundant in our markets, smell the musty floor and even lick a rock. This provided a framework for Burgundian experience: soil, chalk, cherry, plums, raspberries, crushed wild strawberries, violets, honeysuckle, hazel nut, crème brulée, pepper, spices all infused with that “liquid minerality.” They’re smooth, long, seamless and the tastes linger in memory.

Sip Tip

I recently tasted some wines worth noting from Clos Du Val, a pioneer winery in Napa Valley since 1972. From the new vintages I tasted from the Clos Du Val Classic line, my two favorites were the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) and the 2003 Merlot ($25), both showcasing fruit blended from their Stags Leap District vineyards and other top sites in Napa. The 2003 Napa crop size was small, resulting in exceptional quality. These wines are definite bang for the buck with their balanced fruit and concentrated color and flavors.