My History with Nuits-Saint-Georges

Quite recently, and for no special reasons beyond a nowadays almost constant nostalgia and a lovely looking piece of beef scheduled for our dinner, I opened for just the two of us a bottle of 2002 Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru Les Boudots.

This is a wine that has a long history with us, almost as long as our marriage. Way back at the end of the Sixties, we decided we wanted to really get to know wine. We had been enjoying it for some time, but haphazardly: now, we felt, it was time to learn it systematically. We were both academics, so what would you expect? There were, in those days, very few wine books and even fewer wine courses, and of course no online resources because there was no line to be on. So during one of our then fairly frequent visits to Baltimore, we went to Harry’s, a wine shop that I knew had been patronized by the most esteemed of my graduate-school mentors, and we asked the proprietor to put together a mixed case that would allow us to familiarize ourselves with a range of wines.

He asked us only how much we wanted to spend. I’m pretty sure we said a hundred dollars, gulping at the enormous expense. Harry then put together for us a dozen wines that Diane and I drank with dinners over the next few weeks, paying as much attention as we could to what was going on in our mouths. That was one of the most pleasurable educational experiences of a life that has been blessed with many wonderful educational experiences of all sorts. It not only taught us a great deal about wine and its many guises, it also provided us with a battery of what became life-long favorites – one of which was Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Boudots.

Henri Gouges

That first bottle, as I recall, was a 1964 vintage from the (I later learned) important Burgundy producer Henri Gouges. My most recent one was from Jadot, a name familiar to most wine lovers. There have been many other Nuits-Saint-Georges between those two, not all Les Boudots, not all Premier Cru, indeed not even all cru, but our fondness for the commune’s combination of earthiness and grace, rusticity and elegance, has never wavered. Perhaps the only thing that has changed is our growing preference for older wines: I don’t think we would now drink a Nuits as young as that ’64 then was, if we had any choice at all.

I’ve also learned since then a great deal more about the wine that so impressed us. Just like almost everything else connected with wine, what I learned involved a little geography, a little history, and a lot of nomenclature: grape names, place names, wine names (sometimes the same as one of those first two, sometimes not), yet more specific place names, producers’ names, negociants’ names, and names of a lot of practices and procedures in the vineyards and the cellar. I take a lot of that for granted now, but it was initially very humbling to realize just how many elements and how many people contributed to the making of that glass of wine I was so casually swirling, sniffing, and savoring – and it’s a very healthy exercise to remind myself of all their efforts now.

So: Nuits-Saint-Georges. The wine takes its name from a small town/large village about halfway between Dijon and Beaune, in northeastern France, not too far from the Swiss border. The town lies at the very southern terminus of the Côte de Nuits, to which it also lends its name. That piece of earth is the northern half of the fabled – in wine lore at least – Côte d’Or, a stretch of vineyards that in its entirety runs from just south of Dijon down past Beaune (for which its southern half is named) to Santenay – about 30 miles or so of vineyards, never more than a few miles wide. Collectively, this is the domain of Pinot noir and Chardonnay, and the wines vinified from those two varieties in the various townships of the Côtes are some of the most prized and sought after in the whole world of wine geekery: Gevrey Chambertin, Morey Saint Denis, Chambolle Musigny, Vougeot, Échezeaux, Vosne-Romanée, Nuits-Saint-Georges – and so on, through Beaune and Pommard and Volnay right down to all the Montrachets.

Nuits-Saint-Georges has been famous for its wines for centuries – just how many is hard to determine. Not far to its east lies the Cistercian abbey of Citeaux, a site from which, in the high Middle Ages, knowledge of viticulture and viniculture spread out to the rest of Europe – so for at least that long. In the modern ranking of Burgundy crus, Nuits-Saint-Georges was awarded 38 Premiers Crus – more than any other Burgundy commune – but no Grands Crus. Some Burgundy experts – of which I am certainly not one – say this was a sound judgment, others say that it was primarily due to the modesty of Henri Gouges, at the time the region’s most important personality and a member of the commission determining those rankings. Be that as it may, Les Boudots – sometimes Aux Boudots – has always been esteemed among the most significant sites of the appellation.

Les Boudots Vineyard

The Boudots vines grow in the northernmost piece of Nuits-Saint-Georges, right up against Vosne-Romanée, of whose terroir Boudots’ slopes are a continuation. That creates one of the first nomenclatorial problems the aspiring Burgundy-bibber encounters: According to the Burgundy experts, Boudots’ wines are the least typical of Nuits-Saint-Georges – not earthy enough, not rustic enough, and so on – and this, apparently, is not good.

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I just don’t get that. What difference does that name make? Just because Boudots lies in the Nuits-Saint-Georges appellation, do the qualities that make a fine Vosne-Romanée make a bad Nuits? This doesn’t make sense. In my experience of Boudots and other wines of Nuits-Saint-Georges – not all of them, by any means – Boudots has its full share of the rusticity, the solidness, the substantiality that for the experts seems to be the hallmark of this commune. But to that it adds an elegance, a polish, that lifts it above the rest. So for me, if Boudots is atypical of the wines of Nuits-Saint-Georges, it is atypically better and more elegant, and I love it.

It is entirely possible that my experience of Nuits-Saint-Georges is not extensive enough to make this judgment, but I can only go by what I have tasted. If any good soul wants to set up an appellation-wide Nuits-Saint-Georges tasting for me, I will be happy to participate with open mind and open mouth. In the meanwhile, I intend to continue reveling in Burgundy’s recent succession of fine vintages by enjoying my Boudots whenever I can afford it.

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