According to the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, great thinkers can be separated into two broad categories: hedgehogs and foxes. While hedgehogs view the world through one single defining idea, foxes embrace the multitude of contradictory experiences that life throws up.
It’s no stretch to place the world- famous wine critic Robert Parker, with his all-encompassing theories of wine production, into the hedgehog category; while Master of Wine Jasper Morris, who was in Tokyo last month to hold a tasting of Burgundy wines, could easily be said to personify an extremely knowledgeable fox-type expert.
Morris couldn’t have chosen a better field of expertise to suit his intellect than the wines of Burgundy. Burgundy, in the east of France, is notorious for its complexity, with a wide variety of soil types, producers and production methods that make it a formidable area to grapple with.
“I don’t think certainty and Burgundy go very well together. So if you try and define things, saying ‘you must do this to make a good wine,’ you probably miss the point.” Morris explains. This is something he says he noticed with Parker, who created his reputation based on his tasting skills and understanding of Bordeaux. “Out of his knowledge of Bordeaux, he developed certain rules to say what you need to do in order to make good Bordeaux. I would, broadly speaking, agree with those rules but you can’t transplant them to Burgundy.”
Part of Morris’ role as Burgundy Director for wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd is acting as an ambassador for the region’s wines, hence the visit to Japan. Though a single tasting session doesn’t allow Morris to sum up the region, the idea was to give participants a snapshot of three upcoming new winemakers who are making a good reputation for themselves in the area. After the session held at the Tokyo Kaikan hotel, The Japan Times was lucky enough to talk to Morris in greater detail about the complexities of Burgundy.
The most outstanding wines on the tasting list were by newcomer Olivier Bernstein. Proving that there are no easy generalizations to make about Burgundy, Bernstein is what’s known as a micro-negociant, meaning that he doesn’t own the vineyards his wine is grown in, but instead buys in grapes from top Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards. “Because he doesn’t own his own vineyards and has to buy in grapes, I wasn’t initially planning on working with him,” says Morris. It was only after he tasted the wines and thought “gosh these are really good, I could really do something with these,” that he changed his mind.
Unlike Bordeaux in the southwest of France, land in Burgundy is divided into tiny parcels, a situation shaped by Napoleonic laws of inheritance that split property between siblings instead of passing it on whole to the first-born son. Until recently, owners of small parcels of land just didn’t have the resources to make wine. Instead, they sold their grapes on. This led to some antagonism between negociants and growers when it came to decisions about vineyards. Since the 1980s, however, things have changed quite a bit.
“Now negociants are saying ‘Well we had better try and control our own vineyards,’ and more and more of the negociants actually own the majority of the vineyards they work with. Also, the small growers are saying ‘We’re selling out every year and our customers are clamoring for more wine. We can’t find any other vineyards to buy, so we’ll become small-scale negociants as well,” says Morris. “For example, take Sylvain Loichet: The wines that we had were from his own vineyards, he also makes a little range of wines from bought-in grapes. The lines have become blurred,” he explains.
In the tasting, Loichet’s wines expressed it’s place of origin the best. Much of Burgundy has limestone-rich soil mixed with clay and Loichet’s wines have a particularly powerful mineral scent produced by the limestone. Though not yet certified, the young winemaker uses bio-dynamic methods that give the wines a very natural expression. “It seems to make the wines purer and to enhance the minerality,” muses Morris.
Plots of land higher up a slope can yield wine that tastes significantly different from those lower down, and how much sunlight the vine gets is also a huge factor in the resulting taste of the wine. While these variations have been strictly defined with the superior areas being labeled as Grand Cru or Premier Cru, the vagaries of climate change are beginning to throw a spanner in the rather antiquated works of France’s Appellation system.
“The Grand Crus appear to be unaffected; but with the Premier Crus, what was a favorite vineyard, we now like a bit less, and what was a less favored vineyard, we like a bit more,” Morris explains. “For example, Chambolle Musigny, Le Musigny and Les Amoureuses are not affected. But after those areas, people used to cite Chambolle Musigny Les Charmes as their favorite Premier Cru — and now I would say it would be Les Cras or Les Fuees, both of which are higher on the slope. That would be a little detail that has changed a bit.”
Though he represents a wine merchant, Morris is not prepared to be an apologist for the region, and during his talk he surprised his audience by speaking out about a recent trend for making below-par Chardonnay, saying: “White Burgundy is simpler to make than red, but the recent generation have not really applied themselves to the grape.”
Despite the complexities of place and producer, the grape varieties that are the best expression of the region are simply unblended Chardonnay or Pinot. If you are able to gain an understanding of these grapes, especially the subtleties of Pinot, then you are ready explore the myriad producers that make up this intriguing region.
“It has to be complex, but you can get to the core of certain things, like what makes the Pinot Noir tick, once you understand that, then so many other things fall into place,” says Morris.
At the end of this year Morris is to publish his guide to Burgundy and its wines, which will include commentaries on all the vineyards, soil types and slopes. But with the evolution of the region throwing up new mysteries to explore, even that comprehensive compendium will not be his last word on the subject. “As well as enjoying the taste of the wines, I find Burgundy really intellectually stimulating, in so far as there are so many different growers and so many different producers — I can never stop learning and that’s one of the big attractions.”
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