By David White
If any grape demands contemplation, it's Pinot Noir.
The great bottles are able to translate time and place, clearly expressing the characteristics of their vintage and the soils and climate in which they're grown. The greatest examples almost always come from Burgundy, Pinot Noir's birthplace.
But prices for Burgundy's storied wines have skyrocketed. So many wine enthusiasts simply avoid the entire region, assuming that its wines are priced beyond reach.
It doesn't have to be this way. Many compelling wines from Burgundy don't break the bank. And finally, some vintners are making an effort to spread this gospel.
Amaury Devillard, who helps oversee the vineyards and winemaking at five estates with his sister Aurore, is one of them.
"Today, you can easily find wines that offer a classic expression of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir at a very fair price," he explained. "The lesser-known appellations are a hidden gem and represent a tremendous price-to-quality ratio. More than ever, you have beautiful wine for the money."
Devillard, who was chatting with me as a representative the Bourgogne Wine Board, a trade group, had the most praise for the value offered in Rully, Mercurey, and Givry, three villages in the Cote Chalonnaise, a sub-region in Burgundy that's often overlooked by oenophiles.
Wine enthusiasts have always looked to Burgundy for wines of consequence. In the Middle Ages, Cistercian monks began observing different sites and the quality of the resulting wines, isolating specific vineyards over time. An informal classification of vineyards soon emerged, and by the end of the 19th century, the local agricultural board had created a three-tier system for rating the various sites.
The French government formalized this ranking in 1936. Today, Burgundy's vineyards are classified as "Grand Cru," "Premier Cru," and "Village." Wines from unclassified sites are bottled by their regional designation.
Just 32 vineyards are classified as "Grand Cru," and together, the resulting wines comprise less than 5 percent of Burgundy's total production. Oenophiles worship most of them -- and prices have reached epic proportions.
According to Wine-Searcher.com, which aggregates retail wine prices from across the globe, 40 of the 50 most expensive bottles of wine now come from Burgundy. Every wine on that list sells for over $1,000 per bottle. In the auction market, where top Burgundy has long found an audience, prices have increased 43 percent over the past five years.
One could argue that top Burgundy is still worth the tariff. Experiences where Pinot Noir achieves the grape's higher purpose -- translating both time and place -- are few and far between, but always spiritual.
The wines that Devillard and I were chatting about can't really compete with the ones that sell for thousands of dollars per bottle. But they do give a sense of Burgundy's aspirations. I'd liken it to touring a gorgeous, perfectly manicured garden on a foggy day. You get a sense of how stunning it would be if the skies were clear.
Devillard sees a silver lining to Burgundy's rising prices. "Now that these wines are more expensive then ever, consumers have the opportunity to discover lesser known appellations," he said.
In addition to Rully, Mercurey, and Givry, Devillard highlighted the wines from Santenay and Marsannay.
"When I was 10 years old," Devillard continued, "I remember my grandfather telling me about a vineyard that would 'never make good wine.' He was right because the resulting wines weren't very good. But he was wrong because it wasn't a question of terroir -- it was a question of quality. And quality has never been as impressive as it is today."
David White is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com, which was named "Best Overall Wine Blog" at the 2013 Wine Blog Awards. His columns are housed at GrapeCollective.com."