The romance and wines of Burgundy demystified

Down to Earth: Burgundy Vintage 2006 - Tyson Stelzer

By Robyn Lewis
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Down to Earth: Burgundy Vintage 2009 by Tyson Stelzer

Down to Earth: Burgundy Vintage 2009 by Tyson Stelzer [©Tyson Stelzer]

Some of the great wines from the 2005 vintage in Burgundy


Like most Antipodeans, my knowledge of Burgundy remains inadequate. No short trip across the Channel (or flight across 'the ditch') for us, a pilgrimage to this hallowed region of wine remains a relatively major undertaking, unless one is unencumbered or in the two extremes of travelling life - a gap year or retirement. So a book like this is a welcome find indeed.

Nor do Burgundies necessarily come to us, or at least not those with which one can afford to experiment with joyful abandon. I confess that - like many other Australians - the whole French thing has remained somewhat of a mystery to me; despite a whole line of French ancestry my language skills have rusted since school, and when I was growing up, French wines on the table were a rarity indeed.

So where does one start when one has not visited many of the chateaux, cotes or villages, and can barely read the labels on the bottles - let alone decipher what might be in them, and whether they are worth the asking price? (Connoisseurs may laugh, but I am not alone, except perhaps by owning up - and remember, Australian wines can be just as impenetrable to those who have not visited our wine regions...).

A few years ago I decided to remedy this. Short of taking some months off and going to live there, what was I to do? Yes, I have been to the Loire, Sancerre and Chablis, but no chance of that again with a young family and a business. There being no for France (yet!), it was to the rescue - I bought a swag of books on French wine, more specifically on Burgundy and Bordeaux.

These ranged from sumptously illustrated volumes by the Roberts Joseph and Parker to highly detailed reviews by Clive Coates and Serena Sutcliffe. I also confess that my haul included a copy of the black and yellow power tool of wine books, French Wine for Dummies, for that was how I felt.

Several years on and with French vintage 2005 hitting Australian shores, what have I leant? Enough to sort the gold from the dross? Well, no - not from the label, anyway. I was fortunate to attend a 2005 Burgundy tasting recently, but it left me underwhelmed. Yes, it's reputedly the vintage of the millenium, but were these bottles we were seeing really amongst the standouts, as touted (I hope not), or as Tyson Stelzer asks in his introduction: "is it just hype and clever French marketing?" - perhaps combined with a good dose of profiteering and importer's spin?

Half a million bottles of Burgundy now land on Australian shores each year. As our knowledge of our own pinot noir and chardonnay grows, so too do our tastes for and interest in the benchmark pinnacles, Chablis and Bourgogne. Demand exceeds supply, and not just for the rarest wines like Domaine de la Romanée Conti.

The grand crus are sold out almost as soon as importers receive them, or pre-sold on allocation. You still cannot walk into any Australian supermarket or bottleshop and pick up a bottle of decent French wine off the shelves. It's like the UK in the 80s; you had to work hard to find a quality Australian wine before Hazel Murphey, Paul Henry and the Australian Wine Bureau got to work educating the British palate and the imports began to flow.

So it is with some glee that I thumb through Down to Earth: Burgundy Vintage 2006. Evocative photos of misty, autumnal French valleys and golden vines abound, combined with excellent '3D' maps (overlays onto aerial photographs) that allow those of us not totally familiar with the nuances of the Cotes de Beaune et de Nuits to get our heads around them, visually.

Unlike some of the others, I know I will read every word of this book, and benefit from each of them. The illustrations range from broad views to personal close-ups that together capture the flavour of the region as effectively as Tyson describes the wines.

And so, to the reviews. Vintage 2006 has been described as one in which the nuances of the terroir are allowed to speak - unlike the 2005, when virtually everything (apparently) was a blockbuster.

In summary: "2006 is a classic Burgundy vintage, more pure than the 2003, riper than 2004 and not as exuberant or rich as 2005. 2006 is defined by acid, line and length, with expressive, perfumed fruit that is accurate to its village and vineyard.... The year of site, soil, aspect and microclimate."

Tyson Stelzer tasted over 300 wines to compile this book, largely from the barrel, ranging from smaller, lesser known domaines and negociants to the immensely famous, and including an increasing number of organic and biodynamic wines. Most are imported into Australia, but for many you will have to hunt, through the convenient (but not exhaustive) list of wine merchants. Burgundy to many means red - indeed the region has give its name to a colour - but white Burgundies are also included, although the distinction is not as clear as it might be, except in the Top 10 list on p 18.

However, for A$24.95, Down to Earth: Burgundy Vintage 2006 is as great a value-for-money book as many of the wines described in its 128 pages. No doubt it could have been twice as long, but it would have suffered - less is more, as with many wines. "It is crucial that you cellar contains 2006 Burgundy" - and as crucial that your wine library contains this book, if - like me - your horizons include France, and you wish to benchmark New World pinot noir and chardonnay against their Old World cousins.

Again to quote the author: "if you could taste even half these wines in the next year, it woud be one very special year indeed".


Down to earth: burgundy vintage 2006 by Tyson Stelzer is publishedhd by WinePress (Brisbane, 2008; sc) and retails in Australian for A$24.95. 


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September 28th, 2008
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