Burgundy vs California: Two styles of Pinot Noir

As you probably know, Burgundy or Bourgogne is famous for two wines – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, known as “Red Burgundy” and “White Burgundy” respectively. Some of the most treasured examples from from Burgundy’s hallowed clos, and with miniscule production levels, they’re always in high demand. But over the years other regions have shown their fortitude at producing world class Pinot Noir, among them, California, where growers from the Central Coast up to Sonoma produces a wide range of styles.

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Let’s explore the main differences between new world California Pinot and the old world Red Burgundy.

California Pinot Noir

In general, California wines tend to be more fruit driven, ripe, and suitable for immediate enjoyment. The climate there is warmer which helps grapes ripen quicker and to higher sugar levels. Winemakers tend to favor modern techniques, using lots of new oak, extended maceration times, and cold soaks to extract more flavor.

This Pinot, crafted by the Tensleys, shows abundant ripe fruit, polished tannins.
This Pinot, crafted by the Tensleys, shows abundant ripe fruit, polished tannins.

Burgundy’s Pinot Noir

Pinot has been a mainstay here for centuries, grown by monks in the old days. The lands were split into an impossibly large number of plots thanks to Napoleonic era land laws, and today ownership varies greatly across the region. Styles of Pinot differ quite a lot too. In the Cote d’Or which includes the Cote de Nuits and the Cote de Beaune, the vineyards hosting the world’s most prestigious and expensive grapes. Vineyards here have been rigorously divided by their slope, height, soil types and position so that the premier crus tend to be mostly located on hills and the “villages” on the flat ground. Compared to California, Pinot from here tends to have lower alcohol levels, a more earthy funk, and less pronounced red fruit.


Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burgundy_wine

The time someone tried to poison DRC’s legendary vines

Growers in Burgundy are at tight knit bunch. They stick together, steadfast in their desire to preserve the land which serves as a foundation for their vineyards. Of all the producers, Domaine Romanee-Conti remains the figurehead, the big dog so to speak, of the area. Their world famous Pinot Noir fetches insanely high prices on the secondary market and continues to be the pinnacle for wine collectors around the world.

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So in Vosne-Romanée, the historic and sleepy little town, where a long history of growing wine springs from, it was a surprise when someone declared they might poison or steal the sacred vines of DRC. At first, they thought it was a joke. Who in their right mind would make such a threat?

Then they got the note. Aubert de Villaine realized it was no joke. They were asking for $1 million dollars ransom. The Romanee-Conti vineyard is the most sacred vineyard in the entire world, one that yields a tiny 500 cases of wine each year. That’s just 1/50th the total production of mammoth producer Lafite in Bordeaux for comparison.

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It’s no wonder their wines fetch insanely high prices. If you can penetrate the world of futures and collectible wines, you will likely pay at least $5,000 for a bottle. And in some cases, much more. Some magnums have fetched 30,000+ at auctions in Hong Kong.


The Cote d’Or, or “Gold Slope” as it’s known has been home to the world’s most revered vines for centuries, since the monks planted them and made wine in the same parcel of land.  So on that morning, when Aubert received a package on his home doorstep and opened it, he found an incredibly detailed map of the 4+ acres of vineyards. It was remarkably accurate, even describing the placement of some 20,000 rootstocks. Whoever sent the threat knew their stuff.

The note went on to suggest that 82 vines had already been poisoned, with X’s marking their graves. It also hinted that far more would be poisoned, and that an antidote existed. When he called the police to investigate, they found a syringe had been used to poison the vines. A curious thing, since that same tool was used by many winemakers to inject liquid carbon disulfide into the vineyards to prevent disease.

So whoever made this threat apparently knew a great deal about his vineyards, and about winemaking itself. The final note demanded the total ransom be dropped off discretely inside a certain cemetary in Chambolle-Musigny. On one fateful night, an employee of DRC walked there with a suitcase of fake euros and left it.

Not long after leaving the money, the police noticed a man walking into the cemetary to retrieve the money. They arrested him promptly. His name was Jacques Soltys. Turns out this wasn’t his first scam. A lifelong delinquent from Épernay, near Champagne, this man had turned to extortion to make his ends meet. Before he could stand trial, Jacques was found dead in his cell, hanging from a noose.

This story originally appeared in Vanity Fair.

About the “clos” in Burgundy

Some of the most expensive, most renowned, and treasured wines in the entire world originate in the sacred land of Burgundy, France. When it comes to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, few other regions bring the prestige that places like Clos St. Denis, Echezeaux, and Gevrey-Chambertin do.

Burgundy is a complicated place though, thanks to age old land inheritance laws that split the region into hundreds of “clos” – tiny vineyards outlined by rock walls. It’s not uncommon to find one family owning a single row of vines, sharing a small clos with a dozen other families.

The word “clos” comes from the French word for “closure”. Some famous clos in Burgundy include

  • Clos de Tart – famous for Pinot Noir. Located in the Cote de Nuits region.
  • Clos de la Roche
  • Clos St. Denis
  • La Romanee
  • Clos du Val

Although many of the vineyards in these clos are owned by small families, who have maintained them for decades, we’ve seen some big players enter the area recently. For example, LVMH just bought Clos des Lambrays, a famous Grand Cru vineyard. This behavior has been driven by the strong consumer demand for Burgundy wine. With such limited space, it’s no wonder the demand remains high, even as countless other regions around the world expand their wine production.