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Pinot Noir is a richly coveted grape.

Whether it's grown in Burgundy or in the Russian River Valley, Pinot Noir has become a richly coveted grape.

Russian River Valley (AVA)

Is Red Burgundy Dead?
The Rise of Non-French Pinot Noir

With the price of Burgundy wines going north and their availability going south, Pinot Noir lovers need only look west in the world to find their treasure. Russian River Valley would be a great place to start.

by Dan Berger
July 3, 2007

Say what you will about Burgundy – about the classic nature of its red wines, the fact that at their best they may be the greatest red wines on the planet, that they age into sublime and wondrously complex creatures, and that their regional distinctions are among the world’s great mysteries. Not to mention one of its sublime delights.

But Burgundy -- at least those special bottlings and vineyard designations that we can actually buy, taste, cellar and revere – is, alas, almost no more for average people. One could even make a pretty strong case for the death of truly great Burgundy. In the sense that, for the majority of wine lovers, Burgundy has
Merry Edwards Pinot Noir
This and succeeding labels illustrate wines included in Dan’s Top Ten below.
been replaced in their affections by Pinot Noir. And it is Pinot Noir from a number of places in the world that, prior to now, pleaded their cases before a public that viewed them largely as pretenders to the throne.

Now proof is on view that Burgundy’s legacy has spawned a serious threat to its dominance. The 2005 growing season in California was one of such astounding uniformity that it left Pinot wine makers with the raw materials to leap past the vast majority of red Burgundy, certainly in terms of fruit and fascination, creating a virtual sea of excellence.

Traditionalists may consider the statement that Burgundy has faded from the scene to be absurd. Great Burgundy is, I fully acknowledge, still the greatest red wine of all. And those who agree with me will argue with some sound logic that Burgundy, at its best, remains the king. They will speak to 200+ years of history, and their pleadings will drip with nostalgia for the great wines of 1930s or 1880s. And I agree, if we could ever taste those wines again. My argument is that the vast majority of the greatest red Burgundies never will be seen by the masses.

Burgundy is for the Super Rich

The fact is that the most of the greatest Burgundies today are not available to mere mortals. First, they are made in woefully minute amounts, and are preview-De Loach Pinot Noirtasted by only a tiny handful of the most powerful critics and private wine buyers, who then make certain none of the common folk will ever get any. These wines are reserved for those who have an “in” with the right houses.

I know a man who is one such buyer. He is wealthy, as will be evident in a moment. He also has almost nothing in his cellar except great red Burgundy. He flies to Burgundy at least twice a year, and on one of those trips, he spends days tasting literally hundreds of the very greatest red Burgundies. He may know more about Burgundy than any other American. And it is he who proclaims them to still be the greatest red wines in the world.

And so, like the famed Dr. Arthur Barolet before him, he buys what he wants. He selects the best barrels, the best vineyard designates. All the major houses and most of the tiny ones know he is an important figure for the Burgundy wine trade. Because he pays cash up front. He does not write about his discoveries (and then say the wine is, alas, not available). Nor does he sell them commercially. But the property owners sell to him because they make a higher profit margin than if the wine went through a series of middlemen.

And he is not alone. Others play this game too, and that includes some wealthy Belgians, Luxemburgers, Germans and Japanese, and other high-stakes players. Many others.

And thus after all these insiders are through cherry-picking, the vast majority of the greatest wines from patchwork-quilted Burgundy have evaporated from the scene, leaving us peons with what we are told is great wine. But that “great” wine sells for many hundreds of dollars per bottle, and from what I have tasted, much of it is second-rate product – but at prices that are still outrageous, near $100 per bottle, and above.

Pinot Noir to the Rescue

Here is where Pinot Noir from California (as well as New Zealand and to a lesser degree, Oregon) comes into play. At their best, they deliver fruit and character that the second-rate Burgundies cannot.

Rutz Cellars Pinot Noir And now with the ’05s hitting all-time highs on the quality scale, it is time to look seriously at California for the best available Pinot Noirs. If the broad market cannot evaluate Burgundy’s greatest wines, we can only take someone else’s word that they are as great as they once were. But, in at least a half dozen California regions, there are now Pinots that sing like a coloratura while delivering depths only a basso profundo could deliver.

There were inklings of California’s impending dominance with good vintages in 2003 and 2004, despite heat waves and low humidity that forced wine makers to dance to some rather discordant music.

Now come the great 2005s and the singers are in full voice. Of the 2005s I have (See Dan’s Top Ten) tasted from Santa Barbara (notably Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Maria and elsewhere), San Luis Obispo (such as Edna Valley), Monterey County (important on the Santa Lucia Highlands’ east-facing benches), and Santa Cruz Mountains, most are far better than the prior vintages.

The cooler climate of ’05 delivered a delicacy and a wisdom to these wines, and what I see in them is a purity of fruit that I once saw regularly in the greatest of Burgundies from the 1960s and 1970s. And though some of the California wines were made in tiny amounts, if you act early, you can still get some of the best. The world doesn’t yet descend like locusts on the top Pinot makers, though they are assembling on the horizon.

Run, Don’t Walk, to Russian River Valley

If the above-named areas delivered the goods, and they did, it was Russian River Valley that really shone with its Pinot Noirs in 2005. I’ve tasted a wide range of 2005s from other areas and they have been superb, but the Russian River wines generally deliver a depth of character and finesse I rarely see from so many producers at the same time.

