I don’t know of a more exclusive, elusive wine category than Good Red Burgundy for under $20. For every 10 you taste in the broader category that reads without that initial adjective, nine disappoint.

The rewards are great and so the search is fraught with anticipation, but the results so rarely satisfy that just about everyone who joins the hunt repeatedly loses faith.

Yet no one gives up. For to find the exception to the discouraging rule is to feel as if one has entered a secret room at the heart of the castle, has returned to Rivendell, has seen the light. This is partly because GRB<20 is rare, but mostly because the essence of red Burgundy seems the essence of wine itself – every last extraneous bit stripped away.

Burgundy floats, it dances, it weighs next to nothing, and yet also has more presence, more things to say of lasting import, more reason to exist, than any other red wine. It is limpid, poised, silky, sinuous, racy, achingly lovely. I can’t imagine anyone who connects with Burgundian wine ever starting a war or even for a moment acting cruelly.

My broad descriptors are simplistic. The real reason Burgundy is so great, so unmatched by any other wine region in the world, is that it is uniquely resistant to generalization. A bewildering patchwork of absurdly small plots of land blankets the area, maintained by hundreds of small-scale farmers who tend their vines with varying degrees of care. These micro-vineyards lie on soils so diverse as to have formed the subjects of countless dissertations.

Moreover, the weather in this northern climate is notoriously variable, with vintages regularly devastated by hail, rain, cold. Wines from the best sites in all Burgundy (where bottles can exceed by factors of hundreds the price limit noted at the start of this article) are often losers, a fact the international billionaires who now vie to collect them come to recognize only many years after snagging them at auction.

And of course, there’s the fact that we’re talking about pinot noir. The fickle, the sensitive, the thin-skinned. The capricious, the poem. Hard to farm and hard to handle, pinot noir is practically Heisenbergian in its precarious un-pin-downable-ness.

Pinot noir from limestone soils is such a subtle, multifaceted messenger of its multifaceted homeland, expressing in one moment sweet fruits, next fungus, then up to flowers and back to fruit. All in an instant, then another instant begins. Like light itself, Burgundy is both a point and a wave. The head spins.

If you value certainty, I will introduce you to my friend cabernet sauvignon.

So yeah, GRB, the odds are stacked against you. Actually, its odds are stacked against us. The hunt for GRB<20 is important, and fun, but even when I bag one I’m not kidding myself: I’ve gained but a glimpse of the heavens.

The asterisk hovering over my delicious Burgundy indicates that the Truth of Burgundy lies elsewhere. I’ve glimpsed mere shadows – chained to the wall in Plato’s allegorical cave. The G in my conceit stands for good, not great, for the great wines are largely inaccessible to ordinary people.

Single-site red wines from Burgundy’s Côte d’Or inhabit a realm most of us rarely, if ever, frequent. Lower down in the hierarchy are the “village” wines that use grapes, generally less selective, from vineyards in a given village’s wider environs. And then below that are the wines simply labeled Bourgogne, whose grapes are often, though not always, sourced from multiple growers who sell to managers known as negoçiants. It is these relatively lowly, if sporadically ambitious, Bourgogne rouges with which we must usually be concerned.

Are they worth it? Honestly, I’m not sure. If I want authentic pinot noir that’s fiscally reachable and more reliably good, I’m often happier exploring offerings from Oregon, northern Italy and Germany. (Yes, German spätburgunder, as pinot is usually called there, has gotten extraordinarily delicious in recent years.) And Beaujolais, which is technically southern Burgundy, presents a similar character to Burgundy’s, though with a different grape, gamay.

So, there are alternatives. Yet times arrive when alternatives won’t do, when I want the certain kind of pinot noir that only Burgundy can produce. This is a firm, light red wine, much more savory than sweet. I want to be able to see through it in the glass, I want it to have no more than 12.5 percent alcohol. I want it tart, crisp, with sharp washes of acidity on the palate. Curves are always welcome, but I’m prepared for edges.

I’m not going to fall in love with the wine, and I’m not going to wish I’d bought a case. But my heart will race, because the wine will enthrall me the way it has enthralled wine philosophers and poets for centuries.

More practically speaking, cool and correct Burgundian pinot noir is one of the most versatile wines at a meal table, able to lean either casual or formal, and amenable to animal, vegetable, mineral. Strong, hot spice and elaborate or particularly rich preparations are the only food categories to steer Burgundy away from. Salads, trout and salmon, mushrooms, gazpacho, pork, nightshades, veal, light pastas and risottos, chicken salad – these are all spot-on matches.

The following wines are worth pursuing and trying, if only because the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave do at least indicate the source of the light.

Closerie des Alisiers Bourgogne Rouge 2013, $19. The vintage is known for uneven ripening due to a cold spring, hail and too much rain, leading to a small crop that yielded taut, restrained wines. But this Bourgogne is exceptionally clear and pretty, a tad austere at first but relaxing and elongating marvelously over 24 hours.

Guy Chaumont Bourgogne Rouge 2013, $17. A diamond in the rough of Bourgognes from Burgundy’s southern Côte Chalonnaise, this biodynamically farmed wine is soft and delicate, less texturally challenging than most. The fruit is more cherry-like, closer to the approachable character, though not at all the excessive weight, of Californian pinot noir.

Domaine Caillot Bourgogne Rouge 2011, $19. Clean and bracing, equal parts angles and curves, this wine takes longer to warm up to than the Chaumont, but pays back in its sleek elegance. Cranberry and blueberry fruit is suffused with a cool, minty freshness. 2011 was a tough vintage, which often rewards Bourgognes since the grapes from the grand sites aren’t good enough to produce the more rarefied bottlings.

Joe Appel is the wine buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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