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The highs and lows of Burgundy

Look above and below the pricey Cote d'Or region for more affordable whites and reds

By Bill St. John,

Special to Tribune Newspapers

October 2, 2013

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The other day I received a "multimedia message" on my medium; it was a photo clip of a portion of the wine list at New York City's Union Square Cafe. The list had priced the 2005 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Grand Cru Romanee-Conti, a super red Burgundy, at $24,998. A bottle.

Under the photo, a simple text: "misprint?"

I texted back, "no, actually a steal" — if you go by the regular rule that restaurant wine prices are at least two times retail. The current wine-searcher.com retail price for the wine in U.S. dollars is $18,375. A bottle.

The interchange was a touchstone for the old story about the high (stratospheric? larcenous?) prices of good wine from Burgundy.

And so it goes. Everyone knows that you cannot buy good Burgundy for less than $18,000 a bottle.

But you can, if you know where to look. One place to hunt for sanely priced Burgundy is outside the neighborhood of Romanee-Conti. Call it "Burgundy high and low," wine from the southeastern-facing hills above the pricey strip of the Cote d'Or that are called either Hautes-Cotes de Nuits or Hautes-Cotes de Beaune ("hautes" meaning "high"), or from the areas south of the Cote d'Or called the Cote Chalonnaise and the Maconnais.

You won't find wines remotely close to Romanee-Conti in quality, but you'll find, with a wee bit of work, delicious white and red Burgundies, made like the big fellas of the Cote d'Or of both chardonnay and pinot noir, from $20-$40 a bottle.

The low-hanging fruit is white wine from the Maconnais, those with names after the villages of Macon itself or Fuisse, Pouilly, Saint-Verand, Vinzelles, Clesse and Vergisson, to name a few from which to comfortably buy. I'd go so far as to say the globe's consistently best values in lightly or un-oaked, crisp, fresh chardonnay are those around $20 a bottle from the Maconnais.

The Cote Chalonnaise likewise offers such chardonnay, as well as a raft of well-made and well-priced pinot noir. Village names to seek out from there are Givry, Montagny, Rully and Mercurey, the latter two in easier retail reach than the former. By and large, prices come in below $30 a bottle. Rarer at retail are wines from either Hautes-Cotes, but they're true finds if they're from the better producers.

Approach these wines in the proper spirit. If you're looking for Romanee-Conti for 600 times less its price, you'll disappoint yourself. Take them for what they are, low-key, laid-back Burgundies exemplary of their terroirs and grapes.

If anything catchall distinguishes Cote Chalonnaise from the Maconnais, it's that the former are slightly more robust, sometimes more rustic, than the latter, whose lines are more linear, fine, taut, often more mineral. The hills are alive with the sound of music in the Hautes-Cotes, but they're at a whisper — sometimes a beautiful one — compared to the wines from below them.

They're all wonderful wines for food, background for the textures, flavors and scents of the table, and their generally abundant acidity is their strongest asset.

Treat the red wines much like the whites; chill them slightly, that is, then revel in their earthy, nuanced aromas. Pinot noir is almost more a wine to enjoy as a smell than anything else. Many of the red wines I sampled for this column were (disappointingly) light on the tongue, but if I spent some moments with their come-hither perfumes, they satisfied enormously.

Wines to try

Some recommended wines from north and south of Burgundy's Cote d'Or listed by region, then price; mixed whites (blanc) and reds (rouge). If no color designation, then they are white (100 percent chardonnay).

2011 Joseph Drouhin Rully Blanc: Touch of wood and some minerals; soft, accessible, like an inexpensive Puligny-Montrachet; very pretty sun-yellow tinge. $21

2010 Albert Bichot Mercurey Rouge: Becoming, bright-red cherry hue; effulgent fruit on nose, with no tannin and zippy acidity; delicious. $24

2009 Domaine Faiveley Mercurey Rouge: Nice hint of wet stone and spice; years adding some complexity but no fatigue; meaty and earthy. $24

2011 Albert Bichot Domaine Adelie Mercurey Rouge 1er Cru "Champs Martin": Gobs of bright cherrylike fruit, with good grip to the finish. $27

2011 Albert Bichot Macon-Villages: Super buy in fat, juicy un-oaked chardonnay; soft, round rather than linear. $11-$13

2010 Vincent Girardin Macon-Fuisse "Vieilles Vignes": Clean, fresh, vibrant, with definite ping of chalk and wet stone; silken from lees stirring. $20

2011 J.J. Vincent Pouilly-Fuisse "Cuvee Marie Antoinette": Longtime favorite for its lemony, minerally notes tied up in a focused, tight beam of fruit. $25

2011 Domaine Cordier Pere et Fils Saint-Veran "En Faux": Liquid Creamsicle, hints of both creme fraiche and orange blossom, overlaid with minerals; acidity to the nines and so delicious for it. $28

2010 Domaine Nadine et Remi Marcillet Bourgogne Rouge Hautes Cotes de Beaune: Limpid cherry-red color; inviting dark-cherry aroma well-accented with barnyard-y funk and wet black earth; slight lambiclike tang to finish, thereby refreshing. $22

2010 Domaine Berthelemont Bourgogne Rouge Hautes Cotes de Beaune: Flashes of hot pink to its red hue, with juicy, silky texture and beautiful scents of black cherries and spice; delicious. $27

If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.

Bill St. John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.