Ordering Burgundy from a restaurant wine list
By Mary Margaret McCamic MW | General Manager, Karolus Wine Imports
I am often asked how to order Burgundy from a restaurant list. Why? Because there are often many choices, from many producers, villages, and price points. Indeed, Burgundy can be confusing, even for avid collectors. Many incredible wine lists have a diverse set of selections, which is fabulous because it gives you so many options, but intimidating if you don’t know every wine listed.
A great wine list can also be challenging if you know too many of the wines; what bottle do you choose, a wine from a great vintage or a wine from a great producer? Making a decision on what might show best at this moment, or please all of the guests in your group, can be tricky. Ordering well really comes down to prioritizing a few key elements, and in truth, these elements apply to selecting any wine on a list, not just Burgundy:
The best producers typically make beautiful wine regardless of vintage, even in places where vintages can vary dramatically, like Burgundy.
So, if you know that a producer on the list is respected for quality, or you have personal experience drinking wines from that particular estate, I would suggest that you start looking at those selections first, then narrow it down from there.
What if you don’t know any of the producers on the list, or what if you know too many? I usually turn to vintage. Be warned, when I say vintage, I don’t mean “good” or “bad” vintages because as I mentioned before, the best producers can make exceptional wine in vintages that are not consistently good across the board. I typically look for a reliable vintage, or one that can offer pleasure immediately after that bottle is popped, because that is exactly what is going to happen! Only you know what styles you like, but if I had to blindly go into a restaurant and choose red and white burgundy without knowing any of the producers on the list, my palate would lean toward the following:
2007: 2007s can be singing right now. They’ve got just over a decade of age, and the wines can be light and friendly in style. More serious examples have tannins that have resolved nicely, so the wines offer a textural element that is wonderful.
2010: Everything was turned up in 2010, including acid, tannin, and fruit. The wines can still be quite firm, but the tannins are softening out and giving so much pleasure.
2015: Even as babies, the 2015 vintage is approachable. Softer and fleshier in some cases, the 2015 can usually offer you something fresh, exciting, yet not too taut right away.
2008: This was not an easy vintage, but the whites are aging really nicely with fresh acid, lively fruit, and just the right amount of flesh on the mid-palate.
2010: Like reds, 2010 whites are stunners. Well-structured, complex, and texturally so pleasing.
2011: I love the carefree charm of 2011. This was not a highly touted vintage, but within the industry there are many of us who enjoy it because of its lively, lifted character. The best wines of the vintage can be surprisingly complex and layered.
2014, 2015, 2016: I adore all of these vintages for different reasons. 2014 is complex, intense, and built to age, but the whites are showing so much excitement right now. If I want something a little broader, slightly lower acid, 2015 is an easy choice. And if I want something right in between those two styles, but oh-so-fresh as it’s just been released, 2016.
It probably sounds ridiculous that price is not my very first consideration, but I’ll be honest, it usually isn’t. I often have a range that I am willing to spend, but if I see a knockout bottle slightly more, I’ll go for it. The same (obviously) goes for a bottle from a producer at a price point lower than what I expected to spend. Prices can vary for wines from Burgundy on a restaurant list for so many reasons: sourcing options, cost at time of release, quantity purchased, and many more factors are usually at play. Furthermore, there are different philosophies about pricing and margins among wine directors and sommeliers. In some cases, you can actually find excellent value among the highest priced bottles on the list if the margins are slimmer than the lower priced bottles. Yet it is important to remember that buying the most expensive bottle of Burgundy does not guarantee that it will be the best or most enjoyable bottle for you. One can drink very well at a lower price point if you know where to look.
Location & Quality Level
Not all areas in Burgundy in are created equal, not even within the same village or vineyard, a fact that I’m sure you already know. But it’s worth pointing out for a variety of reasons. A wine of premier cru or grand cru is not always superior to other wines on the list; quality can vary from producer to producer and vintage to vintage. Likewise, not all grands crus are created equal just because they are labeled “Grand Cru.” I’ve had instances where a bottle of Corton-Charlemagne from Bonneau du Martray blows the competition on the table out of the water, and the competition included bottles of Le Montrachet and Chevalier-Montrachet costing double the price. I’ve also had instances where I would rather order a bottle of village Rully from a trusted producer and reliable vintage than any of the Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet on the list, even though the latter are usually considered to be better villages and have higher premiums. There is a lot to consider when it comes to location and quality level, but it’s important to know that there is no one “correct” wine to order on any list. This leads me to the final, and arguably most important element to consider…
There is a reason why good wine lists have a range of options - everyone has a personal preference. Knowledge is power, and knowing the style that you like is the first step to navigating a wine list. The good news is that finding your preferred style usually involves lots of tasting, so go - get busy drinking and learning more about your personal tastes!
Though there are many elements to consider, you need not be an expert to find the perfect bottle. Knowing what to consider is more than half the battle, so understanding that producer, vintage, price, location and quality are all valid considerations can help you better educate yourself, or go into a restaurant equipped to ask the right questions of a sommelier. Burgundy is complex, and there is no silver bullet, but with a little education, enthusiasm, and an open-minded palate, you can surf a restaurant’s Burgundy list with the best of them. Happy drinking!