Tasting Burgundy part history, agricultural lesson, part heavenly experience

Updated 4/3/2019 11:27 AM

It's tasting season, when Chicagoland wine trade and press carefully vet an onslaught of invitations, in hopes of sparing the palate and a few waking hours of sobriety.

One step inside Terlato Wines' CRU Burgundy tasting told me I'd chosen wisely.


Look who's here: Jean Joho, Chef of Relais & Châteaux restaurant, Everest and Richard Hanhauer, Wine Director of the new Bar Ramone. Chicagoland's top merchants of fine wine -- Knightsbridge Wine Shoppe, Chevalier Fine Wines and Plum Market made a showing, too. Proprietors of some of France's most respected family-wine estates and their importer John Terlato, scion of America's most influential wine family were part of the program. And they all brought their wares, some of the most valuable flavors on earth, the wines of Burgundy.

The small Burgundy region lies in southeast France. CRU proprietors are neighbors along a forty-mile stretch, the Cotes d'Or -- possibly named because the slopes face east (toward Asia), perhaps the 'or' signifying gold. In 2017, Cotes d'Or vineyard prices were estimated at 14-million euro per hectare, more than $6-million per acre.

Some of these families have roots in Burgundy for 500 years. Before them, Roman legionnaires (circa 51 A.D.) cultivated wild vines -- the ancestors of modern Pinot Noir. Medieval monasteries formalized vineyards, building stone walls to enclose their land, called 'clos.'

Vineyards and clos remain intact, but through centuries of unique inheritance laws, revolution and other upheavals, have been sub-, sub- and subdivided into separately-owned plots, the finest being officially-recognized 'climat' and unofficial 'lieu-dit,' both terms roughly translated mean location or exact site, measured in the number of vines, not hectares.

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"Forty bottles," Terlato replies to an interested customer on the availability of one top site. "We received forty bottles for the whole country."

The Cotes d'Or calls only two grapes into service -- Pinot Noir and chardonnay -- each for its skill in expressing unique qualities of soil and climate -- protected from Spring frost, for instance, or this lieu-dit with a strain of dark limestone subsoil. Labels include each site that defines commune, individual vineyard, any superior ranking (Premier or Grand Cru), climat and maybe lieu-dit. Note: When purchasing Burgundy, check and double-check labels; the difference of a word might cost you $1,000 per bottle. Why? It's a fair question. And why should anyone pay $200 and up (way up) per bottle, when delicious domestic wines are at hand for a fraction?

Explains Joho: "Even the greatest California vineyards have grown very fast. Burgundy vineyards hold centuries of history. In America, you go four years to school, and you're a winemaker. In Burgundy, the vignerons (winegrowers) don't need books; they live and feel the vineyard for generations. Their wine is an expression of their land and everything that land has lived."

This reporter's words generally fail when describing these wines; they are more experience than flavor. For palates more attuned than my own, check with merchants and restaurateurs above or ask for "Ross's Choice" and my favorites below. All wines except "Ross's Choice" distributed by Fine Vines, Chicago. White wines:


Chassagne-Montrachet, Domaine Michel Niellon, 2016: Effusive aroma of orchard fruit, wild herbs, minerally palate, developing through a long, intense finish. About $90

Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru "Les Ruchottes," Domaine Ramonet, 2015: Power waiting to be born. Full-bodied, concentrated and long. About $225

Red wines:

Chambolle-Musigny, Domaine Roumier, 2015: Round and silky. Five percent whole bunch fermentation contributes to cherry and berry fruit, with exciting tension balanced against fine tannins. About $200

Clos-Vougeot, Chateau de la Tour, 2015: An aroma to fall into like a pair of broad and welcoming shoulders. Lush berry flavors coat the palate, evolving into the significant tannic backbone. About $275

• Mary Ross is an Advanced Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), a Certified Wine Educator (Society of Wine Educators) and recipient of the Wine Spectator's "Grand Award of Excellence." Write to her at food@daily herald.com.

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