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One Burgundy, so many different wines

Wines

Burgundy lies between a rock and a hard place. It is the only French wine region whose name is different in English and in French. Whereas Bordeaux is Bordeaux in both languages, and the Loire is the Loire, Burgundy is the English translation of Bourgogne.

This creates an identity crisis for the region at the wine label level.

To complicate matters further, there are a lot of labels.

There are 100 different appellations or delineated zones of production in Burgundy: 33 Grand Crus (the top of the wine quality pyramid), 44 village designations and 23 regional designations.

Within the village designations, there are 684 named parcels of Premier Cru or First Growth status that fall just beneath the Grand Crus midst rank and pecking order. Yes. In Burgundy, "first" is "second." The Grand Cru vineyards are ranked higher than the Premier Cru vineyard parcels.

Village designations fall below the Premiers Crus and regional designations form the base of the wine quality pyramid.

"Wait," you say. "Are there three levels or four levels to this wine-quality pyramid?"

It depends on how you count. Welcome to Burgundy!

With 100 different appellations and 684 different named parcels added to that count, you might think that Burgundy produces 784 different wines, but that is not the case.

"Although Burgundy grows just a handful of grapes," states Jean-Pierre Renard, instructor for the Burgundy Wine School in Beaune, "after you add in the human factor (the producers), you are looking at 60,000 different wines.

"You would think that from Dijon to Chalon with similar topography, climate, soils and aspect you would get the same wine, but no," he continues. "It's like giving one recipe to many chefs. Even if they use the exact same ingredients, every single dish will taste differently."

The credo of the Burgundy Wine School reads: Burgundy is not complicated, but it is complex.

This is a simplification of the truth.

For example, in most of Europe, river valleys help moderate temperature and protect the vines from frost. It is for this reason that the grapevine hugs the waterways of a cold continent.

In the Burgundian sub-region of Chablis, the vines do the same. They hug the banks of the Serein River. But in Chablis, the Serein acts as a frost magnet. This low-lying river collects the cold air that drains down from the higher plateaus. As a result, those vineyards close to the water are the most vulnerable to frost (vs. the most protected).

In another anomaly (but one that also holds true for many wine regions), the grapevines that deliver the highest quality fruit are located on slopes on non-fertile soils.

In Burgundy, however, these slopes are riddled with fault lines. Burgundy's unique patchwork quilt soil structure is a result of more than 100 million years of compacted marine sediment (limestone) that was brought to the surface when the African plate collided with the Eurasian plate approximately 30-40 million years ago. Thousands of layers of limestone and clay were shifted up and down and left and right, shuffling the soil layers.

Over time, erosion and slope wash removed much of the topsoil. Today, the vines set down roots into the ancient soils of the Jurassic, a time period when dinosaurs ruled the earth.

You would think the wines would be pterodactyl but they are not. (Another anomaly?) Instead, they are subtle and nuanced.

"The tannins are there, but they are invisible," explains Renard when describing the magic of a red Burgundy.

Like the region itself, liquid Burgundy defies description.

You can't qualify or quantify Burgundy. You can't fit it into a box of logic. There are exceptions to every rule. In truth, becoming a student of Burgundy is akin to entering the twilight zone; one must embrace the ambiguity or run screaming back to one's own reality.

So what do you do when you find yourself in such a situation, when you find yourself between a rock and a hard place? Make stone juice. The Burgundians do!

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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