Wine drinkers owe a lot to Burgundy.
Not only does it produce red wine so impressive that its English name has been pirated all over the world, the region the French call Bourgogne has taught us much of what we know about white wine.
White Burgundy has set a style that has been imitated on every continent except Antarctica. It has given us the chardonnay grape, the world's best-known white varietal. Winemakers from California to New Zealand to Maryland have drawn inspiration from the subtle flavors of its wines.
But while the white wines of Burgundy deserve our respect, they have to earn our dollars. And here, as a group, they fall short.
It's not that quality is on the decline. Thanks to their growing professionalism and declining provincialism, Burgundy winegrowers are making finer white wines than ever before.
But truly fine white Burgundy is frightfully expensive. Wines from the hallowed Montrachet and Batard-Montrachet vineyards carry three-figure price tags. The better wines of Meursault, cited by many American winemakers as their inspiration for their chardonnays, will set you back $40 or more. Even the finest wines of the long-overlooked Maconnais subregion are now fetching more than $20 -- which puts them outside the budgets of most middle-class wine enthusiasts.
There are many white Burgundies on the market that cost less than $20, but my recent tastings have uncovered few gems. Many of these budget Burgundies are in fact no bargain when compared with chardonnays from other regions of the world.
Certainly part of the problem is that the vintage that now dominates the market, 1993, was a tough year to make fine white wine. As a northerly growing region, Burgundy is bound to have vintage variation, and its producers cannot be faulted for an occasional weather-related lapse.
But even the white Burgundies of the excellent 1992 vintage are hard-pressed to keep up with the competition. Certain California chardonnay producers, such as Marcassin and Peter Michel, have recently been outclassing even the greatest Batard-Montrachets in blind tastings.
Some Burgundy producers would argue that their wines do not compete with those of other regions or countries, that they are unique creations with their own loyal following.
In France, that might be true. But in the United States, consumers are constantly making choices between domestic wines and imports. And as wonderful as white Burgundy can be, buying American is usually a smart decision.
This is true in spite of all the flaws found in American chardonnays. Yes, Napa Valley chardonnays can be too bombastic, Sonoma County chardonnays can have too much alcohol and East Coast chardonnays can smell of wet hay, but seldom do you come across one that is thin and bland. And that is a real problem with many white Burgundies.
So why would one bother with Burgundy? Perhaps it's because when its whites are on target, they achieve a stylishness and a subtlety that American or Australian or Chilean chardonnays seldom match. With the fruit less obvious, the wines can display a range of flavors including yeast, toast, nuts and chalk. Higher acidity can make them more refreshing than chardonnays grown in hotter climates. Lower alcohol can make them more compatible with delicately seasoned food.
But style isn't enough. Wine must have flavor. Here are some white Burgundies on the market for under $20 that can meet that test.
* 1991 Olivier Leflaive St. Aubin en Remilly 1er Cru ($18). This gripping, complex wine is fully mature but not in fragile condition. Its rich flavors of apple, minerals and nuts call to mind vineyards far more prestigious than the little-known town of St. Aubin.
--1993 Verget Pouilly-Fuisse ($18) Verget is one of the most reliable negociants, or shippers, in Burgundy. That shows in the intensity of this medium-weight wine with fine nutty and appley flavors.
* 1993 J. M. Boillot Montagny 1er Cru ($18). Montagny is another one of those off-the-beaten-track Burgundy villages that can produce astonishing values on occasion. Boillot's 1993 is a sleeper in this difficult vintage, offering considerable length, intensity and layers of toasty, lemony flavor.
* 1992 Joseph Drouhin Auxey-Duresses ($20). Auxey-Duresses is another appellation to remember when seeking Burgundy values. It lies just west of Meursault, and good examples such as this one can easily be mistaken for wine from that famed village.
* 1993 Domaine Talmand Macon-Chardonnay ($11). This crisp, toasty medium-weight wine is a small step down in quality from the previous wines, but it's also a lot less costly. It's a good but not great value.
* 1993 Jadot Pouilly-Fuisse ($19). This fine, toasty, medium-bodied wine offers reasonable complexity and richness for the price.
* 1993 Cave de Verze Macon-Villages "Terres Blanches" ($9). For an inexpensive Burgundy, this Macon-Villages offers plenty of appley fruit and a low price tag for a wine from even this unheralded corner of Burgundy.