A wine magazine in France recently ran a piece about the holy grail of burgundy - the vines of Domaine Romanee Conti (DRC). The story related how, years ago, a young New Zealander was working at this king (or queen?) of Burgundian wineries and sneakily took some cuttings from the vineyard. The cuttings were transported home where they were confiscated - but not destroyed. Rumour has it they were planted at Ata Rangi - a top producer of New Zealand pinot noir.
It is a nice story but one immediately dismissed by Jasper Morris, master of wine and burgundy buyer for Berry Bros & Rudd. 'At DRC, it is about 'where' - and that the vineyards are well looked after - rather than a magical clone,' he says with a laugh.
The irony of the story is that while winemakers in places such as Oregon and New Zealand struggle to make pinot noir a la Bourgogne, it has only been in the past 20 years that Burgundy itself has been managing this feat at a consistent level. It began in the early 1980s, when a few domaines started bottling their own wine rather than selling the grapes to a negotiant. The negotiants rethought their position and bought their own properties at the higher end. Owners began to taste each other's wines, thus ceasing to assume their family 'brew' was the way the wine was supposed to taste.
But critically, at least for the consumer, the minefield that had been burgundy (the joke used to be that burgundy was twice as expensive as bordeaux because you had to buy two bottles to get one that was drinkable) blasted into the 90s with the phenomenal 1990 vintage and out with the excellent 1999 - with only the 1994 to disappoint in between.
Yet the region remains more of an enigma than Bordeaux, mainly to do with its fragmentation. However lauded the premier and grand cru system here may be, there are 38 grand crus and more than 500 premier crus - and most have multiple ownerships.
The other issue is the nature of pinot noir, and while this so-called 'heartbreak' grape is increasingly well nurtured there, outside Burgundy it may not be the case. Because of its thin skin, colour does not come easily. 'You can't force colour through aggressive extraction,' says Morris. His perception is that in the New World, pinot is allowed to achieve maximum - as opposed to optimal - ripeness and skins can suffer sunburn. To achieve a deeper colour, skins are pumped over or punched down - but so hard they bruise, heightening tannins. Further, if temperatures are raised at the end of fermentation, the wine turns coarse.
At its best, red burgundy is about fragrance, persistence of flavour and finesse, not immediate mid-palate weight and tannins. To borrow from Shakespeare, it is an 'iron fist in a velvet glove'. Invest in some DRC if you want to know what that feels like.