Sunday, January 29, 2012

Pigskins in Burgundy, or What's a white burgundy worth?

When MFWC saw a Puligny-Montrachet in the bargain bin in September for $20, he fell on it like an NFL special teams player recovering a fumble in a playoff game. One of the most exalted names in the French region of Burgundy, Montrachet is a vineyard with such cachet that several neighboring villages, Puligny among them, have attached its name to their own to increase the marketability of their wines. This P-M was a 2009 Olivier Leflaive that usually retails for $45 to $50. That's modest pricing by the standards of white burgundy, which for centuries has been the world's preeminent white, with prices to match. Winemakers around the world have tried to reach those august levels by planting Chardonnay, the grape from which the best white burgundies are made. (The reds, of course, are of Pinot Noir.) The pricing means that wine drinkers with modest budgets don't drink a lot of good white burgundy, hence MFWC's responding to the P-M as if it were a pigskin. (Pigskins and Burgundy aren't as far apart as you might think; Ma Cuisine in Beaune, a beloved restaurant in the heart of Burgundy, serves a small dish of pork rinds at the beginning of a meal.)

One way around this fiscal dilemma is to drink wines from Chablis, a town in the northernmost parts of Burgundy famous for producing whites often described as "steely," or "austere." In part because most Americans associate Chablis with the bad white wine they drank in the 1970s and 1980s, much of which did not in fact come from Chablis, or even from France, wines from Chablis tend to be underpriced relative to those from elsewhere in Burgundy. That's not true for the product of Raveneau, a Chablis producer championed by Kermit Lynch, who began promoting the wines in the 1970s and is now able to impose such a mark-up when importing them that young vintages often cost more in a New York wine store than they do on some restaurant lists in France. Lynch's praise of the wines in his book sparked something of an obsession in MFWC, who ordered a 2000 Raveneau at a restaurant in Paris a year ago for €130 and quite enjoyed the delicacy of the wine, which smelled and tasted a little of honey but also had a solid backbone of acid.

At home Raveneau is off the table, though tastes of the wines of fellow Chablisiens Olivier et Alive de Moor and Patrick Piuze have lingered in MFWC's mind. The de Moor Aligote, which is delicious with oysters, can be had for under $20, though de Moor's higher-end bottles go for around $40 and Piuze's are a little more - again, cheap for Burgundy, if not for MFWC. Another possibility for those craving relatively affordable Chardonnay is to search out lesser-known blanc de blancs, or sparkling wines made entirely from that grape. After touring the Bekeley wine stores a few weeks ago, MFWC met some friends for dinner in Oakland and enjoyed a bottle of Diebolt Vallois Cramant 2005, a yeasty, creamy wine that went very well with food and can be had for $40 at Sherry-Lehman in New York.

Or you can luck out with a look in the bargain bin. Unable to resist temptation, MFWC opened the '09 Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet on Friday and thought it made for a damn good two hours of drinking after the cat pee aroma burned off within about fifteen minutes of opening. "Cat pee" is probably even more revolting than "barnyard" to any human with a nose, but it does accurately describe the sharp hit of acidity that can come from white burgundy. More pleasant were the fennel, vanilla, cream soda and even faint Coca-Cola (but better) aromas that followed, though the wine's smell often resisted description despite its considerable appeal. This wine would be perfect with roast chicken with rosemary and mashed potatoes with butter and cream, French comfort food at its finest.

So back to the question presented, as they call it in Legal Writing classes. Was the Leflaive worth it? At $20, unquestionably. The normal retain price seems fair to me as well, since the Leflaive seems on the order of Piuze and de Moor and Diebolt if less haunting than the Lopez de Heredia about which I wrote a few months ago, though I'm as deeply in the tank for Heredia as then-Washington Post sports columnist Tony Kornheiser was for the 1992 Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins. ( But I don't think I got any more enjoyment out of a Raveneau than I did out of the few ounces of a Piuze wine I tasted this summer. Three times as much? Certainly not, though I would certainly love to see how Raveneau goes with the chitlins at Ma Cuisine.               



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