Why Folks Compare Rhys to Burgundy (and Drive the Cali Fans Crazy)

To me, the term “Burgundian” is a state of mind more than a specific set of aromas and flavors. A philosophy where site expression is paramount. A balance of fruit and acid and tannin with none of these taking over center stage. Intensity on the palate and grip on the finish, but without a sense of heaviness in either. Low-to-moderate alcohol because that is how site-derived nuances and complexities of a favored site can be captured. An absence of individualistic, assertive winemaking signature, as this would compete with the voice of the land. Celebration of the fact that the best wines are from the best sites, and acceptance that one cannot make great wine from average sites.

Your mileage may vary.

By the construct defined above, Rhys is unquestionably “Burgundian”. But is it even more than that… Is it actually like good Burgundy? Can Rhys be interchanged with the best that Burgundy has to offer? Two wines were decanted for an hour and tasted single blind…

Domaine Louis Jadot 2006 Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Clos Saint-Jacques
Decanter A is medium ruby. Fresh on the nose with spiced cherry fruit and earthy nuance, lovely. Sap and sweet red fruit and energy in the mouth. Slightly leaner than the wine from decanter B, which is a bit richer. Satin texture and intense on the palate, then on to a long red finish, spicy and rocky with iron nuance. It’s early days for this, but outstanding wine, potentially exceptional in 6-8 years. Clos Saint-Jacques is an extraordinary vineyard, a quasi-grand cru IMO, and this ’06 Jadot is a fine example of the cru.

Rhys Vineyards 2006 Alpine Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains
Decanter B is darker red. Beguiling perfume of plumy dark fruit with spices and floral notes. Dark plums on the palate, lifted by acidity, complexed by earth and stones, especially on the very long finish. The texture is silk. A rich wine with sweeter fruit than the other, but not heavy. Drinks well already with a hour or two of decanting, but seems set to age for several more years and maybe much longer. Outstanding.

The bottom line: For the first two hours, there were scant clues to country of origin. I could guess (but could not be certain) that red-fruited wine A was the CSJ with its earth and iron. I could guess wine B was Rhys because we did not have a top-flight Vosne-Romanee in the lineup. But if a younger edition of the exceptional Sylvain Cathiard 2001 Vosne-Romanee Les Malconsorts that I drank a few days ago were an option, I might well have guessed that! In other words, I certainly could not say one of these wines was clearly from California and the other from Burgundy. They were really quite similar in shape and profile, despite the specific detail differences between the two.

In the third hour, the Jadot clenched down, while the Rhys remained open and generous. On day 2, the Jadot was open and singing again, while the sweeter fruit of the Rhys seemed slightly gaudy and obvious, perhaps a wee bit cloying, which absolutely was not the case on day 1. But at age 4.5 years, it is day 1 that counts, not day 2. It was easy for me to see why folks often compare Rhys directly to some of the best young Burgs. As for what happens a little further down the line, well, we will have to wait a while to see.

Great information Lew. I used to shudder when I would tour around the Willamette valley and in every tasting room Burgundian this, Burgundian that. I finally asked a guy once what he meant and he stammered, that’s where Pinot Noir is originally from. Your conclusions are quite apt and really present where the wines are at this stage of their lives. I look forward to keeping my Rhys bottles for a long time to see how they eventually show on day 2.

Nice post.

What is ironic is that using your definition of burgundian there are some producers from the Cote d’Or that are not very burgundian.

Did the same thing last week with Rhys skyline and jadot echezeauz (I think you replied in the thread). There was just this ripeness and taste of the fruit that has a distinct California profile on the Rhys. Tends to be a deeper, richer dark fruit than the typical burg. Everyone picked out the Rhys as CA. Double blind for everyone but me (as I brought it). 5 hour decant for the rhys.

But there is a purity in the fruit that I associate with good Pinot in general, not just burgundy. Hence I am hesitant to call Rhys Burgundian but not hesitant to call it good Pinot. Shouldn’t balanced wine, great acidity/minerality, lightness be traits we want to associate with not just burgundy but all good pinot. Hence, instead of saying Rhys is Burgundian (or whatever other pinot that exhibits these traits) we should just say these are classic examples of “good pinot”.

I just feel it does a disservice to Rhys (and other non burgundy pinots in the like) that show where they are from with distinct characteristics that can only be found in their respective areas. Appreciate them for what they are, not what they are “close” to.

Great notes - great comparison.

I’ve never had a Rhy’s side-by-side with a Burgundy, (I have had them on consecutive days.) My impression is the Rhys have a slightly sweeter fruit profile as Charlie said. I believe the Vosne comparison is spot on.

Thanks for the notes!

One of the better summations of the term “Burgundian” I’ve read. Sounds like a great (not to mention delicious) experiment!

I’d like to see a blind comparison between the 2006 Rhys Swan and a top flight 2006 Volnay…


But would that be fair? We know typical top flight volnay needs time to show. We should table thus query till 2021 :stuck_out_tongue:

Lew - Great words, enjoyed the post.

Maybe we should splitter off and start calling Rhys ‘Santa Cruzian’ or a similar suitable descriptor which aptly applies the ‘Burgundian’ terrior and techniques employeed by Team Rhys but provides the benefit of a loophole as Californian/SC Mtn grown fruit?

