Burgundy: The Subtle Wine

Share the News


The baby, who has learned at last to fall asleep mostly on her own, who only takes a mere nine minutes of tossing to settle in versus her previous two hours of picking up and putting down, is now quiet and the crickets are composing outside. Something died behind the refrigerator in the kitchen, a mouse I think, and I am in no mood to deal with that so I go to the living room to read and write and sip on my glass of Tuscan wine instead. My husband is conducting a Burgundy tasting for some staff up the street and all is quiet for a little while.

The social media updates and posts and nonsense to which my phone constantly alerts me let me know that somebody I used to know well has published opinion articles regarding recent celebrity deaths, democrats, and the tragedy of Ferguson, Missouri. He writes that “#liberalswillruinthiscountry.” He uses his personal site to publicly decry the President, who is by all counts his boss. He is, in short, an unimaginative clanging gong, a loud and presumptive man whose voice is too loud for his intellect and whose opinions reflect not introspective reflection but whoever he hears the clearest, whatever extreme suits his current uniform. I am distressed by his blatancy, by the obviousness of his very existence. It is so crude.


My husband is at a Burgundy tasting. If there is one thing Burgundy isn’t, it’s overt. People who are sworn Pinot Noir drinkers shy away from the stuff; it is often too subtle, too high in acid, too loftily intellectual to drink too warm on a porch or from a stemless glass smeared with greasy fingerprints from the bag of potato chips it accompanies. Chardonnay drinkers expecting a dramatic, lactic, oaky syrup are instead introduced to Burgundy’s whiter side, a streamlined, often mineral-driven wine that may never have seen wood and instead showcases its power not in brawn but in its crystalline persistence. 

The issues, the chronically tragic news, the embarrassing revelations of how far we haven’t come as a modern society, our quickness to publicize our half-informed though fully-formed opinions about everything we know little about—these are easy to digest, to see and touch, declare right or wrong. These things are grotesquely apparent in our daily lives now, like over-sharpened images of subjects far away. I read the news when I am up in the wee hours of the morning with the baby, and it is never good news because good news is commonplace, or maybe good news is too quiet, too trivial even in the echo of mortar shells and gun shots. It is easier to clang the gong. 

Has our (has my) sensationalism leaked even into our (my) drinking habits? Does the loudest, most dramatic, most visceral always win? I look at my glass of Tuscan wine to assess: I wanted simple, not screaming…this is straightforward and uncomplicated. I may pass my own test this time, but just barely. Shop shelves say that we like to drink loud, flashy wine that feels more like a kick in the teeth than a beverage; I’m embarrassed to think of the times I’ve chosen form over function, or obvious over requiring a little thought. 

Burgundy, whose very name and labeling system are more confusing than almost any other place, is not an attractive headline to the commonplace consumer. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are old, old grapes that cloned, re-partnered, and reproduced to adapt to growing conditions all over the world and make other grapes, different wines, brand new species. They’re some of the basic building blocks of the industry, but from Burgundy, they’re less like headlines and more like an article on page nine, a special piece about some spacecraft visiting a comet, or a discussion of a recently published poem, but in this case the rest of the news matters because of that comet or that poem; one seldom thinks of a building’s foundation when residing on the fifth floor. 

The wine producing area of Burgundy is relatively small, the valuable vineyards even smaller. Producers seldom own whole vineyards and more often than not have three or five or ten rows of vines instead, keeping their yield down and their costs up, which means a higher price for the end consumer. Ancient traditions of slopes and exposure to the sun season wines with the subtlest shades of variation. The distillation of grape varieties to just two, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, make for a pure study in producer style, vintage, and quiet shifts in terroir that are celebrated for their difference instead of deadened by the need to mute all variations, as with many of the loud commercial wines. 

In our world where too many voices are public voices, where too many things are trying to make tired statements sound new, even the beverage industry plays along. Wines that sell are the prettiest, most alarming, the biggest fruit, the highest alcohol. I think I am done with all that. Perhaps I’ll read the news from the back page forward, maybe I’ll just have a glass of Burgundy. Sometimes it’s the quietest message that says the most, the one that requires the most careful read and the stillest of moments. 

Katie Callahan is a wine educator and the former manager of Bin 201 in Annapolis.




Share the News