Stop With the Plonk, French Burgundies Offer Value, Refinement

Joseph Drouhin Meursault
A bottle of Joseph Drouhin Meursault expresses its individual terroir and the essential flavors of chardonnay. Source: Joseph Drouhin via Bloomberg

The oft repeated advice to fledgling wine drinkers is to just “drink what you like,” in the hope they will at some point graduate from five-dollar plonk to 10-dollar plonk and maybe one day appreciate much better wines.

Such counsel is about as effective as telling a kid to read what they want, hoping they will soon ditch Harry Potter and graduate to Dostoevsky.

My advice to the budding wine enthusiast is to go out and buy a very good wine that is typical of its type, thereby having a standard by which to measure other wines.

Were I to recommend an introduction to fine cabernet sauvignon, I’d suggest a third- or fourth-cru Bordeaux or a Napa Valley estate in the $30-$50 range. For a premium Italian wine, a barolo or barbaresco. When it comes to chardonnay and pinot noir, however, I’d shy away from recommending big, flashy, oaky California examples and instead focus on French Burgundies.

The problem is, the very best Burgundies are out of reach for most consumers -- a bottle of Romanee-Conti costs about $10,000 -- and, unlike the wines of Bordeaux, which come from single estates, a single-vineyard Burgundy may be owned by many negociants (merchants) who buy the grapes, must, or wine then make blends bottled under their own label.

Becoming familiar with obscure Burgundy negociants is a lifelong project. But many well-established companies like Bouchard Pere & Fils, Louis Jadot, Domaine Leroy, and Joseph Drouhin are not only readily available in the global market but produce a wide range of consistently good wines, including some of the most illustrious and expensive.

Father’s Day Pair

So on Father’s Day this year, I celebrated by opening two Joseph Drouhin bottlings, a 2009 Meursault ($45.50) and a 2009 Morey-Saint-Denis ($50), the first with spaghetti with a basil pesto sauce, the latter with a grilled veal chop.

These are wines of enormous refinement, not to be drunk without food, and they vividly reminded me how distinctive Burgundian chardonnay and pinot noir can be.

The Meursault’s chardonnay grapes are picked by hand in selected vineyards from “trusted growers.” They are gently pressed and aged nine to 10 months, using only 30 percent new oak barrels, so that the subtlety of the wine remains and the complexity of the fruit itself is revealed both in the nose and the palate, with a creamy finish that is quintessentially chardonnay.

Spiders Under Control

Morey-Saint-Denis, on the Cote de Nuits between Gevrey-Chambertin and Chambolle-Musigny, only garnered its own appellation in 1935. Relative to its more famous neighbors, which have grand cru status, Morey-Saint-Denis wines are generally less expensive yet express the same lush virtues of the best pinot noir grapes. Drouhin draws from its partner vineyards with very low yields in order to “reveal every nuance of the terroir,” as well as deep color and lilac-like bouquet.

Using 20 percent new oak, Drouhin’s bottling spends 14 to 18 months in the barrel, blended after extensive tastings of each one. I might well let the wine age a year or more, but at this point, on a summer’s night, it could not have been a better expression of great but affordable pinot noir.

Drouhin is also a fine representative of French vineyards’ 21st-century attention to biological and biodynamic cultivation -- designed to limit the amount of chemicals by using organic compost and allowing natural predators to control spiders.

Under chief executive officer Philippe Drouhin, the 131-year-old company, with 73 hectares (182.5 acres) in Burgundy, switched to bottles that are 10 percent lighter, thereby reducing their carbon footprint.

Those are applaudable commitments, especially since global warming is making it increasingly difficult to grow the finicky pinot noir grape.

Right now, wines like these, in this price category, set the bar for a novice wine drinker by which to judge fine chardonnay and pinot noir. And for those of us converted long ago, we are reminded of what it was we loved about them in the first place.

(John Mariani writes on wine for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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