Let’s Copy the French

If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then we should flatter the French. Not by copying their wines, but by copying how to show them to the public.

Those who know me or have read my columns know that I love French wines, especially Burgundy. That said, I don’t think California producers should try to emulate them. Californians should not try to make Pinot Noir that taste like Burgundy. Rather, they should continue to produce wines that reflect their unique origins. But there is something I think the California wine industry–as well as Oregon or New York for that matter–would be wise to copy from the Burgundians: Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne, a week-long series of intensive tastings.

Billed as the largest open air wine exhibition in the world and open only to people with some affiliation to the trade–retailers, sommeliers, winery workers, restaurateurs– Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne is a fabulous opportunity to learn about the differences between appellations, vineyards and producers.

Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne

Les Grands Jours, held every other year in March, starts in Chablis on Monday with a tasting of wines from Chablis and an obscure area of Burgundy, Le Grand Auxerrois. A hundred or so producers pour their wines and answer questions. This is the time to decipher the difference between the Grand Cru of Chablis, because you can taste 20 different producers’ Les Clos and compare them to their Vaudésir or Valmur, two other Chablis Grand Cru. Here’s the place to learn about new AOCs, such as Irancy, where Pinot Noir is planted and is blended with up to 15% of César, a grape formerly unknown to me, to produce a riper wine.

On Tuesday, tasters move about 100 miles south to the Côte d’Or, the heart of Burgundy, where the day is devoted to the wines of the Côtes de Nuits. Four tastings involving about 200 producers occur simultaneously and compete for attention. Gevrey-Chambertin is the locale for about 60 to 70 producers to showcase the wines of that village plus those of Fixin and Marsannay. In Chambolle-Musigny, another 50 to 60 exhibitors present about 400 wines, permitting tasters to compare that village’s wines side-by-side with those from neighboring Morey-Saint-Denis. An array of wines from Nuits-Saint-Georges awaits tasters in that village. The iconic Renaissance-era Clos Vougeot is the venue for the Grand Crus from that vineyard alongside the premier and Grand Crus from Vosne-Romanée, including Richebourg, Echezeaux and Grands Echezeaux. A shuttle service transfers participants from one tasting to another, or those who are sufficiently brave or temperate can drive themselves. (Balloons at each tasting allow tasters to check blood alcohol levels to be sure it remains below France’s 0.05 percent limit, considerably lower than the 0.08 percent in the US).

You Can’t Do It All

For the remainder of the week, the locales shift, but the format–simultaneous tastings, any one of which could hold your attention for the entire day–means that the temptations and opportunities remain constant. Although it’s frustrating that so many unique opportunities occur at the same time, it does mean that the crowds are spread over four or five equally fine tastings and none are impossibly crowded. And since it is physically impossible to taste everything, it forces one to develop a plan or a focus each day. Taste wines from producers already known, or from those who lack representation in the US?

Here’s a chance to discern the differences between wines from Fixin and Marsannay. Some cynics might question, why bother, but with the price of Burgundy going through the roof, wines from these villages are going to be very popular soon. And when would one otherwise have such an opportunity? Or one can focus on how one producer differs from another by fixing in your mind (and on your palate) the more delicate style of Drouhin’s Musigny compared to the more robust one from Roumier. However you approach each day’s event, you invariably come away with a clear sense of a single vintage, since the vast majority of the wines are from the current year (2006 for this year’s event).

A day–not nearly enough time–is devoted to over 250 producers of Cremant de Bourgogne, wines from the Hautes-Côtes de Beaune, the Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, the five AOCs just north of Beaune–Aloxe-Corton, Chorey-lès-Beaune, Ladoix-Serrigny, Pernand-Vergelesses and Savigny-lès-Beaune–and the Mâconnais. At least there’s no traveling, since all the producers have stands in the large meeting hall in Beaune. The opportunities for expanding one’s knowledge are endless–are Pouilly-Vinzelles really different from Pouilly-Fuissé, and are they worth the premium over top-notch producers wines from Mâcon?

During the day devoted to wandering the cellars of Corton, called Terroirs de Corton, 70 producers had their 2006 Corton-Charlemagne and 2005 reds available for tasting. This is the perfect time to study the difference between wines from the various vineyards, such as Bressandes and Clos du Roi, each entitled to put Corton Grand Cru on their label, because dozens of producers are showing examples of each.

The tastings–and tempting buffet lunches–are beautifully organized and financed by the Bureau Interprofessional des Vins de Bourgogne (BIVB) or Burgundy wine growers association.

Les Grands Jours of California–Why Not?

California winegrowers organize many extensive tastings, but they are not coordinated. The Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) holds its annual tasting extravaganza yearly in January in San Francisco. Sonoma County highlights its wines at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair in October. A Taste of Oakville at the end of April at Robert Mondavi Winery highlights the wines from that AVA. Sixteen wineries in Rutherford open their cellars May 17 and 18 of this year to allow consumers to taste the wines of that area. But wouldn’t it be great to have tastings coordinated so consumers could see–and taste for themselves–the difference between the AVAs that comprise the Napa Valley? Later the venue could shift over the Mayacamus Mountains to allow tasters to explore the differences between the AVAs of Sonoma. It would give the world an opportunity to see the distinctiveness of Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap, Rutherford and Oakville, or show how Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley differs from that in Carneros.

Logistical Problems to Overcome

California is far larger than Burgundy, and wine regions are spread over a vast area. The logistical difficulties involved in arranging such coordinated tastings would be enormous. But as in Burgundy, many AVAs are clustered in specific regions, such as Monterey, Santa Lucia Highlands and Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco or Santa Ynez, Santa Maria and Santa Rita Hills near Santa Barbara, making travel more manageable. The advantage of going to the individual areas–as opposed to bringing the wines to some central location–is that you get a real appreciation for the locale, soil and climate as you see the vineyards.

It’s a concept suitable to multiple American wine areas, such as the compact, but geographically diverse, Willamette Valley south of Portland where the AVAs of Dundee Hills, Chehalem and Yamhill-Carlton, to name just three, produce different and distinctive wines. The Finger Lakes of New York, where the well marked Cayuga, Seneca and Keuka Wine Trails already exist, could showcase their Rieslings and other wines. These kinds of coordinated tastings would demonstrate to the world the high quality, uniqueness and diversity of American wines.

April 8, 2008