For me, I don’t trivialize the comparison. Fundamentally, Rhys is in my backyard. As a native Californian and San Mateo County resident, I have a rather prideful respect for the quality of these wines and their origins as they are near and dear to me. This provides a different lens for me - which unfortunately we all can’t share due to our specific places of residence. That said, I encourage anyone who enjoys these wines to one day tour the vineyards and operations at the cave. Its an incredible experience and will make you appreciate the Rhys operation regardless of the Californian vs. Burgundian comparisons. Its rather…how should I say it…unique in and of itself. Sort of ‘Santa Cruzian’ if you will!

Again, great post!

+1 Nice post Lew!

Charlie, I’ll join you for this in 2021 if I’m still around [cheers.gif]

Yes, of course. There are some, but not so many, and even fewer who are serious about quality. I do believe my definition is deeoly embedded in the culture of the place, despite the exceptions.

One thing about Burgundy that is deeply Burgundian: every “general rule” has multiple exceptions.

Similar to Lew, I always look on the conversation as a difference between “schools” of winemaking. I don’t expect nor do I believe that Rhys taste like Burgundy so much as follow Burgundian winemaking principals. Hence the unique flavor profile of Rhys wines. Who knows in a few decades we might be refering to certain wines as Rhysian.

If it is a state of mind then it gets to be whatever you want in a sense.

I don’t think Kevin has ever said he’s trying to make Burgundian wines, at least not to my knowledge. He has stated that he believes great Pinot with a balance of fruit to acid without being big can be made in California and has been in the past. He’s set out to prove it and make it while showing that Pinot can express itself differently from different places.

Not sure what drives “the Cali fans crazy”.(?)

First, I’d like to clarify that I do not believe CA pinot should strive to be “the same” as Burgundy. But I do believe when CA pinot is crafted to express its place of origin, and is from the greatest cool-climate, thin-soil CA vineyards, it will often push all the same buttons, and deliver a comparable wine experience to many fine Cote d’Or examples.

Second, I’ve had multiple side-by-side comparisons where it was difficult to identify which wine was CA and which was Burg. I’ve also had many where it was obvious. I don’t disagree with your observation that CA tends to have a more pronounced sweetness of fruit. However, Burgs also cover a wide range in terms of sweetness of fruit. And often I find the greater the cru, the sweeter the fruit, especially in a very young Burg.

Third, Charlie, your tasting was '06 Burg versus '08 Rhys IIRC, so the Burg had approx 3 years in the bottle versus 1 year for the Rhys. That will also make a difference in how prominant the fruit is, I suspect.

Finally, concerning your 2nd and 3rd paragraphs… Too judgemental IMO. What you suggest works for me in how I think about pinots that I like. But to say these wines are good pinot, and other styles are not good pinot is directly insulting (IMO) to the many, many people who prefer the riper/richer styles. I do not believe there is anything wrong with peeps liking those wines. Just my $0.02.

Lance, there are great burgundian-style pinots grown elsewhere in California IMO. There are several from Deep End Anderson Valley, for example. And Arcadian pinots fron SLH/SRH, for another example. I have come around over the last few years to thinking Santa Cruz Mountains and Anderson Valley are the best regions in CA to grow such wines (IMO).

Cris, I’m not sure I understand what you mean. When I wrote a definition of “Burgundian” in the original post, I proposed that it includes certain philosophical elements that are deeply embedded in the culture of Burgundy winegrowers, plus actual execution of those elements in the vineyard and the cellar. I did not say the CA wine would smell or taste “like” burgundy. But I don’t agree that you can do “whatever you want” and call it Burgundian, unless I miss your point.

I have a slightly different definition of the term Burgundian that has been derived observationally from the context it is used in. It is important to know who is using the term because its meaning is opposite depending upon the context. When coming from somebody whose ideal expressions of pinot noir and chardonnay come from Burgundy, the term Burgundian is a compliment to be read as shorthand for “this wine has characteristics of pinot noir/chardonnay that match what I prize in my benchmark wines from Burgundy and would be hard for me to differentiate from them in many contexts I drink wine - it’s great”. For those who don’t really like the minefield of Burgundy and find the wines to often under perform, the term is pejorative and is a shorthand for “this wine is disappointing and fails to deliver in much the same way all of the wines I wasted my hard-earned money on from Burgundy failed to deliver - it’s a mess”. Of course, depending upon tastes, the adjective can be used by both camps about the same wine. And this, I believe, is what drives everyone crazy.


When you say “state of mind” when talking about physical things and sensory perceptions then I have to wonder what YOU mean. It seems to offer up all kinds of latitude and wiggle room to define things as you see fit.

I also think its a bummer when the comparison needs to be used as a fall back position. I understand for some people this is meant to be some sort of compliment, but when do wine get to be great because they are just plain great and not because they offer up some nearly as good as someone’s idea of the Holy Grail? The exciting part of a project like Rhys is the recognition that California can produce world class, top of the tops wines in the classic sense of great wines. There is a similar line of discussion in the Heitz thread for Cabernets. Recreating Burgundy is secondary and will never happen. Burgundy is a unique place in many ways which has no equal here. Likewise, California offers many unique places and potentials that France does not have. Can’t the wines just be great because they are great without having to compare them to an older sibling?


I think you’re fighting against something Lew’s not saying Cris. Re-read his definition. It’s most certainly not a ‘do anything you want’ text, nor is it saying that the wines need to replicate what happens in Burgundy. But the attitude that site is paramount and that vineyard and cellar practices which try to express those IS a very Burgundian attitude. That attitude can certainly be transplanted to Cali, Oregon and other places. The wines themselves may well taste and smell different - but that’s the point. If they don’t, they’re probably not expressing the site.