When you think about wine bargains, about the last place you think of is Burgundy.
It is a region whose name -- whether you use the English Burgundy or the French Bourgogne -- is synonymous with expensive. The best Burgundies, red or white, can fetch $300 a bottle, and even a so-so wine that bears a famous village name can set you back more than $30. With no other region is extravagant spending less of a guarantee of quality in the bottle.
With Burgundy's whites, that poses only minor problems. While the region's best chardonnay-based wines do have their own special character, other winegrowing regions of the world have given us many acceptable and even preferable substitutes.
But with reds it's a different story. Burgundy's pinot noir has proven far less adaptable to other regions than chardonnay. There has been dramatic progress with this grape in recent years, especially in Oregon and California, but rare is the New World wine that actually captures the style of true red Burgundy.
For many wine enthusiasts the answer has been simple: Give up on Burgundy and buy other types of wine. Learn to love Australian shiraz or California zinfandel.
Actually, that strategy makes sense -- most of the time and for most people. But every once in a while you come across this dish that just doesn't seem right without a real Burgundy. Or maybe you're just one of those people who flat-out loves Burgundy and can't get used to anything else.
If either is the case, and you don't have untold wealth, you're going to need a strategy to bring Burgundy back within your budget. Here's a plan:
*Forget the famous village names. Forget Gevrey-Chambertin, Nuits-St. Georges, Vosne-Romanee and the others. If the wine is from a famous vineyard within those villages, it will be expensive; it carries a simple village appellation, it is likely to be mediocre and only slightly less costly.
Instead, look first at the name of the producer, and buy on the strength of his or her recent performance. For information on the reputation of a producer, consult a knowledgeable wine retailer or Robert M. Parker Jr.'s recently published book "Burgundy: A Comprehensive Guide to the Producers, Appellations and Wines" (Simon & Schuster, 1990, $39.95).
(If you aren't familiar with the producers, sometimes you can go by the name of the importer. Such dedicated Burgundy importers as Kermit Lynch and Robert Kacher seldom make a misstep.)
*Once you know who the good producers are, look for their least expensive wines from such regional appellations as Cotes du Nuits Villages or Bourgogne. More often than not, a $15 Bourgogne from a top-notch producer will deliver more Burgundy character than a $35 famous-appellation wine from a less conscientious winemaker. In fact, the good producer's Bourgogne will often be better than, say, his village Gevrey-Chambertin because the Bourgogne will allow him more freedom in blending.
*Concentrate on 1988. It's a great Burgundy vintage and we should enjoy it while we can.
A recent sampling of regional-appellation Burgundies showed that this buying strategy can work, especially for reds. All of the following wines, chosen with the assistance of John Murray of State Line Liquors in Elkton, cost less than $18. That might not be inexpensive by most consumers' standards, but for Burgundy it's downright cheap.
(Prices are from before the recent tax increase, which could add 25 cents to 50 cents a bottle.)
*1988 Pouilly-Fuisse "Vieille Vignes," Forest Andre ($18). OK, so this doesn't exactly fit in with the strategy. Mr. Murray swore this was a great value and it is, with its distinctive stony flavors and great length. Pouilly-Fuisse, an often overrated appellation, seldom gets this good.
*1989 Bourgogne Chardonnay, Michel Caillot ($14). Soft, lush and flavorful -- a rounded, fruity, oaky wine for early consumption.
*1989 Bourgogne Aligote, Daniel Rion ($9). Aligote is the second-fiddle white wine grape of Burgundy. Usually it produces highly acid wines of little note, but in certain hands it can yield surprisingly rich wines. This is one of them. This fragrantly floral wine is similar to a Macon-Villages, but better than most. Drink it young.
*1989 Bourgogne Aligote Bouzeron, Patrick Guillot ($9). A steely, structured, flavorful wine but not in the class of the Rion. The Guillot, with its high acidity and intriguing earthiness, is more similar to a Muscadet than a chardonnay-based Burgundy. A good shellfish wine.
*1987 Bourgogne, Pierre Morey ($15). Pleasant, but lacks intensity. Leaves a watery impression.
*1988 Bourgogne "La Digoine," Domaine A. P. de Villaine ($16.79). A superb, rich, silky-feeling wine with hints of blackberry and ample complexity. It's hard to believe this is just a regional Bourgogne.
*1988 Bourgogne, Frederic Esmonin ($13). Beautiful, pure pinot noir fruit -- a nice, ripe vein of black cherry. It's not a heavyweight, but the intensity and length are very good.
*1988 Bourgogne, Mongeard-Mugneret ($14). A tannic edge makes this wine less attractive than its counterparts at first, but it softens in the glass and the impressive flavors of fruit and earth come through. It could use a year or two of age, but it's an impressive wine.
*1988 Bourgogne "Les Perrieres," Girard-Vollot ($13). A very delicate, light-bodied red wine, with a lovely fragrance and penetrating, spicy flavors. A pretty wine, but with backbone.
*1988 Cotes de Nuits Villages, Domaine Michel Esmonin ($15). An aggressively fruity young wine that could use six months to lose its rawness, but nevertheless flavorful. Not complex, but charming.
*1987 Bourgogne, J. Truchot-Martin ($11.39). Lighter and paler than the 1988s, this 1987 nevertheless has very pleasant fruit and earth flavors. More appropriate with poultry or fresh tuna than beef.
*1989 Bourgogne, Daniel Rion ($9). Simple, fruity, pleasant, but not much character.