Unearth secrets behind a great red

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 November, 2002, 12:00am

For the consumer of top French wines, choosing a bottle of Bordeaux is easy. All the hard work has already been done for you. Ancient classification systems have categorised wines from the famous chateaux into tiered 'growths'. The well-heeled can choose a first-growth Chateau Margaux while a fifth-growth Chateau Cantemerle is a superb yet affordable wine for the rest of us.

However, those who really love wine will want to explore beyond the familiar boundaries. For those who love Bordeaux, what else is out there?

Burgundy seems an obvious next step. So many wine writers and connoisseurs wax lyrical about the seductive powers of great burgundy. In her book, Confessions Of A Wine Lover, Jancis Robinson admitted her love affair with wine was 'ignited by a single, outstanding and still memorable bottle of red burgundy'.

At first glance, burgundy wine labels are difficult to decipher. However, there is a secret to unlocking all the complexities: think real estate. On this basis, there is nothing about a bottle of burgundy that should fool a wine-loving Hong Kong resident.

Burgundy comprises five sub-regions: Chablis in the north, the Cote d'Or around the town of Beaune, Cote Chalonnaise, Maconnais and Beaujolais. The Cote d'Or is again subdivided into the Cote de Nuits and the Cote de Beaune and it is these two regions that produce the famous red and white burgundies.

There are four elementary points to remember about Burgundy: the region is cold and wet, grows pinot noir and chardonnay almost exclusively, is called Bourgogne in French, and it is the plot of land on which the vines have been grown that determines the classification of the wine.

The quality hierarchy of appellations begins with regional wines. These will often only show the term AC Bourgogne on a label. The next level up, communal appellations, reflects the legal right of a large number of Burgundian wine-growing villages to attach their name to wines grown on their soil. Probably the most common examples of this would be an AC Nuits-Saint-Georges or an AC Meursault.

Within each village, vineyards are divided into named plots whose location and extremities are recorded. These plots are known as 'climats'. If the climat is deemed worthy, the wines will be granted premier cru or grand cru status. There are 562 premier cru climats and sales-minded producers will invariably include 'premier cru'' on the label.

Take the communal appellation of Pommard as an example. Within Pommard's 337 hectares only some of the climats (a total of 125 hectares) have premier cru status. The names of such premier cru climats as Les Arvelets, Clos Blanc and Les Bertins may or may not appear on the label.

In comparison, the 33 grand cru appellations are extremely easy to spot. On a label, climats such as Chambertin, Montrachet and Musigny will always be followed by the words 'grand cru appellation controlee'. Many of these grand cru appellations are extremely small. Montrachet and Musigny each cover only 7.9 and 10.7 hectares respectively.

Owing to ancient inheritance laws, the climats throughout Burgundy are split up and owned by many different growers. There is nothing unusual in one grower having only one or two rows of vines in a particular climat. Some larger family producers may have a few rows of vines in several different climats. They will bring the grapes to their central production facility but vinify and bottle the different parcels of grapes separately.

Negotiants in Burgundy play an enormous role. Top negotiants such as Bouchard, Patriarche, Louis Latour, Leflaive and Drouhin all own vineyards in many climats and buy grapes from individual growers. They each will then produce a repertoire of regional, communal, premier cru and grand cru wines.

The negotiants have a reputation to keep and take the guesswork out of choosing good burgundy.

This is important in Hong Kong when you are going to pay $400 for a communal Meursault, $500 for a Pommard premier cru and upwards of $800 for a Batard Montrachet grand cru. Be careful about falling too deeply in love with great burgundy: your life may be the richer for it, but your wallet won't be.