Pinot Envy: Why Burgundy Wines Cost So Much and 3 Tips for Buying the Best Bottles

Kevin Zraly, the legendary wine expert, gives you tips on how to create your own wine experience.

Photograph courtesy of respective brands.

Kevin Zraly, the legendary wine expert, recently celebrated the 38th year of his Windows on the World Complete Wine School Course, which lives in new digs at the JW Marriott Essex House New York. Zraly, considered by many to be one of the most motivational wine educators in the country, has taught more than 20,000 students (including me back in 1992 when I was getting started as a sommelier).

While a lot has changed in the 22 years since I worked for him at the tippy top of the Twin Towers in downtown Manhattan, Zraly remains a mesmerizing teacher who gets the class excited with chants, cheers, and wines that most people never get the chance to taste. Not surprisingly, his new location shares a cellar with a great restaurant—South Gate—and happens to have a trove of expensive Burgundies (both red Pinot Noirs and white Chardonnays).

Zraly was able to cherry pick bottles for the class. How expensive were they? "Let's just say that if I were to charge you all for the wines I'm pouring just tonight," Zraly explained, "it would cost $350 per person." The class toasted their good fortune. After all, they shelled out $995 for an 8-class semester. And this was just the beginning.

Among the best wines we tasted that night were a Vosne-Romanée 2006 from Domaine Sylvain Cathiard & Fils ($120), Nuits-Saint-George Les Chaignots 2006 from Mugneret-Gibourg ($140), and Clos de Vougeot 2002 from Domaine Drouhin-Laroze ($150). Of course, those would be the prices if they were readily available at stores, but they're not. They came from Zraly's collection. And on restaurant wine lists they'd be three times as expensive.

So how can you create a wine experience anywhere remotely close to this? Follow the three tips below.

  1. Establish your budget "You cannot buy Burgundy of any consequence for under $40—especially for red," Zraly says. "You're not going to get a Premiere Cru for under $80 to 100, and for Grand Cru, you'll pay several hundred dollars." This establishes your baseline.

  2. Befriend your local retailer Even if you take Zraly's class, or read his Windows on the World Ultimate Wine Course book, you'll need to know where to buy your bottles. How do you find the best retailer? Talk to people in your neighborhood who love wine or ask a sommelier you trust.

  3. Understand the labels In 1935 the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine set up the French Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) system to regulate the production of the finest French wines and rank their levels of quality, thus designating their place in the hierarchy of wines. This concept—that certain vineyards create superior wines—was actually implemented by the Cistercian monks who made wine for centuries in Burgundy.

The region is subdivided into five main areas: Chablis, Côte Chalonnaise, The Mâconnais, Beaujolais, and the most prized area, the Côte d'Or (made up of the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune).

Let's focus on Côte d'Or. At the low end are wines with regional names (Bourgogne Blanc/Rouge) and district/place names (Macon/Macon Villages). These are the under-$30 bottles where values can be found—but nothing too exciting. It's the three top tiers of Burgundy that serious wine drinkers dream about. From the bottom up, they rank as follows:

Village Wines: There are 53 commune-specific wines with names like Puligny-Montrachet or Gevrey-Chambertin; they represent around 30% of all Burgundy wine, and cost anywhere from $30 to $80. At this level, vintage doesn't really matter. These are good but not great.

Premier Crus: These labels look similar to Village wines, but there's an additional vineyard name under the village, such as Puligny-Montrachet 'Les Folatières.' At press time, there were 561 vineyards comprising about 15% of all Burgundy wines. These will set you back anywhere between $50 to $150 per bottle, on average. Vintages are tricky. When in doubt and without help, I'd recommend buying younger wines than older; not only will they be less expensive but they should be fresher as well.

Grand Crus: The highest appellation in Burgundy is Grand Cru. These vineyards were established and documented by those Cistercian monks three centuries ago, and formally recognized in 1861. There are only 34 Grand Crus, all of them have a single name like Montrachet, and they represent about 2% of all Burgundy wines. The only way to know these appellations is to memorize them or save this link from Wikipedia in your phone. Prices begin in the low hundreds and quickly climb into the thousands.

—Follow Anthony Giglio on Twitter at @WineWiseGuy.

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