A friend, who also makes a top-rate Pinot Noir, told me six months ago, “Wait ‘til you try the ’05s. If you couldn’t make a great ’05 Pinot, you should get out of the game.” Tasting through the wines indicates that almost no one missed it. There are variations on themes here (a few wines are a tad too ripe, a few have a bit less acidity than great aging red wines ought to have), but by and large the entire

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Featured Wines

Davis Bynum Winery 2003 Pinot Noir - Lindleys' Knoll Vineyard Roasted nuts, dark berries, and spicy nutmeg, on a canvas of almond and mushrooms. Rich black cherries and smoky plum finish.
buy wine 750ml $60.00


Reader Feedback

Reader Comments... [6]

Dan Perrelli
Dear Mr. Berger,
Perhaps we know the same Burgundy 'whale'. Your observations have much merit, particularly in the hyped 2005 vintage. Yet, your Top Ten are 'in short supply' themselves and none are what one could call bargains. Burgundy is a big place. Is it possible that world-class Pinot exists outside the Côte d'Or? Sure it does. And in 2005 many red Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, Hautes-Côtes de Beaune, Rully and Mercurey provide shocking value and great vinous pleasure between $20 and $40 per bottle. Globalization is lifting Burgundy into the international mass-market. And more and more Burgundians are raising the level of the game to meet the need. The absurdity of $1,000 bottles of Pinot is not limited to the Grand Crus. Several New World cult Pinots have now reached this marker. Two months ago I purchased magnums of top class Mercurey for $60 in California. To quote you, "My argument is that the vast majority of the greatest red Burgundies never will be seen by the masses." Neither will the vast majority of the greatest New World red Pinot Noirs. In fact, I suggest that you blind taste your Top Ten against my selection of Burgundy Top Ten at the same price points, and that the tasting be judged by a small group of consumers and professionals that we equally pull together. Really, let's do it when you're in CA.

Steve , Terroir Guy
South Bay, CA
Hi Mr. Berger,
I love your articles and your push for establishing appellations. But I disagree that Burgundy is only for the super rich and that less expensive Burgundy can't measure up to California's Pinot Noir. Quote: “But, what about price, you say? Well, some wines are in the $50 to $80 range. For California Pinot, that may seem like a lot. But consider this: for $50 to $80, you would get only a pretty average bottle of Burgundy. And there is nothing average about the 2005 Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs.” I find the two styles entirely different much like German and Alsace Riesling, and like you said in that article, the diversity in styles allows for all the more fun in enjoying wines made from the same varietal. In your list of favorites you mentioned Kosta Browne noting it to be a tad sweet and I completely agree. Some may like it, some may not, and it isn't a copy or replacement for Burgundy but a wine that has California stamped all over it. But within the same price range, there are several wonderful Premier Cru Burgundies that are different yet equally enjoyable, with some being quite fascinating. For example near the upper end, a 2003 Chambertin Clos de Beze Grand Cru by Gelin is a very nice Burgundy for $80. A 2004 Premier Cru Morey-St-Denis by Roumier is a fine wine for $60. And Jancis Robinson, a known Burgundy lover, declared Marquis d'Angerville as spellbinding across the board in 2004. His Volnay 1er Cru Champan goes for $62 and is locally available at wine shops, no mailing list required! And I don't think there is a serious Burgundy drinker that would call any of the above wines "average".

Michael Davis
Westport, Connecticut
Red Burgundy dead? Maybe things are different in California, but here in the East I am seeing more Burgundy, of better quality, than ever before. Yes, prices are rising, but when the price of a product rises that is a sign of success, not death. And there are lots of under $30 Burgundies that I prefer to similarly priced American Pinots. I'm not saying Burgundy is easy. Even most less expensive Burgundies need time to be at their best. And American Pinot is much more consistent from year to year due to much warmer growing conditions. Some years it is hard to get ripe fruit in Burgundy. But Red Burgundy is far from dead. In fact I would say Red Burgundy is thriving.

thinkwine.com, Washington State
Mr. Berger, You are out of touch, simply out of touch. Red Burgundy is not dead, nor is it dying. You are right, when saying they are the greatest red wine of all. With that said, how can it be dead? And with an argument like the vast majority doesn't see these wines is absurd. You don't have to spend a fortune to have great red Burgundy. There are so many small producers which do not command incredibly high prices which can be afforded by the super rich only. Some of the other comments above are completely "right on" when they say many of your choices are in such small supply and continue to command very high prices... Also, "'05 growing season in California was one of such astounding uniformity...to leap past the vast majority of red Burgundy." Are you serious? Have you had '05 red Burgundy? It might be the best vintage in 20 years. Next time when you write an article do some research. Also, your comment: "for $50 to $80, you would get only a pretty average bottle of Burgundy." Can you be more vague? No examples! Why? I can give you some incredible wines for $50 to $80. Ever heard of Joseph Roty? Probably not, because you're most likely a California Pinot Noir drinker -- simple as that! Learn to research before writing. Long live red Burgundy!

Steve L.
San Francisco, CA
The alcohol levels attributed to the selections in this 'top 10' list would seem to be characteristic of many Rhone Valley wines, even Chateauneuf du Papes from a vintage other than 2003. Pinot Noir is, in its classic form, a grape of great finesse; how much delicacy is to be found in a wine of 14.5 or 15% alcohol? If you enjoy this style of wine, by all means buy all you can, there is no sin in that. But to compare these wines with red Burgundy is mixing the proverbial apples and oranges.

Mr. Berger,
I find it hard to believe, especially in the lovely vintage of 2005 in Burgundy, that you cannot find a wine that is above average for 80 dollars. That will buy you decent bottlings up to Premier Cru levels. The style of wines from a majority of the wineries in California is not even in the same ball park as the wines in Burgundy, and often have more in common with Syrah from France than Pinot. This was truly a misleading article that perpetuates the myth of Burgundies as an inconsistent and poor QPR region, when often it is the opposite.

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