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A fête for Burgundy

France’s best-loved wine gets a party all its own.

Wine lovers are crazy for bottles from Burgundy, which rank among the highest-priced in the world, yet the region still offers a few bargains, like this Bourgogne blanc and aligoté.

For a region that stretches just 25 miles and is barely a mile wide in most places, Burgundy (at least its main strip, the Côte d’Or) casts a very long shadow. The wines made there—pinot noir and chardonnay are the main varietals—are among the most valued in the world. If you’ve wondered why wine geeks go nuts for these bottles, now is a good time to find out. From February 13 through 24, San Francisco will celebrate Burgundy Week, as dozens of local restaurants, from A16 to Saison, feature wines from the region on their lists.
     The festivities will be capped by La Paulée, a star-studded celebration of wine led by Daniel Johnnes, the New York–based wine director of Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group and one of this country’s greatest ambassadors of Burgundy. The event will feature a series of seminars; a tasting of wines from many of Burgundy’s top domaines; and several dinners, including one prepared by Boulud, the French Laundry’s Thomas Keller, Romain Chapel, visiting from restaurant Alain Chapel in France, and a handful of other chefs.
     Many of the events are famously expensive—a ticket for the Legends dinner, which includes many bottles of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the region’s most renowned wine, and a menu prepared by Christopher Kostow of the Michelin three-starred Restaurant at Meadowood, runs a cool $4,000. For those whose pockets don’t plunge quite so deep, the $300 Grand Tasting features two dozen top wineries pouring recent vintages and is the best Burgundy tasting of the year. And there’s a $95 seminar at RN74 hosted by Johnnes; Rajeev Vaidya, head sommelier of Restaurant Daniel; and Rajat Parr, wine director for the Michael Mina restaurant group.
     Why does Burgundy merit such an outpouring of attention and cash? Aside from the high quality of the wines, visitors to the region love it for the intimacy of its winemaking traditions. Emphatically void of Napa Valley’s carnivalesque wineries and— despite the prices Burgundy wines can fetch—ostentatious wealth, the region is a place where winemakers work their own fields and make wines in damp caves under their houses. “At the base of it all, all these guys are still farmers,” Johnnes tells me. “They’re very famous farmers, but they retain a great deal of humility.”
     Burgundy is also considered the spiritual birthplace of terroir, a difficult-to-translate term that refers to the complete, unique growing environment of every vineyard and vine. Seen through its lens, wine becomes more than just an expression of a grape—“I’ll have a bottle of pinot”; it’s a thoughtful manifestation of a single place on Earth—“I’ll have a bottle of Vosne-Romanée les Beaux Monts made by Domaine Drouhin.”
     Burgundy itself is a patchwork of thousands of vineyards, most of them shared among several owners. With so many winemakers working with grapes from the same vineyards, Burgundy presents the perfect intersection of the objective (terroir) and the subjective (winemaker). Its wines inspire endless debates about the impacts of both on a single wine—as well as an unending demand. Exports rose by almost 18 percent last year, despite the recession. “People’s tastes have evolved,” notes Johnnes. “They’re liking more subtlety, restraint, and nuance.” And Burgundy wines continue to deliver that while still being soulful and delicious.

Burgundy for the rest of us
A small region making wines from low-yielding pinot noir for a thirsty global market—it’s no wonder Burgundy’s offerings are so expensive. Its top wines—grand crus and premier crus—are way out of my price range, but the lower-tier ones like Bourgogne blanc or rouge from good producers can be incredibly satisfying.

2009 Bouchard Père et Fils Bourgogne Rouge 
In rich vintages like 2009, lowly Bourgogne rouge can be a delicious value. $16.99 at K&L Wine Merchants, 638 4th St., S.F., 415-896-1734

2010 Domaine Paul Pernot Bourgogne Blanc
This chardonnay from a talented producer shows crisp, zesty citrus and mineral notes. $19.99 at K&L Wine Merchants

2009 Domaine Roulot Bourgogne Aligoté
Burgundy's “other” white grape, aligoté is not as complex as chardonnay, but it still makes a brisk aperitif. This one is among Burgundy’s best. $19.99 at K&L Wine Merchants