The region’s wines are monuments to fine drinking at their pinnacle but inconsistent, expensive, and hardIy easy to understand with intricate layers of sub regions, villages, vineyard divisions, and winemakers. So not buying or drinking Burgundy with any regularity, the fact that Mercurey was a pre-phylloxera, top Burgundy production village before sinking in popularity and quality had easily escaped me.
To the south of the attention-getting, grand cru-rich Burgundy subregion Côte d’Or, the Côte Chalonnaise is home to the villages of Bouzeron, Rully, Givray, Montagny, and it’s largest red wine (pinot noir) producing village; Mercurey. Eric Asimov did a nice job a few years back exploring the dilemma of Mercurey’s stepchild status and emergent viability. Like so many other long ignored historic wine regions around Europe, rediscovery and replanting by educated, modern-era producers can fuel regional revivals. Those winemakers rely on a few limestone land patches where the best Mercurey vineyard sites can be found. But here, just as anywhere in Burgundy, it’s easy to produce watered down versions of the regal pinot noir grape because of weaknesses in vintage, vineyard, section of vineyard, or producer. Confused? It’s understandable, and that’s why I have steered clear of Burgundy and satiated my pinot noir and chardonnay cravings with domestic product.
Even the Burghound, probably the leading single expert consumer voice for the region, admits “Burgundy is so fiendishly complex, so frustratingly inconsistent, and maddeningly difficult to separate the real deal from the look alike pretenders [and]…it’s not news that anything connected with Burgundy ain’t cheap”. So why get involved when following so many other great wine regions across France, Europe, and the rest of the globe simply asks you to know vintage, producer, and only sometimes vineyard? It’s possible that I stumbled across one good reason through recent introductions to Domaine Francois Raquillet’s 2009 old vine and premier cru wines. To the point these wines sell for $30 and under, equivalent to the value threshold for quality and varietally representative domestic pinot noir. Quality Burgundy for less than most US pinot noir?
I remember tasting some of Henri Jayer’s (a canonized name in top Burgundy history) wines in the 80’s and wondering if I would ever enjoy as fulfilling a bottle of wine in my life, lamenting my dismissal of Burgundy might minimize those chances while protecting me from certain pricey buying miscues and insipid wines. These Jayer-like wines must have been the elixirs that drove enthusiasts like Allen Meadows, author of Burghound, to devote their lives to understanding the complicated Burgundy landscape. These Raquillet wines are not those kind of wines. But they will raise your eyebrow with surprise and admiration of Burgundy rivaling and surpassing the quality of $50-$75 top domestic versions at practically half the price. With the good extraction and ripeness of the 2009 vintage, the rich fruit cores will satisfy domestic pinot drinkers and give them a shot at the Burgundian qualities rendered by these Mercurey sites.
Raquillet makes six different wines, one old vine version and five single vineyard premier crus. Doug Cook. founder of Able Grape, told me he was luxuriating in this top quality Burgundy by the caseload at $30 and suggested I stop by The Wine Bottega to get in on the 2009 Raquillet Vieilles Vignes. It’s rich and fully cherry and blackberry fruited, with a good underlying steely structure offering definition to the plush mouthfeel. Hints of mushrooms and earth bring home its Burgundian roots, and a long finish with a noticeable bit of heat completes a totally integrated tasting experience. It can’t to be described as rustic nor elegant. Raquillet presents rich fruit components associated with a modern style, and captures mineral tones that let you know you’re thousands of miles away from the Russian River or Willamette Valleys. It is a totally complete wine from aroma to finish, and I would struggle to find a domestic pinot noir between $25 and $30 to rival it.
A couple nights ago I was dining at Menton in Boston. The list here leans towards Burgundy, with the operators believing their food’s regional influence in best suited for old world pinot noir. When I eat here, I look for substitutes on the list…great wines from Sicily or Loire that have that bright cherry and old world character that works with the food. But looking at one of the paired wines on the eight course tasting menu, which we were not committing to on this Tuesday evening, I saw the Raquillet Les Vasées 1er cru being served by the glass. I inquired about buying a full bottle with our meal, and it was happily delivered for $70. That’s correct, quality 1er cru Burgundy at one of Boston’s top restaurants for well under $100.
As good as the Vieilles Vignes was, the Les Vasées surpasses it in nuance and total drinking pleasure. The nose is slightly alcoholic with strong gamey aromas akin to the piercing intrusive odor of a fresh kill in the African bush. Those aromatics are followed by mushroom and wet earth. A ferric, metal flavor provides the sturdy and interesting linear background to the vintage’s ripeness and fruit forward character, all of it wrapping up in a luscious mouthfeel that finishes with great length. It’s superlative Burgundy; enough so that I might have to stick my nose deeper into the Côtes Chalonnaise to see if there are more 2009 Raquillets in hiding delivering the treasures of Burgundian terroir on a budget.