In a narrow, crooked road unmarked by street names, a small house and what looks like a simple shed is home to one of the most sought-after Burgundy wines: Domaine Emmanuel Rouget's Vosne Romanee Cros Parantoux 1er Cru. A visitor unfamiliar with the village of Vosne-Romanee is certain to miss this simple dwelling. There are no signs and no indication of a house number. Even the famous Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, housed in the same village has no sign, but those who have visited the cellars once will remember the red gate and the small doorbell that bears the domaine's name in tiny letters.
Visiting domaines in Burgundy is nothing like visiting the chateaux in Bordeaux, and as far removed from the friendly cellar doors of Napa Valley or Barossa as one can get. Only those with persistence and understanding of the rapid-fire French spoken by residents will be able to find these tiny domaines hidden between ordinary houses, and visits are by appointment only, of course.
As visitors to this region, we still persevere. The best of Burgundy enjoys a near-mythical status for its wines. In reality, many producers such as Domaine Emmanuel Rouget are elusive - their wines (and wineries) are difficult to find and often confusing because of the huge variation in quality among the different levels and the variations produced by vintage.
Emmanuel Rouget, who is the nephew of the late legendary winemaker Henri Jayer, is one of many producers who live off the reputation of its top wines. In a recent visit to his domaine, I was once again disappointed by almost his entire range except for a small handful of his top wines, including the 2008 and 2009 Vosne Romanee Cros Parantoux 1er Cru.
The Burgundy region is divided and subdivided among small producers who own minute parcels of land, sometimes just rows of vines, which vary in quality at the various levels in which the wines are classified, labelled and bottled. While one vineyard site may produce a fantastic, sumptuous wine, the same producer may bottle a wine from a lesser site that can be disappointing. In addition, with the enormous influence that vintage variation plays in this continental climate, buying Burgundy can be quite a gamble.
Clos de Vougeot exemplifies the complex nature of Burgundy: nearly 80 owners share a mere 50 hectares of vines which would all be labelled Clos de Vougeot, Grand Cru, Burgundy. Depending on the producer, wines can be sublime, a huge disappointment or something in between. The Grand Cru vineyard of Corton, which is larger than Vougeot but less sub-divided, can be equally spotty in quality. However, with a 'Grand Cru' vineyard status, all the wines will be sold at high prices.
Land, or terroir, is everything in Burgundy. Prime vineyards hold such importance that key villages have named themselves after them: for example, Chambolle-Musigny, Puligny-Montrachet and Vosne Romanee. Musigny, Montrachet and Romanee are the famous Grand Cru vineyards which produce the finest wines in Burgundy and Chambolle, Puligny and Vosne are the villages that decided to add the Grand Cru vineyard names after their village name.
Despite, or perhaps because of, Burgundy's elusiveness, there is a continuous stream of devotees making an effort to grasp this tiny wine region. Even the term 'Burgundy' has several definitions - the main contention between those who include Beaujolais and those who do not. Legally, Beaujolais (the predominantly cherry bubblegum-flavoured simple wine) is included. However, most wine writers and enthusiasts when they mention Burgundy usually refer just to the Cote D'Or region, which encompasses the premium wine-growing areas.
During my trip to Burgundy last month, it surprised me that for many of the wines, I preferred the 2008s to the 2009s. Given the reputation and the prices that the 2009 vintage enjoys, I was surprised at my tasting results. For whites, 2008 is hands-down, clearly the winner. Everywhere that I sampled whites, I preferred the 2008s. The 2008 whites have focus, a precision and detail in the flavours, and an amazing line of acidity running through their backbones. At Domaine Leflaive, I was emotionally moved by Anne Claude Leflaive's 2008s last year when I visited. However, in 2009, the wines were excellent, as they are nearly every year from this top domaine, but it was a more cerebral experience.
A friend, who is an avid Burgundy lover confided: 'I had the opportunity to taste Henry Jayer's 1985 Echezeaux and it was out of this world. The wine was so beautiful that it actually made me cry. I loved it so much that I bought as much as possible from auctions and from anyone who had them.' When he started to uncork the bottles from the many cases he bought, he said: 'I was so disappointed that I could have cried.' The bottle variations were so high that no bottle was the same and none were as good as the first one that he remembered.
The usual rule of thumb for Burgundy is to choose wines by producer rather than by vintage or by vineyard site. Even then, the path is riddled with pitfalls - take Emmanuel Rouget for example. All of his wines, except for his Cros Parantoux 1er Cru, were really disappointing, including his Grand Cru Echezeaux and his Premier Cru Vosne Romanee Les Beaumont. We Burgundy lovers are bound for heartache - we know that each handcrafted wine, despite the huge price tags, will either bring a sublime experience or a huge disappointment.